Taylor Swift's "long story short" Is Actually About Effective Altruism and Longtermism (PARODY)

by shepardspie11 min read23rd Jul 202113 comments

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HumorThe PrecipiceLongtermismEffective altruism art and fictionExistential risk
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Introduction

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.

The Chorus

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. 

[Chorus]
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

[Post-Chorus]
Now I'm all about you
I'm all about you, ah
EA, EA
I'm all about you, ah
EA, EA

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.

The Verses

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.

[Verse 1]
Fatefully
I tried to pick my battles 'til the battle picked me
Misery
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".

[Verse 2]
Actually
I always felt I must look better in the rear view
Missing me
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.

[Bridge]
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

[Verse 3]
Past me
I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things
Your nemeses
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.

Conclusion

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.

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12 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:58 AM
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Thanks very much for writing this; I think it is important for EAs to become more aware of straussian and kabalistic messages which so suffuse our world.

However, I am skeptical of your analysis. While this was a very impressive effort for your second post on the forum, I think you fatally misinterpret the evidence here. This is not a story of her personal journey into EA, but a pre-mortem of existential risk.

You correctly start with the chorus:

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

This seems to be to be very clearly a direct reference not to the rabbit hole of reading EA literature, but to existential risk due to transformative AI. 

At present humanity exists on a pedestal - we are richer and more numerous and more powerful than ever before, far exceeding any other species, and the whole light cone awaits us. But as mathematicians - like Lewis Carrol - develop stronger AI systems, alignment failure will result in the world getting weirder and weirder, as if falling down the rabbit hole. Humanity's long future story of learning, growth and intergalactic colonisation is cut dramatically short - a very bad time indeed! - as these AIs push us over the edge of the precipice that Toby uses as an analogy for existential risk. We were blind to this risk because we clung to the words coming out of the lips of the wrong guy, rather than listening to sages like Toby, Nick and Eliezer.

This message is reinforced in the bridge:

Now I'm all about you
I'm all about you, ah
Yeah, Yeah
I'm all about you, ah
Yeah Yeah

This is actually a serious lament. Gone is the time of value diversity, where humans sought pleasure and art and friendship and love and wisdom and honour and joy  and freedom and all the other good things in the world. Now this striving for the good has been replaced with a single goal that the AI is relentlessly optimising. 

The verse continues in this theme:

Fatefully
I tried to pick my battles 'til the battle picked me
Misery
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

You are correct that the word 'Fatefully' references Schell's book, but draw the wrong lesson from there on. In the past Taylor picked her own battles - she could focus on her own goals. But with the rise of TAI, this liberty was taken away from here, as she had to focus on protecting humanity. Alas, this was utterly futile, as she was too late - she should not have indulged in the belief she could choose her battles. This leads to misery, as her too-little-too-late efforts were as irrelevant as dreams, the development of AI passing right by.  Eventually she succumbs to the robots, surrounded on all sides as they cut into her to harvest trace amounts of minerals from her body.

Moving on to the next verse:

Actually
I always felt I must look better in the rear view
Missing me
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

It is clear why she looks better in the rear view: in the past she was a beautiful and successful singer. Now her constituent atoms are being used for paperclip production. She does live in peace now - at least she has no further woes - but the last line is wistful. It is true vacuously, because all material implications are true if the antecedent is false: there is no-one left to come at her, because everyone is dead.

The next verse continues to describe the actions of the TAI. 

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

There is no more keeping score because everything she once cared about has been destroyed, reset to zero, and there is no-one left to even observe this. The only thing being counted now is paperclips. As the AI is a singleton there is no more tug-of-war between different goals; only the relentless production of mental stationary, of which there can always be more. 

Most tragic is when we learn what Taylor's body is being used for - it appears her cells were fed into a furnace to power the factories that now cover the globe. Her waves - the waves of heat produced by the combustion of her body - meet the water that is being boiled to turn the turbines. And this will continue for ever and evermore, because the AI is a singleton, and there is no way to change course.

In the next verse Taylor provides advice to her past self:

Past me
I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things
Your nemeses
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

She wants to tell her not to get tied up in petty things - namely anything other than AI alignment. After all, the nanobots will get her enemies before long. While she is lost in these petty things, AI development is passing her by. It is rare in the most important sense - it represents a hinge of history. Alas, because of her comfort and status quo bias she failed to see the danger, and now the silicon shoe she fits into perfectly (due to the disassembly of her body at the molecular level) controls her every step.

Alas, the last paragraph is the most tragic.

Climbed right back up the cliff
Long story short, I survived

Like Winston in 1984, she has come to love Big Brother, and sees the relentless march of paperclips as the natural continuation of the human story.
 

Chomsky publishing his new book, The Precipice,  mere months after Long Story Short clearly indicates  that he and Taylor must be closely working together.  I look forward to the surely upcoming 80000 hours joint appearance of Taylor Swift and Noam Chomsky.  

This is amazing. It's funny that she actually says "yeah" like EA . I hadn't listened to this song before this. Please do more of this!

Not your fault, but

the median American household is comfortably in the top richest 1% globally 

does not seem plausible to me, because the US has ~4% of the world population

An individual who makes as much as the median American household plausibly could be in the top 1% of individuals by income, if average household size is a few people. (There are only 120 million American households.) I think this is what the linked GWWC calculator is doing.

I dunno, I feel like these are two fairly different claims. I also expect the average non-American household to be larger than the average American household, not smaller (so there will be <6 B households worldwide). 

I feel like these are two fairly different claims.

Yes, I agree they are different. And I agree the OP's claim is implausible for the reason you give. I just meant to point out that I think the OP misstated the claim made by the GWWC calculator cited and that the GWWC claim is plausible (or at least that your given reason is not sufficient to make it implausible).

The GWWC calculator explicitly says "If you have a household income of $58,000 (in a household of 1 adult)" "you are in the richest 1% of the global population."

That can be true even if the median individual American is not in the top 1% of individuals by income globally, and even if the median American household is not in the top 1% of households by income globally because an individual who makes as much as the median American household actually makes more than most Americans. (We can't estimate the exact percentile a priori. A priori they could make more than 18-100% of Americans depending on how individual Americans and income are distributed across American households.)

The GWWC calculator claim could be true only if the individual who makes as much as the median American household makes more than at least 76.3% of Americans (76.3% = 1-0.01/(333,000,000/7,881,000,000)). 76.3% is in the range that I would have guessed (~60-80%) so it's at least plausible.

Edited to add: Wikipedia says 76% of Americans make less than $57,500/year. The existence of any number of non-Americans making more than $58,000/year is surely enough to cause the GWWC calculator's claim to be false.

Looks like only ~5-15% of Americans are in the global 1% of the income distribution then. I'd be interested in knowing the exact number / income level.

Got it, I agree with you that this can be what's going on! When the intuition is spelled out we clearly see the "trick" is comparing individual incomes as if they were comparable to household incomes. 

Living in the Bay Area, I think some of my friends do forget that in addition to being extremely rich by international standards, they are also somewhere between fairly and extremely rich by American standards as well. 

I also expect the average non-American household to be larger than the average American household, not smaller (so there will be <6 B households worldwide). 

Indeed, my own qualitative research suggests US households are smaller than average—and maybe even consist mainly of single individuals.

My research involves parsing the details in this video and this video.

Speaking of the second video, I have my own fan theory that "Blank Space" is based on popular manga and anime series Death Note.

If you happen to not be aware of this video already, you really should be.

Additionally, in Verse 1:

The knife cuts both ways

This could refer to how while existential risk is higher now, existential hope is higher too.

While unaligned AGI could result in existential catastrophe, aligned AGI could result in an extremely good future, in which civilization quickly reaches technological maturity and expands throughout the galaxy.