Jewish lessons from Taylor Swift’s success

From the vantage point of Judaism and the Torah, the Taylor Swift phenomenon offers a prism through which to explore both the blessings and challenges ...

Taylor Swift. Photo: Instagram
Taylor Swift. Photo: Instagram

Taylor Swift is everywhere. She’s dominating news headlines, social media feeds and schoolyard chatter. In the kaleidoscope of modern pop culture, certain figures emerge as more than mere entertainers; they become icons, emblematic of the zeitgeist, and Taylor Swift undoubtedly occupies such a role in the contemporary landscape. Taylor Swift, with her infectious melodies and insightful lyricism, has transcended the boundaries of the music industry to become a cultural force of unparalleled magnitude. Her influence extends far beyond the confines of concert venues and album sales, permeating the very fabric of society.

Indeed, the fervour surrounding Swift has reached such heights that schools have reportedly rescheduled exams to accommodate her concerts and university students have devoted their academic pursuits to the study of her persona, crafting doctoral theses that dissect her impact on contemporary culture. Ticket sales to her concerts broke the internet, leading to widespread scalping and even online ticket theft. To say that Swift has taken the world by storm is an understatement. So, what does Judaism have to say about this obsession?

Like any other significant social trend, there are both positives and negatives. From the vantage point of Judaism and the Torah, the Taylor Swift phenomenon offers a prism through which to explore both the blessings and challenges of extreme celebrity popularity in our time.

On one hand, Swift’s music has provided solace, inspiration and empowerment to countless individuals, serving as a soundtrack for moments of joy, heartache and self-discovery. Through her songs, she has articulated universal truths about love, loss, resilience and the human experience, resonating with audiences across generations and cultural divides. Although I personally do not listen to her music (thankfully I get to hear the St Kilda Shule choir every Shabbat, which is just as good!), I have seen waves of young people who are clearly inspired by her music.

Another significant positive we can learn from Swift’s success is the importance of personal effort. Swift’s rapid ascent to fame exemplifies the incredible capacity of human ingenuity and hard work. Her achievements highlight her steadfast dedication to her craft and her readiness to “take on the world”. In this regard, Swift’s path reflects the enduring themes of persistence and belief found throughout Jewish teachings, motivating us to never suffice with mediocracy. In the words of the Talmud (Megillah 6b) “If someone says, ‘I have worked hard and I have not been successful,’ don’t believe them. If someone says, ‘I have not worked hard and I have been successful,’ don’t believe him. Only if someone says, ‘I have worked hard and I have been successful,’ believe them!”

There can be no doubt that Swift has worked extremely hard to get to where she is in life. Although her maternal grandmother, Marjorie Finlay, was a professional opera singer which may have given Swift a genetic head start or at least a love of music, Swift began writing her own music at age 14. She rose through the ranks with a lot of effort and personal sacrifice. The idea here is that true success can only be achieved through hard work – a trait that Taytay appears to exemplify.

However, Judaism also expresses concern over extreme adulation and even idolisation of human beings. Judaism prohibits idolising humans to safeguard against misplaced devotion. Elevating mortals to near-divine status blurs the distinction between flawed humanity and transcendent divinity. We worship God, not human beings. Indeed, the greatest Jewish leader in history, Moses, was deliberately buried in an unknown location so that his followers would not deify him after his death.

The Taylor Swift phenomenon also raises concerns about the commodification of celebrity culture and the corrosive effects of celebrity worshipping. In an age of social media overload and relentless self-promotion, the lines between authenticity and artifice become increasingly blurred, as individuals are compelled to project carefully curated personas in pursuit of relevance and fame. The relentless pursuit of online clicks and celebrity status can lead to moral compromise, spiritual emptiness and the erosion of genuine human connection.

Moreover, the rampant commercialisation of Swift’s image has given rise to a culture of exploitation, illustrated by exorbitant ticket prices, rampant ticket theft and scalping schemes that prey upon unsuspecting fans. From a Torah perspective, such practices run counter to the principles of truthfulness, fairness and integrity that lie at the heart of Jewish ethical teachings. The Torah requires us to treat others with honesty and respect, and to resist the temptations of greed.

Whether Taylor Swift will wear the test of time and still be topping the charts in a decade from now, remains to be seen. But while she is where she is, whether you’re a Swiftie or not, we can certainly learn from both the positives and negatives associated with her rise to stardom.

Rabbi Yaakov Glasman is rabbi of St Kilda Hebrew Congregation.

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