Taylor Swift - State of Grace
In a recent piece for the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith makes a differentiation between “joy” and “pleasure.” Pleasure, she says, can be found in the small, regular occurrences that bring happiness (the term I’d prefer, but I’m not Zadie Smith), while joy is an intense, “unmanageable” emotion that comes on suddenly and rarely, and can do as much harm as it does good. She writes that she has known joy only six times in her life, and “Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run.”
What Taylor Swift is talking about in “State of Grace,” then, is undoubtedly joy. Things are volatile, and dangerous, a word she’d use to describe “daydreams” elsewhere on Red: “We fall in love ‘til it hurts or bleeds.” Then, a surprise, a thing coming on suddenly, leading to a moment outside of time. We are alone, just you and me / Up in your room and our slates are clean. Nothing happened before, nothing happens after; there is just this. Just one night, just one kiss. This love is brave and wild. But “love” seems to me to be the wrong word. She’s giving us a portrait of romance, that first blush of attraction that eventually matures into love—”romance” and “love” being another way I’d put the joy/happiness division. She’s describing the very beginning of a relationship without talking about the rest of it, and this is very much a moment of joy, because it exists alone, and contains no small amount of risk. This is the playful part of love, the attraction, the bit you talk over endlessly with your friends. It’s not small or regular but grand and rare, a big big love rather than love more generally. It can’t last.
And therefore, to me anyway, “state of grace” seems like the wrong way of putting this, too. Grace, in my understanding, is a longstanding condition, not a temporary one, a state of happiness and pleasure rather than joy and ecstasy. One seeks to move beyond sin into grace, to be saved and be ensconced in God’s blessings until you ascend into heaven. Grace is a loving, comfortable, long-term relationship with the almighty, a thing you share in private.
That feels very different from what Swift’s talking about here. “Pierce the room like a cannon ball” she says of her amour, but when my love comes into the room it’s more like a deep satisfaction than a dangerous explosion. Grace, and love, is something you live with, and in, around and under and all mixed up in between. It gets in your clothes and your rugs and your sofa, and when you turn over the cushions little puffs rise into the air. It’s not something you are away from and then encounter, like a scarf in a drawer, as she analogizes a lost relationship in “All Too Well.” It’s present in every item in your house, tied up with how you spend your day: a life constructed around another life. Swift’s love is a public thing, something she talks about and shares with others, a “game.” But love as I know it is private and shut-off, ours and ours alone. There’s no game because it’s your life. Which is not to say what Swift’s describing isn’t important, since it’s a necessary condition for love. It’s just that it doesn’t really seem like grace.
I’m interested, as I think others are, in what exactly is going to—or is already—replacing religion as a cultural force. The general consensus seems to be that it’s culture, or art, or entertainment, or whatever you want to call it. (“Creative labor,” maybe.) But most art is about joy, not happiness. In her piece, Smith talks a lot about music in trying to describe joy, highlighting a joyful moment at a club when the DJ mixed “Can I Kick It” into a house track, and then later how the Streets’ “Weak Become Heroes” precisely depicted that experience of dancing and drugs and joy. Taylor Swift’s talking about joy because that is precisely what it’s enjoyable to listen to Taylor Swift talking about. Joy is what she does well, and why she’s so successful as a pop musician.
But the question that leaves us is this: where do we locate happiness, or love, or even pleasure in all of this joy-focused culture? The state of grace that theology depicts can’t have been lost just because we’ve discarded God. It must be, it seems to me, a human condition, not just a religious one. Smith says she’s only experienced true joy six times in her life, but you can encounter someone else’s joy, or an approximation thereof, every time you turn on the radio. Happiness not so much. It’s harder, maybe because it’s harder to sell.
There’s no easy analog here. For all the talk of “joy” in classic theology, it seems to have been mainly born secular. If you look at the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, you’re pretty damn sure what emotion she’s feeling there, and it’s approximately the same emotion Swift experienced “up in your room.” “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold,” St. Theresa would write of the experience, “and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart.”
But grace is different. The ecstasy of St. Francis of Assisi has little to do with sensual joy: an angel appears to him while he is on an ascetic wilderness retreat and the two become one. It’s best understood as the beginning of a long-term status rather than a moment meaningful in and of itself. That ecstasy is important because it made Francis the kind of dude who could preach to the birds, or tame a wolf with the sheer magnitude of his ambient, emergent grace.
That person doesn’t look familiar to us as a relatable human thing. The guy talking to birds isn’t considered blessed; he’s got a serious problem, and needs help. A grace that demands treatment is no accessible grace. And so we lack relatable depictions of secular grace. Taylor Swift knows all about the state of joy, as do Leslie Knope, Tony Stark, Waka Flocka Flame and Tyrion Lannister. But who can stand up and show us the state of grace? Who can make it known to anyone outside those so intertwined?
— Mike Barthel
Mike previously appeared on OWOB writing about Hole.