Nostalgia to Authenticity: Taylor Swift's Existential Shift (2024)

Nostalgia to Authenticity: Taylor Swift's Existential Shift (1)

Taylor Swift in Santa Clara, California, in 2023.

Source: Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia Commons

Many of Taylor Swift's songs employ remembering, telling stories from past experience. Some of her music goes further, conjuring the Platonic notion of recollection, mining essential truth within the marrow of memories.

Yet Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard associated "recollection" with motionlessness, contrasting it with repetition, characterized by constant motion and passionate commitment towards an ethical future. Kierkegaard's "repetition" involves moving beyond recollection.

Kierkegaard was not actually promoting repeating anything but engaging in reflection which reinterprets past events in ways that imbue them with constructive meaning (ESB, 2024), a form of existential engagement that contributes to the formation of authenticity, in contrast to recollection, which is primarily aesthetic. Unlike recollection which is backward looking, this type of repetition is forward looking and tied to present action and future hope.

Remembering Yesterday

In popular music, recollection is ubiquitous.

Nostalgia to Authenticity: Taylor Swift's Existential Shift (2)

Paul McCartney performing on the Got Back tour in Orlando, Florida, in 2022.

Source: Matthew Hoobin / Wikimedia Commons

Take "Yesterday," written by Paul McCartney. The lyrics reflect on a past love and the longing for simpler times. "Why she had to go I don't know. She wouldn't say. I said something wrong. Now I long for yesterday."

It's among the most popular songs of all time.

"Yesterday" mourns a loss, creating a musical shrine. McCartney isn't certain of the song's origins. He intended the words to be "girl lyrics" fictionalizing love lost, but recently wondered whether he had unconsciously penned memories of his mother, who died when he was fourteen (Muldoon, 2024), offering a poignant reframe. Either way, it is memory laced with sentiment and regret.

Repetition is more existential engagement than reminiscence.

Has Swift's Music Become More Courageous?

Nostalgia to Authenticity: Taylor Swift's Existential Shift (3)

Taylor Swift performing at Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, in 2007.

Source: Brian Cantoni / Wikimedia Commons

Early songs from Swift's 2006 self-titled debut album offer prime examples of a wistful outlook—"Tim McGraw," "Cold as You," and "Should've Said No." Then on her 2008 Fearless album, "Fearless," "Love Story," and "You Belong with Me" each persist in memorialization of past relationships or other experiences, often with a nostalgic tone, reminiscing about specific moments or feelings. Similarly, "Back to December" (album: Speak Now, 2010) expresses regret and longing.

Nostalgia and regret are powerful emotional experiences, yet fall short of contemplating one's place in the world, wresting meaning from loss, or embracing new life.

But then we encounter "Long Live" (album: Speak Now, 2010), a triumphant anthem celebrating shared experiences and overcoming obstacles. In addition to immortalizing late-night drives and friendships forged in fire, it’s a victory march against life’s struggles. Swift sings, "Long live all the mountains we moved, I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you." This recollection isn’t just looking back. It's an affirmation of life. Here Swift transforms memories into sources of strength, a subtle but important shift.

Nostalgia to Authenticity: Taylor Swift's Existential Shift (4)

Taylor Swift performing during Super Saturday Night in Houston, Texas, in 2017.

Source: makaiyla willis / Wikimedia Commons

Consider this melancholic acknowledgement of self-doubt in "All Too Well" (album: Red, 2012): "Time won't fly, it's like I'm paralyzed by it, I'd like to be my old self again, but I'm still trying to find it." Here, even in the wreckage of memories, Swift elicits strength.

In “Out of the Woods" (album: 1989, 2014), Swift’s protagonist sprints through a metaphorical forest, heart pounding, seeking escape, evoking themes of introspection and facing struggles. Trees whisper secrets—tangled relationships, doubts, fears. The frantic pace and vivid imagery capture a sense of urgency. The song portrays a character bravely confronting inner demons and seeking to emerge from a tumultuous emotional landscape, a journey towards greater self-understanding, growth, and ultimately finding a way.

Nostalgia to Authenticity: Taylor Swift's Existential Shift (5)

Taylor Swift performing during Super Saturday Night in Houston, Texas, in 2017.

Source: makaiyla willis / Wikimedia Commons

“New Year’s Day” (album: Reputation, 2017) unfolds with Swift’s piano inviting reflection. Kierkegaard believed repetition empowers us to be fully present and courageously forward looking. Here, as a year turns, we find solace in ordinary magic and anticipation. The song isn’t about grand fireworks; it’s about the quiet spark—shared moments. Rather than a mere backward glance, it’s seeing life’s confetti as both aftermath and promise.

Swift’s vulnerability blooms in her introspective track, "The Archer" (album: Lover, 2019). The archer aims at her own heart, dissecting patterns. Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death” resonates. The bridge—“All the king’s horses, all the king’s men”—weaves fractured fairy tales and evokes emotional wounds. But Swift isn’t waiting for rescue; she’s stitching herself.

Transformative Dialogue With Ourselves

    Swift extracts self-assurance through emotional poetry—"And you can aim for my heart, go for blood, but you would still miss me in your bones" (Swift, "My Tears Ricochet," album: Folklore, 2020). Even so, songs drenched in recounting lose space for deeper, more consequential reflection.

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    Earlier albums like Fearless (2008) presented a more essentialist view of love and relationships, while Evermore (2020), for example, evokes existential feelings and themes, prompting listeners to turn the lens inward and contemplate deeper life questions and emotions.

    Nostalgia to Authenticity: Taylor Swift's Existential Shift (8)

    Taylor Swift Eras Tour in Arlington, Texas, in 2023

    Source: Ronald Woan / Wikimedia Commons

    "Anti-Hero" (album: Midnights, 2022) delves into complexities of self-image and the struggle to reconcile one's perceived flaws with a desire for authenticity—"It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me." Grappling with questions of identity, purpose, and the human condition, Swift invites listeners to engage in a transformative dialogue with themselves.

    Some of Swift's recent work bears a striking resemblance to Kierkegaard's method of indirect communication, incorporating ambiguity, paradox, and persona, forcing listeners to actively uncover meaning for themselves. There is a deep personal and emotional resonance in her art for so many, so they wait with bated breath to hear what comes next from The Tortured Poets Department.

    Kierkegaard (1843b) journaled, "It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards."


    Essens Book Summaries (ESB). (2024, February 18). Repetition (1843) [Audio podcast episode]. Soren Kierkegaard.

    Hohipuha, N. (2020, January 30). Repetition/Recollection/Remembering [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved on March 9, 2024, from

    Kierkegaard, S. (1843a). Repetition: A venture in experimenting psychology (H. V. Hong & E. H. Hong, Trans.). In The Essential Kierkegaard (pp. 102–115). Princeton, NJ.

    Kierkegaard, S. (1843b). [Untitled journal entry]. Kierkegaard's Journals and Notebooks, Volume 1: Journals AA-DD.

    Kierkegaard, S. (1959). Either/Or (H. Hong & E. Hong, Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1843)

    McCartney, P. (1965). Yesterday. On Help! [Album]. Parlophone.

    Muldoon, P. (Host). (2024, February 21). Yesterday [Audio podcast episode]. In A Life in Lyrics. Pushkin Industries. Interviewee: McCartney, P. Retrieved from

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    Nostalgia to Authenticity: Taylor Swift's Existential Shift (2024)
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