Taylor Swift’s Telos
“I want to be defined by the things I love.”
This is how Taylor Swift ends “Daylight,” the final song on Lover, her shimmery, color-driven new album. “I want to be defined by the things I love,” she says, “not the things I hate, not the things I’m afraid of, or the things that haunt me in the middle of the night.” She concludes her diverse collection of pop anthems and quiet, intimate ballads with this spoken-word observation: “I just think that you are what you love.” As the track faded with the tender pulse of the piano, I realized I had heard those words before. Taylor Swift had just inadvertently quoted James K.A. Smith, whose book, You Are What You Love, proposes that to be human is to be driven by love. “What if,” Smith writes, “instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire?”
Taylor Swift has made it clear to us that she is a lover. She writes, sings, and talks about love; because her songs have the feel of journal entries, we have seen her relationship with love grow and change. In the foreword to her album notes for Lover she writes, “In life, we grow up … trying to figure out who to be, how to act, or how to be happy … above all else, we really, really want our lives to be filled with love.” Her longing for love is strong and true in the title track, which has already become a first-dance song at weddings. Full of crunchy, retro drum beats, a country-infused melody, and tender lyrics, the song sounds like a vow Taylor makes to her lover.
In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith draws on the work of St. Augustine and Martin Luther to propose that humans are both lovers and “teleological beings,” meaning that we have our hearts set on some end goal—a telos. “To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something,” he writes. So when Swift is singing about stepping into the daylight with her lover after what feels like a “20-year dark night,” she is talking about her vision of “the good life.” Taylor’s vision of the good life is to be happy in love, a love of golden sunlight, ethereal dreams in the middle of the night, and moments of sacredness between her and those she loves the best (her boyfriend, her mother, her friends). Swift’s “good life” is not letting hate win (“You Need to Calm Down”), standing up for those whose voices are not heard (“The Man”), and staying loyal to those who have proved loyal to her (“Afterglow”).
There is another layer to this. In his book, Smith quotes Martin Luther as saying, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.” This means that to say “we are what we worship” is the same as saying “we are what we love.” Smith writes about the rituals and habits that North Americans participate in, calling them “secular liturgies.” These secular liturgies are deeply rooted in our subconscious and our culture; Swift gives us a glimpse of one in her jazzy, sexy, saxophone-filled track “False God.” What does she worship? Love. Human, imperfect, carnal love. “Even if it's a false god,” she lilts in the chorus, “we'd still worship this love.”
As humans, we have our hearts set on some end goal—a telos.
Smith writes about “the good life” and “secular liturgies” and telos in order to make a major point about how we are formed as humans, and even more so as Christians. When our hearts are set on Christ, if our telos is oriented to God’s desire and vision of what “the good life” (the kingdom) looks like, we learn to love that vision. We desire what God desires. This is not to say that Christians are excluded from the identity of lover. Indeed, 1 John 4 tells us that we only love because God first loved us: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God is The Lover. As Christians, we are lovers because we are defined by and created in the image of The Lover, by the God who became human in order to teach us how to love.
And there’s more! 1 John 4 goes on to say that this love is a call outward: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” We are lovers surrounded by other lovers—although not necessarily in the romantic sense. Perhaps this is the distinction between Christian love and the love that Swift describes. The love of Christ is bigger, deeper, truer than any earthly love we could experience. Swift describes loves that are bound in attraction, in admiring someone’s mind or physical appearance. But God loves us in a way that gives us purpose. And we ought to love one another because we are made in God’s image, not because we like the way someone talks, looks, or if they love us in return.
Even so, I truly believe some of the loves that we experience on earth point us to the love that Christ has for us. I believe I see ripples of heaven in the lives of the people who love me the best. And I saw them through all the colors that Swift evokes on Lover. I was reminded that the love of a true friend is a deep, warm violet. Unrequited love is gut-wrenching gray. The love of my mother is a strong, tender blue. And the love of Christ, which seeks me out and captures my heart again and again, is golden. Like daylight.
“I want to be defined by the things I love,” says Taylor Swift.
But as for me, I would rather be defined by the One who loved me first.
Think Christian podcast: Idols (Taylor Swift's Miss Americana, Grimes' Miss Anthropocene)