Taylor Swift: The Next Great Theologian?

Pop princess. Country star. Teen idol. Liturgical theologian. Three of those four titles are typically applied to the queen of the charts, Taylor Swift, who is dominating the media in anticipation of her new album, 1989. Yet, in my experience at her concert, I came to see Taylor in a new light.

Given that the title of her most recent tour was “The Red Tour,” the color obviously had a central role in the concert. It dictated the color of Taylor’s guitar, the sparkles on her microphone, the confetti shower during the final song, and of course, her signature red lipstick. Yet, it also led to Taylor’s wonderful, albeit unintentional, commentary on liturgical theology and faith.

Taylor is known for her straight-forward music. Her lyrics say exactly what she means. There is not much in way of symbols or analogy. For example, in her well-known break-up anthem, the chorus simply sings, “We are never, ever getting back together.” Her say-what-you-mean approach is much of the key to her success.

Yet in “Red,” the title track to her 2012 album, Taylor takes a different path. At the concert, Taylor led into this song with an extensive introduction. Like most of her songs, “Red” is based on a relationship. This relationship was simultaneously her best relationship and her worst relationship. Taylor then discussed how colors are associated with emotions. Red, to her, is associated with polarizing feelings. She expounded on this, saying, “Red is such an interesting color to me because you have the great part of red… and then you have… the other side of the spectrum.” On the one hand, it is daring, bold, passionate, and represents love and affection. On the other hand, red represents intensity, anger and in her words “jealousy and you didn’t call me back and I need space.” The chorus of this song reiterates this:

Losing him was blue like I’d never known

Missing him was dark grey all alone

Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you’ve never met

But loving him was red

And with that, Taylor stepped into a new role as a budding liturgical theologian. Red, in the Catholic Church, is the color of martyrs, of the Holy Spirit. Just as Taylor described, there is a dichotomous symbolism with this color. We see red at Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Pentecost. We again utilize red with the feasts of the martyrs, apostles and evangelists, yet also at Confirmation. Red brings together things that seem opposite: spirit and death.

However, we know that these are not separate. We know that the gift of the Holy Spirit is intimately connected to the cost of discipleship. We know that Confirmation and martyrdom are not disparate, for taking a step forward in our faith requires accepting the responsibility and potential consequences of believing. We know that Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem, cannot be separated from Good Friday. Our faith holds together these seemingly conflicting elements in ways that bring each to a deeper meaning.

One of the great gifts in liturgy is that something as simple as a color conveys so much meaning. Green, white, red, violet and rose all signify that which words cannot access and evokes something deep within us. Color reminds us that something different may be happening on this day, as opposed from others. Color connects us to the times throughout the year where that color is also used, even if it is seemingly unconnected. Unconsciously, it connects us to the liturgical calendar, evoking new aspects of the life of the Church. Most importantly, color gives us insight into our faith and reveals something about God. Color connects us to the transcendent and to one another, two vital aspects of liturgy.

Taylor uses “Red” to introduce the concept of the power of colors to the massive crowds gathered at her concerts. While this is a method that the Church has long employed, Taylor is introducing it to a new generation. From this perspective, Taylor Swift is poised to become the next up-and-coming liturgical theologian.

Annie Selak is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Boston College. She served as a lay minister with high school and college students for five years, where fluency in all things Taylor was crucial. Her favorite Taylor Swift song is “Mean.”