On Saturday Night Live in October, Taylor Swift performed an unlikely song. Instead of following a stripped-back rendition of the title track from Lover, her seventh studio album, with another recent single, she chose to debut “False God,” the album’s sultry thirteenth track.
Swift moved through an array of pulsing lightbulbs as a saxophonist played beside her, and sang of a relationship as if it were a religion in itself. In the song, Swift already knows both heaven (when her lover touches her) and hell (when they fight). She brings her hands together in prayer and vows that the two of them will continue to worship their love, even when times are hard, “even if it’s a False God.”
“False God” has remained under the radar since Lover was released in August, which has surprised me since it came as a revelation when I heard the album. Aside from containing what might be veiled references to oral sex—“religion’s in your lips” and “the altar is my hips”—the song marks the first time Swift, who writes or co-writes all of her songs, has considered the subject of religion in any sustained way.
Sure, she’s not writing doctrine, and she can’t really believe hell is fighting with her boyfriend, but “False God,” and Lover itself, are a turning point in Taylor Swift’s religious evolution since her debut album in 2006.
Real God—or at least the Christian one—appears regularly in Swift’s early music.
True to her adolescence in suburban Tennessee, Swift thanks God, asks God to play “Our Song” again, and affirms that God “smiles on [her] little brother.” These rote invocations are not unlike the religious posturing of thirteen-year-olds trying to be cool where I grew up in the suburban Midwest. Her “thank Gods” may as well have been the dainty cross necklaces we wore between our V-necks or the Wednesday night mixers we attended at the evangelical church across from the local middle school.
Whether Swift actually believed in God as a teenager is beside the point. What matters is that she’d carefully picked up the symbols of where she was coming of age: the South and Music Row. And like many teenagers who follow the archetype of the goody-goody growing up outside of major metropolitan centers, she did what was expected of her. She sang God’s name reverently in her music and thanked him for her success at award shows.
Then something happened, even before she officially abandoned country music with her fifth album 1989, in 2014. Swift dropped all mentions of God, who is absent from her music, aside from the occasional “God willing,” after her second album in 2008. Her fourth album, Red, does, however, contain veiled, generic references to a “State of Grace” and “Holy Ground.”
While she stopped singing about God and pickup trucks, Taylor’s life was changing in big-ticket ways: international tours, new residences in Nashville, LA, and NYC, increased media scrutiny and slut-shaming, even an early embrace of dubstep before the big leap to pop stardom.
“Someday I’ll be living in a big old city,” Swift sings in a song released when she was twenty. And soon she did, with the attendant freedoms and confusions of discovering that the world is both infinitely larger and more limiting than you once imagined. What’s more characteristic of Swift’s generation than entering your twenties and finding yourself in a whirlwind of existential, is-this-really-all-there-is-to-life questions?
It’s not uncommon for answers, when they do come, to arrive through a kind of faith. For some, that means practicing Buddhism, returning to Sunday Mass, or even embracing the occult, but spirituality often takes less concrete forms, all of which involve searching for sources of meaning in a world that can feel increasingly devoid of it.
Swift seems to explore her own answers in Lover, where she vows to celebrate love over fear, starts to champion (though questionably) the standard left-leaning politics expected of an urban Millennial, and, finally, works through her religious beliefs.
While “False God” finds something to worship in a romantic relationship, another perspective on faith emerges in a haunting ballad about her mother’s cancer. In “Soon You’ll Get Better,” Swift whisper-sings, “Holy orange bottles / Each night I pray to you / Desperate people find faith / So now I pray to Jesus too.”
The religious experience here is one of despair, the kind that leads you to commune even with your mom’s medication. As for Christianity, Swift hasn’t come full circle from the aughts with a mention of Jesus (if she had, “False God” would be downright sacrilegious), but she does return to it in times of crisis.
For many Millennials—especially those who, like Swift, followed the common path of self-discovery by leaving more conservative areas of the U.S. behind for cities—religious rediscovery after secularization is part of adulthood. We are all, in large part, looking for the divine in what we hope to be true: a good relationship, the potential of medicine, an in-case-of-emergencies deity.
When it comes to relationships, Swift is considered the queen of relatability. She sings dreamily of dancing in the refrigerator light and slamming screen doors, and the specifics of her life become universal. But her knack for expressing human experience isn’t restricted to first kisses and heartbreak.
For many, the picture of religion she begins to sketch in Lover might be recognizable as well: she’s finding faith, after all, in whatever she can make sacred from messy, ordinary life.