The week after Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert movie debuted in theaters, a TikTok video of one particularly enthusiastic audience went viral. As the singer and her backup dancers swayed to the song “Willow” on the screen above them, a group of fans danced in a circle on the theater floor below, waving their illuminated phones in lieu of glowing lanterns. This is “the cultiest thing I’ve ever seen,” the caption read.
As is the case these days with any major cultural moment, the viral video and the few seconds of concert video it captured sparked a public debate. Was the video an example of the cruel cultural phenomenon of recording people without consent and publicly mocking them as “cringe”? Or was it indicative of a disturbing cultural obsession, evidence of the cult of Taylor Swift?
I must confess: I am not an impartial cultural critic. I am not in that video, but I easily could have been. I do not think that Taylor Swift fans are part of a cult, but being in that theater, singing along with all those people, was absolutely a kind of worship. And it was wonderful.
I have been an on-and-off fan of Swift since I was a teenager. I watched her grow up with me, singing first about popularity and crushes, and later about structural sexism, career insecurity, and power imbalances in relationships. I danced to “22” at my wedding, and cried to Folklore during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. And, like many fans around the world, I obsessively watched clips of Swift’s blockbuster Eras Tour throughout this past year, unable to afford concert tickets but longing to be part of what seemed to be a once-in-a-lifetime, emotionally overwhelming experience. I watched fans spend months creating beautiful and clever costumes, trading homemade friendship bracelets, and screaming along to the songs that had accompanied them through heartbreaks and triumphs.
And so, when the concert film was announced, I, like millions of others, saw this as an opportunity to experience something we otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I bought tickets to our local theater’s IMAX showing for opening weekend. My friends and I planned a group costume. We spent a cozy afternoon sitting at my kitchen table stringing glittery beads into friendship bracelets representing favorite songs and inside jokes.
The movie, for what it’s worth, is a marvel of concert filmmaking, immortalizing a show that Forbes called “a huge spectacle of not only terrific music and elaborately mind-blowing stage show, but also of the close bond between artist and audience." Each moviegoer had a front row seat to everything from the staggering spectacle of the set design and lighting effects to the fine details of costuming and choreography. By the end of the movie, I was left more impressed than ever by Swift’s versatility as an artist and performer, not to mention her sheer stamina. As a cinematic experience, it’s fantastic.
But that isn’t what lingered with me. What I couldn’t stop thinking about as I walked out of the theater—what I’m still thinking about weeks later—is how good it feels to sing alongside dozens of strangers and loved ones.
When Swift sang her earliest and most enduring hit, “Love Story,” my best friend and I sang along while we grinned at each other. The years between high school and our thirties melted away as we remembered all the times we had sung it before in our sixteen year friendship.
During the feminist anthem “The Man,” I marveled at the sound of little girls and middle-aged women united in lament—at the exhaustion, harassment, and double-standards that are ubiquitous to the female experience.
And at the end of the show, my husband and I got to our feet alongside most of the audience to dance together to “Karma,” ebullient with the sheer pleasure of unironically and wholeheartedly loving something alongside other people who love the same thing.
Because the truth is that that night wasn’t about watching Taylor Swift sing and dance, not really. It was about us, about all of us. It was about making space for vulnerability and grief and jubilation.
In his 1912 book Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the concept of “collective effervescence.” When members of a society come together as a group to all participate in the same ritual, Durkheim argues, they often experience a powerful sense of euphoria and connection to each other. This effervescence is vital to meaning-making, whether you’re singing “Amazing Grace” in a church choir or shaking it off with a bunch of teenagers in a suburban movie theater. The absence of those collective experiences is one of the things that made the pandemic so difficult and why so many were eager to return to church in person as soon as possible.
We long for community. We feel our deepest emotions when we feel them together.
Maybe that’s why exchanging friendship bracelets with teenage girls in the lobby felt so much like fellowship. Maybe that’s why when Swift sang the gospel-inflected “Don’t Blame Me,” I felt for a moment like I was back in church.
Some Christians might look at my experience in the theater that night and see a cult worshipping their idol. Others might see a template for megachurches and praise teams, and decide that pyrotechnics and live bands are necessary to get people get excited about Jesus. But that, I think, would be a mistake.
I felt safer and more seen in that auditorium that night than I have in a church in years. This was a space that had room both for songs of triumph and for songs of rage or lament. It was a space where queer people were embraced. It was a space where women’s voices were believed and empowered. I rarely experienced that at church.
Singing those songs that night along so many others, I felt like I was accepted in the fullness and messiness and complexity of my humanity. And I felt like I was not alone.
So yes, the Taylor Swift concert felt a little like church. But perhaps the church should take some notes on belonging from Taylor Swift.
Melodie Roschman is a writer, public educator, and academic communicator. She has a PhD in English from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studied identity, resistance, and community in the memoirs of progressive Christian women. She is a proud alum of the English department and J. N. Andrews Honors Program at Andrews University, where she served for two years as editor-in-chief of The Student Movement. She currently works as a communications officer for the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo, and she lives in Guelph, Ontario, with her husband, Taylor, and cat, Minnie.
Title image courtesy: Melodie Roschman
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