Last week I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the annual Popular Culture Association national conference, held here in Seattle. My paper, which had the same title as this blog post, was on a phenomenon I’ve been noticing around celebrities for the past few years. I’m a mythologist, so it’s natural for me to pick up what one might call “mythological patterns” in daily life.
In fact, a few years ago, after the mass shooting incident in Isla Vista, California, I wrote this blog post, then this one, which represented some of my earliest thinking on this topic. As I continued to cogitate on the energy surrounding celebrity, however, it began to occur to me that celebrities hold a space in culture that goes far beyond mere entertainment.
In polytheistic religions such as that of Classical Greece, having multiple gods and goddesses available for worship ensured that a member of that religion had opportunities to turn to different members of the pantheon at different times in life, depending on what was taking place at the time. For example, a young girl might feel a strong connection with Artemis, as she was the goddess of prepubescent girls, whereas later in life that same young woman might feel more drawn to Demeter when she was approaching motherhood for the first time. A offering of fresh flowers might be left for Aphrodite for assistance with a love affair, or a bull could be sacrificed to Poseidon to ensure success in a business transaction across the sea.
In the modern west, polytheistic religions have become the exception, rather than the rule. If a person is a believer at all, they are most likely to be bringing all of their issues to a “one true god,” rather than finding one sympathetic ear among many. However, I don’t believe this ancient human need just goes away. Instead, I think that we have settled this archetypal energy, as it were, around the shoulders of celebrities.
It is this core idea that was central to my paper. I primarily looked at goddess archetypes, due to the limitations of a 20 minute paper. I think that the archetypal energies around love, sex, and desire (as represented by Aphrodite for the Greeks) have moved between women, primarily actresses. We can see the energy shifting as it moves from one generation to the next, from Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, through different types of women such as Farrah Fawcett in the 1970s and Pamela Anderson in the 1990s. Kim Kardashian West seems to be our “Aphrodite” of the moment, but there are others who hold a similar energy as well.
In this paper I wanted to examine Taylor Swift’s archetypal energy in particular. She does not represent what one might call an “Aphroditic type.” Her image is much less sexual. In fact, I would argue that the archetypal space that she is holding in culture is much more like Artemis. She is, of course, the goddess and protector of young girls, and Taylor Swift, with her millions upon millions of fans worldwide, is connecting with her young female fans in particular in a way that seems unprecedented by any other celebrity. Taylor is quite young herself at 26, and she has spent the past 10 years of her career utilizing social in such a way that she is able to connect with her fans in a very personal way. She follows their blogs on Tumblr, sends personal messages and phone calls, and even occasionally sends Christmas presents (known as “Swiftmas”).
Now Taylor Swift, like every other celebrity, is a regular person. She has every human foible that any other human being has. Beyond her personhood, however, there is a great deal of archetypal energy that has accrued around her, and it is here that we start to approach the realm of the gods. Over the past year she has given 85 concerts worldwide in support of her most recent album, 1989. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to see one live, but I did recently watch her tour video. What I saw there seems strikingly similar to what might happen if 76k people were worshipping at a temple, and their goddess came to life. There was a profound energy exchange that was going on, between Taylor and her fans. I like Taylor’s music, but I don’t consider myself a “Swiftie,” or super-fan. Despite that, even I was profoundly moved (to tears, in fact) by what I was seeing, watching the concert on my 17″ laptop screen. This is the power and presence of the gods.
Taylor was interviewed on the “Graham Norton Show” in the UK as she promoted her new album. Taylor was being asked about the fact that she had invited some of her “Swifties” to her home(s) to listen to the new album, before it was released. Now, given what I’ve just been saying, I’m sure you can imagine how these people responded to being invited to Taylor’s house. Graham read multiple tweets of people who had been invited, and they ALL talk about how they “died” by meeting Taylor. A quote from Taylor, from the interview: “they always talk about ‘dying.’ Like, ‘rest in peace, me.'”
Yes, because that is the proper human reaction to confronting god energy in person. A fragile human psyche will feel profoundly taxed in that moment.
I’m happy to report that my paper did seem to engender a lot of discussion in the room at the conference; people seemed really energized by the idea of celebrities holding the same archetypal space as the gods.
The human psyche does seem to fall into regular, recognizable patterns. A few thousand years ago, a young girl might have prayed to Artemis. Now, she blasts Taylor Swift songs from her bedroom and thinks about the fact that Taylor really gets her. Then, she goes to a concert and worships at her goddess’ temple. Sometimes, the goddess might tweet her back. Wouldn’t that be something?