Taylor Swift's Anti-Hero as a Smithian Anthem

sympathy music sympathetic imagination

Joy Buchanan for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith says people want to be loved and be lovely. Swift (and all of us) want to be accepted and to be genuinely praise-worthy in her actions and intentions. 
The song “Anti-Hero” by Taylor Swift was the number-one song on charts in the United States and globally when it was released in October of 2022. Based on the record-breaking and continued popularity of the song, Swift’s struggles with self-loathing resonates with us.* 
 It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me
 At tea time, everybody agrees
The theme of the song is that Swift feels like a moral monster who is exposed to the watching eyes of society. She imagines proper people gossiping about her flaws at teatime. This reference to British tea culture makes a perfect segue to the moral philosophy of Adam Smith. Those who only think of Smith as an early observer of modern economies might be surprised, but regular readers of AdamSmithWorks won’t be. 

The impartial spectator is a key concept in Smith's theory of moral behavior. According to Smith, individuals are able to judge their own actions by imagining how they would appear to an impartial observer. This imaginary figure serves as a guide for moral behavior, helping individuals to understand how their actions affect others and to conform to societal expectations.
I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser
 Midnights become my afternoons
 When my depression works the graveyard shift
 All of the people I've ghosted stand there in the room
Swift is imagining the people who are disappointed in her. She is viewing her own life, from the perspective of other people. She paints a vivid picture of feeling inadequate:
And I'm a monster on the hill
 Too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward your favorite city
Adam Smith says people want to be loved and be lovely. Swift wants to be accepted and to be genuinely praise-worthy in her actions and intentions. This desire can lead to a sense of failure, as we see in Swift’s lyrics. She even worries that her altruistic acts are “covert narcissism.” 

One reason Taylor Swift has been so successful is that she is honest with her audience about her own hopes and insecurities. She had a great come-back hit about laughing off the haters in 2014, when she was 25 years old. In “Shake It Off”, she seems able to ignore the vicious gossip about her relationships that comes with fame. 
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate (haters gonna hate)
 Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
 I shake it off 

She can block out those voices and have a good time, at least for a while. But the fact that she wrote “Shake It Off” at all indicates that she is paying attention to what people say about her, as do we all. Interestingly, she references getting older in “Anti-Hero”, as if her expectations for herself and her desire to leave an honorable legacy have shifted. 

Sensitivity to others’ perceptions is not necessarily bad. Smith believed that the ability to sympathize with others was a fundamental aspect of human nature, and that the impartial spectator represented the best expression of this innate moral sense. By using the impartial spectator as a guide for moral behavior, individuals are able to navigate the complexities of social life, and to develop a sense of responsibility for their own actions. Smith opens his Theory of Moral Sentiments with the line
"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
We don’t want to be unable to sympathize with the people around us, but hopefully we don’t feel like an isolated “monster on a hill.” The key is to be able to balance our expectations with an ability to forgive ourselves for falling short of perfection, even when as we get older.

Thanks to Christy Horpedahl for the prompt and edits. Thanks to Jon Murphy for the image. 

*Minor edits were made to this piece on October 23, 20023. 

Want more?
Joy Buchanan in the OLL Reading Room
(Smith and a different, but also very fun, Swift): Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels: Adam Smith's Favorite Novel
  Maryann Corbett’s The Imitative Arts: Some Fun with Adam Smith’s Artistic Opinions
My Understanding of Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator, a symposium from Econ Journal Watch
Nir Ben-Moshe's Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?
Garth Bond’s Conducting Oneself and Others in Tár at the Online Library of Liberty