Taylor Swift Takes a Familiar Path to Hell and BackRoundup
tags: religion, Christianity, folklore, popular culture, myth, religious history, Taylor Swift
Peter Manseau is the curator of American religion at the Smithsonian and the author of 10 books, including the forthcoming novel The Maiden of All Our Desires.He is on Twitter @plmanseau.
An often-forgotten detail in the Christian story of the Crucifixion is that Jesus did not just die; he went to hell. While the Gospels merely place him in a tomb, the fifth-century Apostle’s Creed notes that he “descended to the dead.” Medieval art abounds with images of this sojourn, known as “Harrowing of Hell,” in which Christ is shown freeing the damned from a Dantean inferno. The scene connects the ancient saga of faith to even older tales: Orpheus, Aeneas, Hercules and Odysseus all visited Hades only to return transformed.
To that long list of mythic depictions of the underworld we can apparently now add a 10-minute pop song about dating Jake Gyllenhaal.
Taylor Swift’s rolling release this month of various extended versions of her 2012 breakup ballad “All Too Well” has inspired a torrent of commentary about memory, loss, misplaced scarves, maple lattes and the long-ago relationship rumored to be at the heart of it all, a three-month romance between the singer and an actor nine years her senior.
In its various iterations — which so far include the original and revised album tracks, an accompanying short film, a live acoustic rendition, the longest “Saturday Night Live” performance in history and, most recently, the “Sad Girl Autumn Version,” of which Swift has said, “One of the saddest songs I’ve ever written just got sadder” — “All Too Well” is a kiss-off for the ages.
As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in The New York Times, it is “gloriously unruly and viciously seething,” even as it captures “a young woman’s attempt to find retroactive equilibrium in a relationship that was based on a power imbalance that she was not at first able to perceive.” For Swift fans who’ve been as invested in her personal life as in her music since her debut 15 years ago, the song is no doubt a tremendously satisfying act of score-settling.
Yet, it’s worth considering if something beyond our cultural obsession with celebrity hookups has made it so compelling to so many.
In its own way, “All Too Well” tells a story not unlike myths of yore. It dabbles not in mythology, per se, but in the so-called “monomyth,” popularized as “The Hero’s Journey” by the folklorist Joseph Campbell almost 75 years ago.
Campbell’s 1949 book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” argued that there was a single story of travel and travail found across cultures, a template for overcoming physical and spiritual adversity.
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