An Unlikely Philosopher: Taylor Swift’s Progression From Essentialism to Existentialism

Phillip Kong

She is the American Music Awards’ Artist of the Decade. She has won 10 Grammys (so far). She is also arguably the most recognizable modern teenage idol. However, many “Swifties” don’t know Taylor Alison Swift as a philosopher who publishes her works in the form of country and pop albums. More interestingly, though, Swift seems to have undergone a philosophical metamorphosis during her career from being an adamant essentialist to a carefree existentialist. 

Essentialist believe that there are “essential” characteristics to something that defines it as that thing. For example, eating carrots are a defining feature of rabbits and rabbits cannot be non-carrot eating. The same applies for human nature and the like. For existentialists, though, there is no predetermined purpose or essence for something, generally in the context of human existence. Simply, they believe that we can give meaning to our own lives. For Taylor Swift, we see her philosophical stance shift quite drastically from the former to the latter.

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In the album “Fearless,” Swift repeatedly describes her idea of the “perfect love,” which established her as an essentialist early in her career. “Love Story,” modelled after the Shakespearean play “Romeo and Juliet,” sets a concrete definition for the love story that she wants to pursue. In the chorus, where she says “it’s a love story, baby just say yes,” Swift suggests this predetermined formula of love is what she believes to be best for her and her lover. “You Belong With Me” further supports this view, as she thinks that her lover had a destiny of being with her. In this album, Taylor Swift is quite the essentialist.

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Two years following the debut of “Fearless,” Swift released “Speak Now.” In this album, Swift continued to express her support of essentialism. However, she began to deviate from her stance in “Fearless,” evident in the track “Mine,” when, even though she had “bills to pay” and “nothing figured out,” she remembers “sitting there, by the water.” This suggests that Swift no longer thinks her love can be constrained by the conditions of the rest of her life. However, this view is overshadowed by more essentialist lyrics when she says that “the story of us looks a lot like a tragedy now” in “The Story of Us,” referring to what I can only assume is the love story she described in “Love Story.” This shows that Swift is still judging her relationships based on the ideal formula she devised back in her previous album.

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“1989” caught my attention. Not only did it win Grammy’s Album of the Year over “To Pimp A Butterfly” (an injustice I still cannot get over), it was the turning point for Taylor Swift as a philosopher. To begin with, the premise of “Blank Space” stands in stark contrast to her ideas in past albums. Not only is she not chasing an ideal relationship, but she also has a blank space where she is writing down boys’ names. Swift does not know where this love story will take her. It may “be forever” or “go down in flames.” It may leave you “breathless” or “with a nasty scar.” She simply does not know what the outcome may be, but she is willing to try different things and give new meanings to “love.” Moreover, “Shake It Off,” which many fans think refers to petty problems in life, is actually an extended metaphor of how she shook off the shackles of essentialism. However, just as one thought that Swift is becoming existentialist, she hints at her essentialist roots once again in “How You Get the Girl,” when she says “I would wait forever and ever, and that’s how it works.” As an avid scholar of Swift’s philosophy, I was left befuddled as I pondered what “it” was, and why it was supposed to work a certain way.

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In my opinion, “reputation” is nothing but a polemic on essentialism to preview her culminating work on existentialism. “I Did Something Bad” is actually a reference to the naysayers of her transition from essentialism to existentialism. She questions that if “they say [she] did something bad, then why [did] it feel so good?” Additionally, “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” is an attack on the restrictive nature of essentialism and how it has prevented her from fully enjoying living, or dancing. Her past reputation as an essentialist is no more.

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The moment I heard Taylor Swift’s single “Lover”, my suspicions were confirmed. The first two lines, “we can leave the Christmas lights up ‘il January / This is our place, we make the rules,” confirms that Swift no longer cares about pre-determined norms and is willing to create her own rules like a true existentialist. When the album was released, the world had on their hands the first full work on existentialism by Taylor Swift. “Paper Rings,” is about her willingness to commit to a relationship regardless of traditions, “I Forgot That You Existed” demonstrates her dedication to the present and indifference towards the past, and “False God,” teases a possible future work on dismantling Cartesianism. 

Taylor Swift began her career as a budding essentialist publishing philosophical work based on break ups and heartache. Today, she is a philosophical superstar unafraid of challenging popular ideals, some of which were held by herself at one point. The existentialist Taylor Swift is the one we know today, but she may very well surprise us all in the future.