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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago

IDK. Maybe we’re over analyzing this.

Last edited 3 months ago by Jim Veenbaas
Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think you’re right – a bit forceful for the impact of a short-lived religious sect (which have always been with us). Besides, it sounds more like plain-vanilla Gnosticism (body evil, spirit divine) which has been with us since at least the beginning of the Church.

As to Romeo et al, it’s a tragedy (unlike As you Like It etc) which we’ve had since at least since the ancients. That theme is everywhere in western literature- Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Age of Innocence, etc, Hem’s the Sun Also Rises, Die Leiden das Jungen Werters etc. etc. which are unlike Tom Jones etc.

Could be “Romanticism’” the culprit (the beautiful pang of longing) , but what about Helen and Paris? ‘‘Twas ever thus.

Glynis Roache
Glynis Roache
3 months ago

I always enjoy Mary Harrington’s articles and I applaud this academic effort to explain the Taylor Swift phenomenon by tracing its psychological origins through the ages. After all, there has to be some extraordinary reason why an audience can sit through hours of ‘agony aunt’ outpourings put to fairly bland music. I apologise for myself, but as someone who grew up with Janis Joplin and Grace Slick and the on-stage performances of Hendrix, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, followed by an era of sons extolling Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, I just 
 well 
 To misquote Dire Straits, it’s not what I’d call rock n’ roll. Pain has to be noisier and should, ideally, come with a guitar solo.

Nardo Flopsey
Nardo Flopsey
3 months ago
Reply to  Glynis Roache

I tried to listen to her songs, and thought to myself, “Is that even music?”

I suppose it’s “music” like a new house in a rural econobox subdivision is a “home”.

Or like a meal at Olive Garden is “food”, or like Starbucks is “fancy coffee”.

Technically.

Amy Winehouse it is not.

tug ordie
tug ordie
3 months ago
Reply to  Nardo Flopsey

Tay is way more listenable than most pop music and especially what would constitute a short few steps outside the mainstream ( try listening to mumble rap and tell me Swift isn’t making music). I think this analysis is probably a bit overwrought but has elements of clear truth as well, which for Harrington is like saying the sky is blue as she is very adept at this

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
3 months ago

Maybe it’s because women are increasingly seeking elsewhere the unconditional love that they are foregoing by choosing not to have children.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
3 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Dogs?

Clare Cross
Clare Cross
3 months ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

No. Horses.

Chipoko
Chipoko
3 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

“… choosing not to have children”
i.e. abandoning the nuclear family model and the historical female role (mother) for career profession and freedom from the male hierarchy.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
3 months ago
Reply to  Chipoko

No amount of pretentious jargon can change basic realities. Sorry, but there it is.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
3 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

It’s quite conditional

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
3 months ago

I commented as follows on the first appearance of this article in UnHerd.
There’s nothing wrong with anyone who tries to explain contemporary phenomena, including popular songs, by pointing to medieval or ancient prototypes. I did so myself, after all, in a book on The Wizard of Oz. Whether Mary Harrington succeeds in this essay or not is another matter.
One problem is that her explanation for the morbidity in many popular songs of our time is so specific (troubadours channeling Cathar spirituality in Provencal courts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), that it would require a mountain of evidence to satisfy any historian.
For one thing, the Cathar worldview was by no means unusual (either within the Christian world, let alone the larger Western world, or the larger world beyond even that) in identifying the material realm as a prison to be escaped through either gnosis or death (or both). As for Christianity, Jesus himself saw a profound distinction between the current realm of time, or history, and eternity. St. Paul elaborated on that by distinguishing, often, between the material body (sarx referring to the transience of “flesh”) and the immaterial body (soma referring to the immortality of “spirit”), a distinction that had been a common feature of pre-Christian gnostic “mystery religions” and was probably much older than those. Although both marriage and monastic life enabled Christians to live in anticipation of a new cosmic order, no spouse or institution within the realm of time and space could inaugurate it. Since the very early Church, Christians have sought ultimate salvation in some sort of relationship with the risen Christ. Where Catharism went wrong, according to the Church, was not in dualism per se (flesh vs. spirit) but in following dualism to its logical conclusion of di-theism (one good god and one evil god) and therefore denying the value of God’s incarnation.
The notion of “courtly love” glorified not only unrequited love (in a purely carnal sense) but also marital infidelity (in a spiritual sense). This was probably new in medieval Christendom and confined exclusively to aristocratic circles. But I see no obvious connection between any of that and either Christianity or the Cathar heresy. Maybe the source was external. During the crusades, after all, Christians came into close contact with Muslims for the first time. The latter allowed polygamy and therefore had a distinctive notion of marriage and relations between men and women. But I can’t do more than speculate about that.
I suggest a much more obvious matrix for the unhappiness and even morbidity of some popular songs in our time. That would be romanticism, a movement that originated in the late eighteenth century as a reaction against rationalism, has continued to do battle with it ever since and has had spectacular success in the rise of postmodernism and the anti-intellectual ideologies that make use of it to this day. At the heart of romanticism is its insistence on the primacy of “feeling,” “passion,” or emotion over thinking, thus giving rise not only to the “blood and soil” of nationalism or racism but also to the “sublime” (a secular version of the sacred, or the ecstatic, that prevailed in painting), the courageous but lonely “bohemian” who starves to death in a garret (a stereotype that prevailed among avant-garde painters), the brilliant revolutionary or seeker who dies young (notably among poets), the beautiful courtesan, or anyone, who dies young of consumption (a literary trope) and so on. From this point of view, death—early death—takes on a kind of irrational glamour.
Finally, feminists have spent well over half a century (joined recently by wokers) telling women and girls that they belong to a class of victims (and, for wokers, always will due to the innate characteristics of both them and their oppressors). Unlike Julie Bindel, Harrington is not entirely preoccupied by the victim paradigm of feminism. But the latter does occur in her essays now and then. This is one of them.
Somehow, all of these factors came together and provoked a tidal wave of emotional hysteria over the death of Princess Diana.
But Harrington’s main point is neither historical nor theological but epidemiological. More than once in a brief essay, she refers to a link between fantasies of unhappiness or death and girls. She offers no evidence for this connection, but she probably could do so. I’ll take her at her word, because intuition points me in the same direction. There is statistical evidence of more girls than boys who attempt suicide, often as a way of calling for help (although far more boys than girls actually want to die and therefore succeed in committing suicide). Similarly, there is evidence that more girls than boys have eating disorders (although boys turn to dangerous body-building drugs). Moreover, the vocabulary and linguistic cues of depression itself have been feminized (which is why psychologists often fail to recognize how relatively inarticulate boys express or allude to depression). And, as Harrington points out, the fragility of contemporary families, partly because of ideologies that have tried to destroy it, means that no one is assured that marriage, the primordial hope of girls who hope to have children (despite the best efforts of some feminists), will lead to “happily ever after.”

Nardo Flopsey
Nardo Flopsey
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

And also, her music sucks in a way that will surely stand the test of time.

Anne Humphreys
Anne Humphreys
2 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

A comment which is far more profound that the original article!

Charles Jenkin
Charles Jenkin
3 months ago

There perhaps is another less high-minded explanation both for the yearning for romantic thrill-seeking and also its religious counterparts, which is that it is simply escapism. Rather than being focused on making love work in practical long-term relationships in which all parties can grow in love, or rather than seeking religious faith or a philosophy that helps people navigate the practical complexities and challenges of their lives and grow in their humanity, thrill-seeking romantics prefer to become lost in yearning for the unobtainable. This is perhaps more prevalent in uncertain times.

Howard S.
Howard S.
3 months ago

Give it time. I don’t know anyone under thirty (and I work with and know a lot of them) who has ever heard of Frank Sinatra. Give it time.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
3 months ago

Brilliant.
However, i suggest that the causal link you make from Cathars to courtly love is not the best explanation.
A better explanation is that there is something in the human psyche which is drawn to this love/annihilation you describe and that this led to both the support for the Cathars and also, later to courtly love.
(It is quite common mistake to believe that, because B follows A, that B is caused by A. It’s always worth checking to see if both A and B are consequences of Z.)

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

Freud called it the Thanatos drive.

Martin Dunford
Martin Dunford
3 months ago

Taylor Swift is the “21st century’s foremost troubadour” about as much as McDonald’s McNuggets are it’s finest food. Mass consumption has nothing to do with quality and everything to with packaging/marketing.

Zorost Zorost
Zorost Zorost
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin Dunford

What the Monkey’s are to the Beatles, Taylor Swift is to Patsy Cline. Same schtick, but Patsy had a far better voice and song writers.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
3 months ago
Reply to  Zorost Zorost

I always think the Monkees were underrated. Last Train to Clarksville, I’m a Believer and I’m Not Your Stepping Stone, all hold up well.

Alan Kaufman
Alan Kaufman
3 months ago

Overthinking sex and love is fraught with the risk of making each boring. So frankly, I didn’t much like this piece.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve lived a lot of life without Taylor Swift, and plan to do it even more.
Pop culture is the junk food of our world. Entertaining when one is at a certain age, but junk food nevertheless. Mr. Dunford below makes the splendid suggestion that McNuggets are the nutritional equivalent.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

Good dissection!

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
3 months ago

Lust is under-rated though those who seek it risk their happiness, and the happiness of others. However I do not see why it cannot last a lifetime, and a long one too. Nor why it needs to be as complicated and risky as Mary makes out. She throws a new light for me on the Cathars and there persistence in their beliefs in the face of a painful death.

Jamie
Jamie
3 months ago

This piece by Harrington filled with ruinous envy and reductionism.

Listen to NYT “the Daily” interviewing Taffy Brodessor-Alner for spiritual appreciation of Taylor Swift’s affective range with passion that Harrington will neither reach nor ever comprehend.

How is it possible that this nay-saying superficial screed is considered a year’s “best”?

Nardo Flopsey
Nardo Flopsey
3 months ago
Reply to  Jamie

Taffy Brodessor-Alner.

tug ordie
tug ordie
3 months ago
Reply to  Nardo Flopsey

The hyphen is a harbinger

Rudolf Helmstetter
Rudolf Helmstetter
3 months ago
Reply to  Nardo Flopsey

?

David Ackland
David Ackland
3 months ago
Reply to  Jamie

Could Taylor just be a prime example of female white privilege.