Taylor Swift is arguably one of the most popular artists in the United States, selling over 40 million units across just her first five studio albums and holding the record for most weeks at No. 1 by a woman in the Billboard 200 chart. Beyond pure popularity, she is also an incredibly talented singer and songwriter, earning 41 Grammy Award nominations, of which she has won 11, including Album of the Year on three separate occasions. Taylor Swift also holds considerable sway through her fanbase, getting tens of thousands of Americans to register to vote through a single Instagram post.
All of this is to say that Taylor Swift holds an immense amount of influence as a celebrity, and has the potential to very effectively communicate to her audience through her music and actions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Swift has been on an incredibly productive swing, writing and performing two entirely new albums and re-recording her second studio album.
The rest of this article presents the case that, over the course of the pandemic, Taylor Swift became interested in effective altruism and longtermism, at least in part due to Toby Ord's book The Precipice. This interest snuck its way into her musical work, most clearly seen within the lyrics of the 12th track on her recent evermore album: "long story short". This lyrical analysis will rely on the lyrics as found on genius.com as of 7/21/2021, unless stated otherwise.
For context, the consensus view surrounding the meaning of the song is that "long story short" details Swift's view of her own past, filled with drama and tumultuous events, and resolves to a sense of peace, with Swift grateful to have survived her past and ready to heal emotionally with the love and support of her soulmate.
This could not be further from the truth. In fact, Taylor Swift wrote "long story short" as an ode to the current perilous condition humanity finds itself, a cry to modern civilization to pay appropriate attention to its own survival. The song details her introduction to the ideas of longtermism and her journey as a new Effective Altruist. While Swift wraps this message up in a upbeat, indie rock façade for the general public, she drops dozens of hints throughout the song that, when placed in context with one another, provide striking proof of a secret double meaning.
In order to piece together the clues left by Taylor Swift, it is important to first analyze the chorus and post-chorus of the song, each repeated (with slight variations) three times.
And I fell from the pedestal
Right down the rabbit hole
Long story short, it was a bad time
Pushed from the precipice
Clung to the nearest lips
Long story short, it was the wrong guy
Now I'm all about you
I'm all about you, ah
I'm all about you, ah
The chorus starts out addressing Swift's immense privilege, nothing that she was originally up on a "pedestal", not having to face the problems that plague the world. Not only is she an American (the median American household is comfortably in the top richest 1% globally), but she is a multi-millionaire prodigy who has faced few true struggles. During her downtime after concerts and live events were cancelled due to COVID-19, she "went down a rabbit hole" reading about the issues facing the planet and its people. This exploration pushed her off her metaphorical pedestal and into reality, and she did not like what she saw.
While this appears to be pure speculation, Swift removes all doubt with the chorus's fourth line: "Pushed from the precipice". As mentioned earlier, this is a direct reference to Oxford philosopher Toby Ord's 2020 book entitled The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. In the book, which came out only months before "long story short", Ord describes the new post-nuclear era of civilization as "a time uniquely important to humanity's future" where humanity's ability to destroy itself outstrips its collective maturity and intelligence. Ord quantifies the the chance of human extinction within the century at around 1 in 6, similar to a game of Russian roulette.
After reading the book, Taylor Swift feels like she herself has been pushed off of a cliff, holding onto the the edge for dear life. She realizes that, by focusing on short-term, day-to-day drama, she has been prioritizing the wrong set of goals, pursuing "the wrong guy", if you will. Her concern for humanity's future became all-encompassing, as repeated numerously in the lines "I am all about you", where "you" in this context is not a soulmate, but humanity's long-term survival.
This type of longtermism is found frequently within Effective Altruist circles, a movement Ord himself helped found. In the post-chorus, Taylor Swift public aligns herself with the movement, repeating "EA" (the movement's abbreviation) several times. Note, while genius.com mistakenly transcribes these lines as "Yeah, yeah", anyone with a keen set of ears can hear Swift clearly say "EA". In fact, in the official lyric video for the song, these lines are the only sung words not transcribed. Swift is clearly sending a message, albeit a message easily missed by most of her fans.
With the context provided in the chorus / post-chorus, the song's verses reveal their true double meaning. In fact, the three verses (assuming the bridge acts as a extension of Verse 3) serve a narrative function, detailing Swift's ever-evolving view of effective altruism, longtermism and her role in making the world a better place. Verse 1 describes her initial struggle with the new moral weight placed on her shoulders, while in Verse 2, Swift recounts her time stepping back from the pressure placed on her psyche. Finally, a more mature Swift (presumably the same one who is narrating the song) presents her new guiding principles and offers some advice to her previous self.
I tried to pick my battles 'til the battle picked me
Like the war of words I shouted in my sleep
And you passed right by
I was in the alley, surrounded on all sides
The knife cuts both ways
If the shoe fits, walk in it 'til your high heels break
Contrary to the common view that the opening verse details Swift's past personal history, the first verse is in fact filled with references to effective altruism and longtermism. For example, the very first line alludes to Jonathan Schell's seminal book The Fate of the Earth, known for its harrowing description of the consequences of nuclear war. Toby Ord himself called the work "a turning point in our understanding of existential risk" and quotes Schell throughout The Precipice.
The second line hints at a major topic of discussion in EA circles: cause prioritization. While Swift used to pick and choose which matters she should address and which she could forget about, her new perspective has opened her eyes to problems that are so pressing that they cannot simply be ignored, like "misery" and suffering. The scale of these issues cannot be overstated: At any given time, hundreds of millions of people suffer from mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, tens of billions of non-human animals are slaughtered in factory farms each and every year.
These issues very quickly overwhelm Swift, causing nightmares and making her feel "surrounded on all sides", a common feeling felt by many Effective Altruists when they first learn about the scale of the world's problems. Taylor Swift comes to view this wake up call at least partially as a positive, given that the scale of the problem is directly related to how much good one person can do. Swift accepts this solemn responsibility of trying to solve the world's problems, deciding to tough it out and just "walk in it".
I always felt I must look better in the rear view
At the golden gates they once held the keys to
When I dropped my sword
I threw it in the bushes and knocked on your door
And we live in peace
But if someone comes at us, this time, I'm ready
The second verse describes a sharp backtrack Swift takes from the overwhelming sense of dread and reluctant acceptance presented in Verse 1. Swift decides that she likes the past version of herself better, when she didn't have to take everything so seriously. "Missing me" either describes her own desire to revert back to her previous life, or acts as as extension of the next line: "At the golden gates they once held the keys to". This plays into a common critique of effective altruism, that much of the movement revolves around a few cities or hubs, primarily in English-speaking countries, like the San Francisco Bay Area ("golden gates") or "Loxbridge" (London, Oxford and Cambridge).
By dropping her sword, Swift is giving up what she perceives as "the fight". She instead chooses to live in peace, away from the drama ($) and problems of the outside world, at least for the time being. While Swift may appear to giving up, in an important sense, this step of self-care may be crucial to avoiding long-term burnout.
Swift notes that, when the time comes, she may very well be ready to help. Again, this line could be interpreted in two ways, perhaps with different connotations: Swift may be practicing a sort of patient philanthropy, or she could be resting until inspiration strikes. Maintaining motivation is a notoriously challenging issue, especially when dealing with abstract issues, like longtermism, that are not focused on the here and now.
No more keepin' score
Now I just keep you warm (Keep you warm)
No more tug of war
Now I just know there's more (Know there's more)
No more keepin' score
Now I just keep you warm (Keep you warm)
And my waves meet your shore
Ever and evermore
I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things
Will defeat themselves before you get the chance to swing
And he's passing by
Rare as the glimmer of a comet in the sky
And he feels like home
If the shoe fits, walk in it everywhere you go
Within the bridge, Taylor Swift comes to a final resolution point: a stance about balance, sustainability, love and devotion. Rejecting the false duality presented in the other two verses, Swift finds a middle ground, where she doesn't have to quantify and optimize every decision in a Chidi Anagonye-like fashion, while also being proactive in finding ways to make the world a better place. Driven by this warm love for the world as a whole, Swift rejects the draw of day-to-day skirmishes that only aim to distract, instead working to "pull the rope sideways". This strategy allows her to focus on dimensions beyond what is offered to her, as she knows that "there's more". Swift builds a sense of sustainable motivation that allows her to live a life that she feels motivated to lead and can feel authentic living.
The final verse begins with advice to her past self, encouraging her to not pay attention to petty, little issues and instead look big picture. While scuffles that make the front page of daily newspapers may be irrelevant by the end of the week, focus on long-term progress is vital to prevent overreaction and provide perspective when facing a world in crisis.
Swift nods to the perilous condition of planet Earth, or humanity at the least. While comets may be rare enough to be safely ignored by most people, it would be fair to say that planets currently able to facilitate humanity may be even rarer. This message can be found in the final lines of the verse, where Swift alludes to Earth feeling "like home", as it is the one place where "everywhere" is. For the time being at least, there is no Plan B, and it seems that Taylor Swift has been inspired to work for the benefit of the long-term future.
After the final verse, Swift repeats the chorus, but with a slight change. In the final repetition, the lines become:
Climbed right back up the cliff
Long story short, I survived
After being pushed from her pedestal, off the precipice and hanging onto the lips of the cliff, Taylor Swift pulled herself back up, not just to fight for her own survival, but for the survival of the planet.
Throughout the song, Taylor Swift lays a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the inevitable conclusion that she has become a member of the Effective Altruist community, presumably due the longtermist influences from The Precipice, which, and this cannot be stressed enough, was released only months before the song.
While Swift tries to hide the hints under lyrics purposefully meant to mislead (with "clung to the nearest lips ... it was the wrong guy" being a particularly good example), it is clear that these clues are no mere accident or coincidence. The name of the song is literally "long story short", it doesn't get much more existential than that.
The countdown to Taylor Swift's first donation to a GiveWell charity starts now.