With her ubiquity that may be second only to the omnipresence of God, Taylor Swift finally cornered me with her song ‘Shake It Off’. I really kind of liked it. I have no way to place this in the overall cannon of Swift tunes, but it is catchy as can be. And striking in a way I wouldn’t have expected.
Verse one introduces the disembodied voices swirling around Swift, murmuring gossip and vitriol. In the chorus, she, well, shakes them off. In verse two Swift paints herself like Muhammad Ali in the ring: always moving, improvising. The haters even dream of beating her and they better wake up and apologize. She’s untouchable. The song is a massive hit and as such it has earned a Grammy nomination. Why does this ideal of the untouchable individual resonate with us?
The release of Swift’s new album came alongside her exhaustively publicized move from Nashville to New York City. The country girl is now a bona fide city woman, or so the narrative goes. This move microcosms Swift’s life, exchanging a small world wherein she knew most everyone who knew her, for a global world, where she is on constant display before people who don’t know her personally, that is, as a person. I think if we look at this song through the lens of our own country to city/small to global transition, we can get our minds around why ‘Shake It Off’ strikes a nerve as it does.
Over the past hundred years, the global population has undertaken a mammoth—and accelerating— migration from countryside to city. This has had a profound impact on our lives and relationships.
Tim Keller has said that cities have the highest concentration of the image of God per square inch anywhere in the world. The city, given its dense collection of humanity, has vast potential for purpose and goodness if its people live out what’s best and most true about the human creature. If cities are the largest concentration of God’s image bearers, though, they are also the largest collection of people trying to cope with the searing rupture between them and God. Such collective cosmic pain must shape the city because it cannot help but shape the residents of the city.
Jacques Ellul, a brilliant 20th century French sociologist and lay theologian, said, “Just as Jesus Christ is God’s greatest work, so we can say, with all the consequences of such a statement, that the city is man’s greatest work.” In The Meaning of the City, He argues that Cain, having murdered his brother, was cursed by God to wander the earth, detached from secure roots. Reeling with insecurity, Cain responded by building security in his own image, apart from God, and this is the first, prototypical city. The wanderer settled down in defiance. Wendell Berry, I think, would say that the city manifests the victory of mankind’s desire to exploit over his ability to nurture.
We thus have to take the city for what it is: a place both strikingly beautiful for what it contains, and darkly sinister in its foundation. The city is a place of insecurity, felt at a tectonic level, filled with people striving for the most efficient path to feelings of financial, physical, and relational security. Nothing has yet silenced these appetites. Rather cruelly, they actually seem to grow more pointed when fed. This introduces a compounding thirst for novelty to the calculus of the city. And so we cluster together and scrape up against one another in an urban environment obedient to the commandments of scarcity and competition. Hungry and growing hungrier. Cities need salt and light because they are, by nature, decomposing and dark places.
This darkness disturbs the city in many ways: with crime, with poverty, but also with the shadow of urban anonymity. Dedicated urbanites prize their independence, enjoying the privacy of the crowd. We think it nice to be buffered from busybodies who can rather effectively aggravate our insecurity because they know us by name—inescapable in the kind of small communities we find in rural America—but in escaping those busybodies, we have severely strained the bonds of accountability found in a small, named community, where people know and are known to one another and therefore cannot escape the joy or grief of one another. Absent such interconnectedness, acknowledged by the simple act of addressing someone by name, strange things happen.
The devil who has always weighted our shoulder and plied us with lies about being our own god and deserving a taste of whatever forbidden fruit du jour whispers that we must look after ourselves, we must get ours, we must compete with these people. Our insecure flesh drinks this in and its appetites growl. We begin to see the humans around us not as a community to be nurtured, but as capital to be exploited, and this is made easy because we no longer know anyone personally. Aren’t cities built with human capital? Any reduction in personal knowledge, even namelessness, paves the way for exploitation.
How do we exploit each other? Not as cartoon villains do, but as regular people navigating a crowded supermarket or a rush-hour freeway. We curse the other driver, we leer at the other shopper, all bodies to which we cannot give a name. This may seem harmless, the presence or absence of external aggression is a shallow measure of harm. In the Sermon on the Mount, anger is not just closely tied to but equated to murder. How can this be? It all hinges on what happens to us in our anger, not what happens to the person at whom our anger is directed. Even hidden, our anger harms its objects because it strangles our desire to admit them into the circle of our care.
The other driver, the other grocery shopper, crosses our path on the cutting edge of their long life, as complex and full of grief and joy as our own. Yet the minute they impede us, all of that long life vanishes from our sight (if it even ever was there). We no longer see a person but an object in the way and this is the assassination of their humanity in our heart, an unspeakable reduction. We have severed the ties of mutual life between us and them by denying their full life our consideration and therefore our patience, to say nothing of compassion or love. And for what? For a feeling of superiority to compensate for a moment’s inconvenience. We have used them to lift ourselves up. We have exploited them. In a city on a busy day, we can do this dozens and hundreds of times until the urban landscape becomes a bloodless genocide. One which we all survive only by blind biological measure.
When we do not see the person in front of us as a human being in full flesh, as we inevitably do in the crowd of the city and as we often choose to do in our anger or even mere annoyance, we deny ourselves the chance to give regard that we owe, regard that we ought to get rid of because to store it up in ourselves is to poison our own mind and soul. And so we do not truly survive the bloodless genocide, not as a whole unit of body and spirit. Anonymity, augmented with anger, must kill our own sense of the value of someone before it can drive us to physical murder, and even if it never ends in real bloodshed, grievous harm has already been done.
There is no sliding scale of acceptability when it comes to making people objects. When we attempt to reduce what should be irreducible, we lose something essential to being human together. Yet it seems the city demands this kind of reduction of us in a unique way. Perhaps it’s just a function of human limit; we have a relational limit that the city far exceeds so we have to imagine people as objects in order to comprehend the sheer number. This cannot but entail a co-reduction in their value, their complexity. The city may present us with more people than we have the spiritual capacity to pay attention, but that doesn’t absolve us of being a community in which each member matters and is deserving of their full human dignity. I mean dignity in an old sense of an intrinsic value that no one may diminish because it isn’t given from man to man but rather given to all men by their Creator.
Of course, these impulses to anger, to thinking others less so that we might feel like more come out in small, named communities. But in those places where you look known people in the face, it is difficult to keep them hidden. So they tend to emerge, as feuds and gossip. The invisibility of anonymous anger makes it a cancer more peculiar to the city, which hides the known person from us in a crowd. So the shape the city has taken is closely tied to what Ellul argues was the original impetus for the city, that is to murder and its ramifications for our human spirit. In our desire to feel happy, we can accept, even willfully ignore, of gross poverty. Our panicky clinging to our stuff leads us to expect of crime and therefore suspect The Other. Our hunger to secure promotion and pay increase spurs sometimes treacherous competition in the marketplace. All of these insecurities are profoundly abetted by our ability to reduce our imagination of others into disposable quantities. This reduction in imagination owes a great debt to the vast relational pool of the city, to how such a sea of faces gives us permission not to know our neighbor well.
In the past 15 years, things have taken a turn for the truly surreal. The enormity of the city has entered the echo chamber of the Internet and suddenly the world is simultaneously more vast than even the greatest city and yet more claustrophobic and inescapable than the smallest town. Our animosity towards one another—which tends to dehumanize unless kept in check by the unavoidable humanity found in personal relationships—found in the city an anonymous place to go to work on fraying our communal bonds. But we couldn’t, or at least often wouldn’t, act out our anger face to face because we’d have to witness its true effect. Now, though, we have our global digital city. Like the city, it is an unprecedented collection of human creatures, of the image of God, and so its implications are both wonderful and fearful to behold. The digitopolis has a dark underbelly, an open platform from which our inner troll has the power to strike at anyone and the choice to remain anonymous. As we broadcast our lives into this digital uncivil-ization, we make ourselves vulnerable to tabloid insult and paparazzi voyeurism; in short, we put ourselves in a position to feel how Taylor Swift felt when she wrote ‘Shake It Off’.
So why does ‘Shake It Off’ allure us? Well, what could be more alluring in this modern world than an emotional suit of armor? Taylor Swift’s brilliance is her insight into one of our chief collective anxieties: being on the receiving end of abuse from which we have no expectation of refuge or release (because it’s just the way things are in the wired world). To this kind of world, Swift presents herself as the invulnerable ideal. ‘Shake It Off’ is an anthem of empowerment against haters and heart breakers. And it has a nice beat. And you can dance to it. No wonder she’s a queen of pop culture. But, is ‘Shake It Off’ good medicine for our time?
For everything there is a season, even shaking it off. Swift has leaned into the modern world and, having endured its full effect, must shake things off in order to survive. Perhaps not in such high volume, so must we to the extent that we navigate the nameless crowd. The dark parts of the city—digital or analog—would bleed us dry us if we didn’t have thick skin. This is doubly true if we try to bring some light into dark corners. The city loves freedom of thought, but hates advice. A life that subverts the darkness in the city will suffer its own portion of slings and arrows. Speak or live a message that protests the animating forces of consumerism and self-centeredness, a message that encourages reunion with God and therefore with neighbor—often at the expense of so-called personal liberty and satisfaction—and you are likely to meet a round rebuke. People are liable to kick at something they see in the light that pricks their cosmic rupture. In that time, why shouldn’t we think of ourselves as lighting on our feet? In the Christian faith, which, when well-lived, should run counter to much of the city as I’ve described it, Jesus punctuates his beatitudes, his own sublimely subversive anthem of empowerment, by telling his followers that they are blessed when others revile them and speak all kinds of false evil against them on his behalf (on behalf of his message of light shining in darkness). He tells them to rejoice and be glad—shake it off!—for great is their reward in heaven, in that place which dwarfs the city. Taylor Swift may not have had such an interpretation in view when she wrote the song, but there it is all the same.
Yet, there is a time for everything under heaven, even not shaking it off. Criticism isn’t always unfounded and ignorable, and it’s fatal to the soul to presume so. Sometimes we need to let a punch land. Sometimes we need a wound to save us from total self-destruction. We cannot find that kind of wound in the din and mayhem of the city, though. For those times, we must seek out that vulnerable community of people who know one another by being mutually given for one another’s well-being. There we can take off our city armor, decide together to lay down our instinct to exploit relationships for personal gain, and instead realize our ability to nurture one another, even if by pruning. If Taylor Swift has a song about that, I’d love to know about it. I think she has the insight and emotional touch to write a good one. I’d cue it up alongside ‘Shake It Off’ on and have a cosmic dance party.