Taylor Swift has broken records yet again with her most recent album, Midnights. Upon release, ten tracks off the album occupied all ten top slots on the Billboard Top 100. The rush of fans vying for a chance to see her upcoming tour practically broke Ticketmaster. Swift clearly still has a hold on the public as a cultural icon.
However, the album itself received mixed reviews from fans and critics alike, the recurring comments acknowledging that, despite Swift’s three-album break from autobiographical writing, Midnights had nothing new to say.
As a listener, I kept waiting for these reflections on late-night reminiscences to offer a resolution or a revelation, neither of which ever came. Despite the urgings of her most popular single (“It’s me, hi. I’m the problem, it’s me”), she’s not the problem for the album’s disappointing track list—she is only an echo of the millennial-made god of introspection, a god which is ultimately unsatisfying.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
This album plays well for the millennial audience—despite sounding indistinct from Swift’s other works—because it is a voice celebrating personal reflection. Over the past three years, the demand for counseling for anxiety has skyrocketed, particularly among millennials. Self-knowledge is often extolled as the key to success, better personal relationships, and even stronger work performance.
There is a certain preoccupation with the past that promises satisfaction from the greater self-knowledge it will bring. However, when reflection is limited to purely the pursuit of self-knowledge, one forges a downward spiral into the human psyche that leads to an anxious loop of overanalyzing, which is the very opposite of what reflection is meant to do in the Catholic sensibility.
Catholicism has a rich tradition of contemplative practices. But rather than leading down an inward spiral, this contemplation is meant to elevate our gaze heavenward. German philosopher Josef Pieper contends that true happiness is to be found in contemplation of the divine. He is not suggesting the only way to be happy is to think specifically about God at all times. Rather, he reasons that, as dually spiritual and physical beings, our deepest desires will be most fully satisfied by meditating and pondering things higher than ourselves.
Pieper contends that “the whole energy of human nature [is] hunger. Hunger…for undiminished actuality, for complete realization—which is not attainable in the subject’s isolated existence, for it can be secured only by taking into the self the universal reality” (Happiness and Contemplation). Pieper recognizes that we simply cannot satisfy our hunger from within. No amount of self-knowledge will satiate us entirely, no matter how many songs we write about it.
Ideally, considering ourselves in relation to higher things and how we are supposed to live as a result of those relationships requires us to look inward and then upward. From this perspective, personal reflection and understanding ourselves becomes less of a tunnel and more of a ladder. Of course, there is no promise that what we discover in ourselves as a result of such introspection will be particularly pleasant, but those recognitions are necessary first steps toward growth in virtue and sanctity.
Midnights is a collection of songs that explores the swirling thoughts that consume your brain in the early hours of the morning: revisiting past quarrels, old loves, anxious recollections, and the like. The closest Swift comes to offering a new insight are her comments about her own discomfort surrounding marriage that are peppered into “Lavender Haze” and “Midnight Rain.”
Her disdain for marriage is a rare moment on the album because it is one of the few times she acknowledges anything beyond herself. Had she pushed against her own gut reactions and questioned why she recoils at the mention of marriage, it could have exposed some interior areas worth examining. Often, these reactive jabs are indicative of our own disordered desires or lack of virtue. Regrettably, the millennial attitude of reflection maintains that one’s own feelings reign supreme in all matters, and anything that introduces discomfort is to be discarded immediately. Swift follows suit as she tosses this comment aside and goes back to singing about past feelings.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a decent pop album and return to daily life. But it may just be worth considering what these songs say about the state of human hearts (particularly of millennial women in 2022). These songs are popular. Taylor Swift is popular. Despite the clear lack of originality in both storytelling and melody, these tracks hit a chord with millions of people. I think that, like Swift, many of us are looking inward for answers about what will satisfy us on those sleepless midnights. Maybe it’s time we stopped looking inward and started looking upward, toward things capable of truly satisfying us.