|By Bronwen Steele|
Finding the balance between grace and holiness that incorporates an understanding of God’s love is something which is an ongoing struggle for me. I don’t have all the answers, and I doubt Taylor Swift does either, but I hope to raise some questions and touch on some of the nuances of these subjects by exploring them through the “Delicate” music video in the context of the wider album.
If you’re anything of a Taylor Swift fan, you’ll probably remember how you felt when “Look What You Made Me Do” came out in August 2017. This, the first single from Swift’s album, reputation, exploded onto the scene with a jarring, punchy sound and extravagantly vindictive lyrics which include lines such as “Maybe I got mine/But you’ll all get yours” before the song builds to a crescendo in which Swift announces that “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now/…‘cause she’s dead.”
The message was clear. Those who had attacked Swift were responsible for the death of the old Taylor and the creation of a fresh Taylor, one who “got smarter/[and] …got harder in the nick of time”. “Look What You Made Me Do” is a far cry from the dreamy, romantic work Swift had formerly released. It revealed Swift’s new, darker image and set the tone for the rest of reputation which was emerged out of two high-profile break-ups, a public fall from grace because of a clash with Kanye and Kim Kardashian West, and Swift’s relationship with the media. The album is harsh, vengeful and reclaims the snake imagery with which she had previously been bombarded on her social media accounts.
Yet reputation is not simply a revenge album. It blends forceful anger and cynicism with softer notes of grace as Swift expresses her feelings about her new relationship which developed amidst the turmoil. The acceptance offered by her new lover is all the more poignant for her and us as it is seen against the backdrop of disgrace and betrayal. The “Delicate” music video can be read as a joyful celebration of that love and the freedom it brings.
We begin with Swift pasting on a tight, weary smile for an interview and then watch as she is handed a sparkling note from her lover. She makes her way numbly through a hotel, surrounded by bodyguards who follow her so closely that they mimic her movements. She sits wearily in front of a mirror, pulling faces at herself and snapping instantly back to normal as soon as someone else enters the room. When she turns back to the mirror, she finds that the note has rendered her invisible.
And now the real magic begins. Discarding her shoes and bodyguards, Swift begins to dance through the hotel and then through the streets of Los Angeles. There’s a building sense of freedom and joie de vivre as she makes her way barefoot across the city, dancing through the subway and jumping in puddles. She finally arrives at her destination, a bar where she is to meet the writer of the note. A rain-drenched and dishevelled Swift becomes visible again but has no time to spare for the stares she gets as she searches the room for her lover. We end with a close-up of her face just as she catches sight of him and smiles. It mirrors the opening scene but this time her smile is genuine.
To me, the message played out evocatively in this music video is that of unchanging love allowing us to be who we truly are. It is the note from Swift’s lover which allows her to unravel her controlled, lifeless façade and provides her with the freedom to be who she is. This provides a powerful challenge to some of our conceptions of God. The best human relationships provide a secure, unchanging love which provides us with the safety needed to be our truest selves. Yet it seems to me that we often approach God feeling the need to perform, as if he will only accept us when we live up to his standards. Even when we acknowledge his love and forgiveness, it can feel as though we are living on borrowed grace, ever fearful of the day it will run out or he will retract it. Surely to do so is to believe he offers us a love which is lesser than the love we see in each other? But, if God is the truest form of love we know, he must offer us a love much stronger and securer than any which we are capable of offering; a love which delights in us, which gives us the freedom to stop pretending and rest, which sees all our weakness and ugliness and does not leave but instead rushes to embrace us.
The video’s portrayal of unchanging love also provides a challenge to the way we treat each other. It seems to me that, as God’s church, we often provide places where people are afraid to be vulnerable and we’re quick to judge others as more or less worthy. Jesus calls us to love each other with such an extraordinary love that people will know we’re his disciples by it (John 13:35), but instead we often fall into watching each other closely, keeping mental tabs on each other and allowing those who are our family to stand or fall in our lives by how worthy (or not) we perceive them to be.
And yet God calls us to be holy as individuals and as a people, not to settle for wrongdoing but to seek for purity. How do we live out the tension between unfaltering love which offers the security for us to be who we are, and this pursuit of personal and corporate holiness which involves challenging and being challenged? In theory, there need not be tension between God’s call for us to be holy, and this unchanging love. In the Gospels, the command to repent is part of the proclamation of the good news (Mark 1: 14-15). It is good news that we have a God who doesn’t want to leave us stuck where we are. A relationship in which someone allows the other party to continue in behaviours which are damaging for themselves and for the relationship is not considered healthy. A true and deep love wants the other party to flourish and to be the best of themselves. Similarly, God calls us to change, but, in changing, we will become more and more who we truly are and were created to be. The good news of the gospel provides us with this hope and truth; that our darkest parts both are and are not as dark and frightening as we believe them to be. It doesn’t offer us a glossy filter of self-love; instead, it acknowledges the real ugliness within us, and then triumphantly denies that this is where our true identity lies. What we are now is not all we are and it is not all we can be. There is both redemption and transformation offered.
In her introduction to reputation, Swift says, “We hope someday we’ll meet someone… who will still choose us even when they see all the sides of the story, all the angles of the kaleidoscope that is you.” We have already met the one who does this; the tension between grace and holiness is resolved in Jesus. It is only because he took our deserved condemnation that we can stand secure in the place we do not deserve. We are in the process of transformation and yet it starts from exactly where we are, where it is safe enough to be ourselves with nothing hidden.
Bronwen Steele is currently studying for a BA in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Oxford. She also has a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design. She grew up in different places throughout the UK, takes her tea weak and listens to copious amounts of Taylor Swift.