Taylor Swift is angry — like, dress-up-like-a-zombie-and-emerge-from-the-grave angry. To see Swift proudly display her heart on her sleeve is nothing new: From her early days as a pop-country singer-songwriter, she has built a career upon writing emotion-fueled music about her personal experiences. And most of us loved it. But innocent choruses aimed at her Rolodex of exes — think “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” — have recently evolved into something more sinister.
Before her now legendary 2009 MTV VMAs show drama with Kanye West, it would have been difficult (even laughable) to imagine a character as saccharine as Swift with enemies. However, with the release of “Look What You Made Me Do,” her first single after three years without new music, the formerly perky Swift (RIP “Shake it Off”) re-emerged as a bitter villain bent on getting back at those who wronged her.
While Swift’s very public feuds with the likes of Katy Perry and Kimye began as an extension of her trademark emotional honesty (a la “Bad Blood”), her new work, instead built on the rickety framework of unforgiveness, has surpassed innocent authenticity and entered toxic territory.
This time, Swift isn’t here to put memory to melody. And based on her lyrics (“Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours”), she’s not interested in stirring drama for drama’s sake — she’s seeking recompense for crimes against her reputation. The girl’s got grudges, and she’s here to make good on them for better or for worse. But probably, mostly worse.
While channeling emotions like anger or stress into creativity can be a healthy coping mechanism, experts say unforgiveness — in Taylor’s term, “Bad Blood” — can have profoundly negative effects on both physical and mental health. So while Swift appears to be positioning herself to sabotage those who have tarnished her reputation, her method is counterproductive. From a psychological perspective, she’s essentially sabotaging herself.
“Having a vendetta or holding a grudge is toxic,” writes author Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today. “Over the long run — if you don’t make conciliatory efforts to neutralize interpersonal conflicts — holding a grudge will wreak havoc inside your body. In many ways, holding a grudge is a form of self-sabotage.”
How, exactly, does the sabotage go down? The havoc of a grudge usually begins with an isolated incident of anger, which escalates if it isn’t managed. Here’s how it works: Our anger or bitterness toward someone ignites the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in a release of cortisol, also known as the fight-or flight or stress hormone. Stress left unchecked, or worse, celebrated, creates a toxic environment in our bodies, setting the scene for disease, which means that negative emotions can literally make us sick. For example, scientists attribute elevated cortisol levels to physical issues like lower immunity, learning and memory problems, lower bone density, weight gain, blood pressure problems, and even lower life expectancy.
Mentally, rampant cortisol has equally toxic effects: It’s known as a trigger for depression and other mental illnesses, along with decreased resilience, especially among adolescents. And according to one study, 20 to 50 percent of individuals develop depression after recently experiencing a major life stressor (ongoing shade thrown from other celebrities and/or unrelenting media seems like a big one, to be honest).
Of course, there’s speculation that Swift’s feuds, and by extension, her fancy new anger, are manufactured or exaggerated as the most well-executed act of PR gymnastics in recent celebrity history. But even if that’s the case, her ongoing victim persona is not isolated. Because whether or not Swift herself is as guilty of grudges as we think she is, she may be setting an unhealthy example for her fans, many of them young and impressionable, by glamorizing toxic emotions, literally dressing them up in diamonds.
Given her multi-million-follower platform, her cryptic and admittedly terrifying Instagram image of a snake (there is no clearer symbol of poison!) before she released her single received 9.5 million views. It’s safe, then, to say Swift exists on the cutting edge of the pop culture algorithm, more likely setting trends than responding to them.
Public response to Swift’s new direction hasn’t been totally positive. But in spite of the criticism surrounding Swift’s resurgence, people are listening. Her video for “Look What You Made Me Do” had the biggest debut in YouTube history, with over 43 million views in 24 hours. And according to Billboard, the single is set to hit number one on the charts next week (sorry, “Despacito”).
Thankfully, Taylor isn’t trapped in her self-made toxicity, and neither are we, if we are willing to let go of our grudges (though for a celebrity act conjured solely on the premise of bitterness, there may be some heavy deconstruction involved). For most of us, finding a better, healthier path may be as simple as reclaiming positivity and seeking to mend broken relationships.
Mental health professionals associate forgiveness and restored connection with the “love hormone” oxytocin, which affects our minds and bodies inversely, like the yang to cortisol’s ying. While bitterness increases cortisol and diminishes oxytocin, connection re-establishes it, which could result in reduced anxiety, general emotional stability and even increased longevity.
Chances are good that Taylor Swift will outlive her angry stage and reset her emotional algorithm to impact us in a different, likely more potent way. But as she works out her public identity, whether she’s simply living through painful relationships or carefully orchestrating feuds from her Rhode Island mansion, we can hope that she will peer beyond the veneer of her fame and into the deeper places of her body and mind — for our sake, but mostly for her own. Because what she sang on 1989’s “New Romantics” is true: The best people in life are free.
What’s your take on the “new” Tay? Tell us @BritandCo!