Why Taylor Swift’s Music Makes Us So Emotional

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Written By Robby Macaay

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A suggestion for the masses: Now would be a good time to check in on your favorite Taylor Swift fan. After months of feverish anticipation, the superstar delivered her 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, on Friday—and Swifities everywhere are losing their minds.

From a neuroscience perspective, the response makes sense. Research suggests that music activates the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. “We know that music is highly tied to emotion for a variety of reasons,” says Lindsay Halladay, an associate professor in neuroscience and psychology at Santa Clara University. “The tempo of music can actually modulate neural oscillations, which are sometimes called brain waves. It can alter the way the whole brain is communicating.” That’s why you might feel more energized after listening to upbeat music, for example, or relaxed after an evening of Beethoven.

But what is it about Swift’s music, in particular, that resonates so deeply? We asked a few psychologists who moonlight as Swifties.

She sings about things we all experience

Last year, when millions of people were trying to snag Eras Tour tickets, students at Texas Christian University were working just as hard to get into “Psychology (Taylor’s Version),” a new class offered by developmental psychologist Naomi Ekas. “We take different topics and themes from her music or her life and apply a developmental perspective to it,” she says. Classes have centered, for example, on infidelity, revenge, attraction, and breakups.

During one recent class, Ekas played Marjorie, the devastating Evermore tune that pays tribute to Swift’s grandmother. (I should’ve asked you questions, I should’ve asked you how to be, she sings.) Many of the 120 students started crying and asked if they could have a few minutes to text their grandmother or their mom or their dad. “We were all like, ‘Do we continue with class today? Because we’re very sad,’” Ekas recalls.

Read More: Taylor Swift Is Embracing the 5 Stages of Grief. Should You?

That speaks to the universality of the themes Swift spotlights. “We all experience loss,” she says. “We all experience friends that hurt us, and we want to get back at them and get revenge on them. We all fall in love, we all fall out of love.” Knowing that Swift feels what we feel validates our emotions, Ekas says—letting you know it’s OK to lean into that heartbreak or joy.

Her lyrics get imprinted on our brain

When music evokes an emotion—maybe anger if you’ve just listened to Bad Blood, or longing if you have Dress on repeat—you’ll likely experience stronger memories, Halladay says. “Strong emotions have an ability to alter the way memories are processed,” she says. “Whether it’s positive or negative emotions, they can affect the way our brain stores information.” That’s why we don’t remember mundane events, like what we had for lunch two weeks ago, but more thrilling or traumatic situations are burned into our memory. “We want to hold on to that information, and our brain is very good at doing that when given a cue that it should,” Halladay says. So if you’re already finding it hard to get So Long London out of your head, blame the stirring lyrics: My spine split from carrying us up the hill … You swore that you loved me but where were the clues?

She’s vulnerable—so we are too

Swift is unusually open about her life, penning raw lyrics about her personal challenges and triumphs. (In the first seconds of new tune Fortnight, she declares: I was a functioning alcoholic ’til nobody noticed my new aesthetic.) That vulnerability can have a profound effect on listeners, says Naomi Torres-Mackie, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Torres-Mackie’s clients bring Swift up in sessions more often than you might expect, serving as a catalyst for deeper introspection. “I’ve had a few people come to me and they’re like, ‘I was just listening to this Taylor music, or revisiting this album, and all of a sudden I was able to emote all these feelings that were really hard to express,’” she says. As Torres-Mackie notes, Swift refers or alludes to themes like eating disorders, depression, and self-doubt in her music—and that can grant permission for some people to feel like they’re able to do the same.

She makes girls and women, in particular, feel seen

Gender plays a role in the emotions that Swift’s music sparks. Societal norms continue to restrict and dismiss girls and women, Torres-Mackie points out—especially their experiences, interests, and feelings, all of which can be deemed silly or irrelevant. Yet one of our basic psychological needs is feeling seen and understood. Swift’s songs “really give listeners the feeling that girls are, in fact, allowed to be sad, angry, lost,” Torres-Mackie says. “Any emotional experience is important, and it’s worth singing about.”

Read More: Why You Can’t Remember That Taylor Swift Concert All Too Well

Plus, Swift’s songs probe nuances of life that are often unique to women. Take Tolerate It, in which she croons: I wait by the door like I’m just a kid / Use my best colors for your portrait / Lay the table with the fancy shit / And watch you tolerate it. “What she’s talking about is doing emotional labor for a man and having it not be appreciated,” says Kerry McBroome, a psychologist in Brooklyn. “She’s touching on that unique specific feminine experience of having all this emotional work being expected of you, and then not being recognized or acknowledged or praised or rewarded for it.” McBroome recalls feeling a gut punch when she first heard the song and thinking, “Oh my God, Taylor, get out of my diary.”

She helps us feel connected to others

Swift excels at making personal experiences feel universal—and when we connect with an experience she describes lyrically, we feel like we’re part of “the larger community of the heartbroken or the jubilant,” McBroome says. “We realize other people have been through the same experiences, and it’s a sense of oneness with a million fans.” Take the infamous scarf Swift describes leaving behind at her ex’s sister’s house in All Too Well. McBroome expects many listeners love the song because they, too, have left a scarf or some other sentimental item behind at someone’s house, understanding it’s lost forever. “It’s easy to put your own stamp on it, and then realize that the world is full of people who have left scars on each other’s lives. And I think she does this by using such specific imagery.”

Read More: Love Languages Actually Do Improve Your Relationship

Plus, there’s the army of Swifties who have banded around the star—and each other. Ekas, who’s 45, recently got a call from a 79-year-old friend who listened to Swift for the first time and loved what she heard. Her class helped brainstorm birthday gift ideas for an 8-year-old Swiftie. And one of her few male students told her he had enrolled in the class because he wanted to be able to connect with his sisters, who are fans. When Ekas went to Swift’s Eras Tour alone last year, she spent hours having fun with a group of strangers. Swift “is so positive and uplifting,” she says—which bleeds through to her community of fans and helps cultivate an emotional attachment to her work.

She enjoys messing with us

In the days leading up to The Tortured Poets Department’s release, Ekas and her students fell down rabbit hole after rabbit hole of theories and speculation about the new album. Swift—who famously loves dropping Easter eggs—unveiled a library pop-up installation packed full of clues to decipher. All the puzzling “feeds into the relationship we think we have with her,” Ekas says. “We think, ‘Oh, she’s giving me this clue.’” That strengthens the bond we feel with her and her music. Plus, trying to uncover hidden messages heightens anticipation, whipping fans into a frenzy—which means our emotions were already in a heightened state going into the new album. That almost guarantees a visceral reaction. “I think she genuinely loves it and has fun messing with us,” Ekas says. “I feel like she’s just sitting back this week with her cats and Travis going, ‘Ha ha ha.’”

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