It’s been a rollercoaster of a month for Taylor Swift fans.
The pop star thrilled Swifties with her sold-out Eras Tour while majorly disappointing many of them with her questionable choice in men.
Though the two musicians never confirmed their relationship, Healy was spotted at multiple shows on Swift’s tour, and the two were photographed holding hands. At her May 20 concert in Boston, the “Midnights” singer even told the crowd, “I’ve just never been this happy in my life, in all aspects of my life, ever.”
But fans were a lot less happy, quickly digging up the 1975 frontman’s February appearance on the “The Adam Friedland Show” in which he laughed as the hosts called rapper Ice Spice a “chubby Chinese lady” and mimicked Chinese accents. He also said he masturbated to Black women being “brutalized.”
In response to the rumored romance, some Swifties posted lengthy Twitter threads justifying their attendance (or refusal to attend) Swift’s current tour. Others launched a social media campaign — #SpeakUpNow — requesting that Swift give “more than a simple apology” for the bigoted remarks that Healy had made in the past.
A source told Entertainment Tonight that they split over their “extremely busy” schedules and incompatibility. That all very well may be. But given Swift’s tightly controlled image, you can’t help but wonder if PR concerns over fans’ outrage may have played a part in the relationship ending, too.
Taylor Swift is a “genius” at cultivating “parasocial relationships.”
So why are fans ― and even gossip-following non-fans ― so caught up in who Swift dates? A lot of it has to do with how Swift has famously incorporated her dating history into her lyrics: Is this song about John Mayer? Was that another reference to Jake Gyllenhaal?
But the pop culture scholars we spoke to said the answer goes deeper than that: The revealing lyrics help, but the “Anti-Hero” singer is also operating at “genius” levels when it comes to cultivating authentic-feeling parasocial relationships with fans.
Parasocial relationships, or PSRs, are one-sided relationships formed when a person becomes emotionally attached to a media persona. When you’re in a parasocial relationship with a pop star or YouTube personality, you feel as though the person could almost be your friend.
With Swift, her early image was largely built on the feeling that she could be your friend. In her almost two-decade career, Swift has invited fans over to her house for listening parties (complete with homemade cookies!), commented on their social media posts and regularly had her mother pick fans out of the audience to meet her at concerts.
“She’s a genius at all this,” said Kate S. Kurtin, a professor of communication studies at California State University, Los Angeles, who studies PSRs.
“She gives away just enough of herself for the fans to feel a level of intimacy with her and feel that they know enough to ‘know’ that her music is authentic,” the professor told HuffPost.
Swift, of course, isn’t the only modern-day pop star with a hyper-dedicated fanbase. But the parasocial relationship she’s cultivated with her fans feels distinctly different than the one someone like Beyoncé, a star of similar wattage, has inspired among the Beyhive.
“People like Beyoncé make a name for themselves by seeming almost out of reach. They inspire something closer to worship than friendship,” said Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo who studies parasocial bonds.
“Whereas Swift shows herself as a regular person,” she said. “This makes people feel closer to her than they would to someone who purposely separates themselves from others.”
Jessi Gold is a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She’s also a Swiftie: “I’ve seen every tour since she opened for Keith Urban in 2009 when I was in college.”
While every pop star says, “I love my fans!” Gold believes Swift really means it; she seems to have a genuine closeness to them.
“The closeness is not at the same level as the closeness she has with her friends, obviously, but she has always made an effort to respond to videos, send gifts or money to fans she finds online who need it, or do special things for her fans, like invite them to her house for a screening of an album,” she said.
All of that “validates her side of the relationship with them more than a typical fan/celebrity situation” would, Gold said.
“She’s also cultivated that for many fans since they were kids,” she added. “People grew up with her in parallel, even if not really intersecting in real life very often.”
But some fans take the parasocial relationship too far.
The carefully crafted relationship Swift has formed with her fans through Easter egg-laden albums and meet-and-greets becomes more complicated ― certainly for Swift herself ― when fans start trying to call the shots in her personal life.
Zachary Balogh is a big Swift fan but felt discomfited when he saw some fans pen an open letter asking Swift to address Healy’s many controversies amid their rumored romance.
Of course, fans have the right to divest in a singer who they think doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to social justice, but Balogh didn’t like the way fans went about announcing their displeasure.
“It made me cringe,” he said. “To see fans angrily obsessing over the relationship, or acting like they have a say in whom she dates? You have no right to dictate who she goes out with. It’s none of our business.”
What really angered him, though, was seeing fans mobbing Swift’s car as she left a recording studio in New York City last month. Some even camped outside her apartment and posted footage on TikTok, which is frightening considering Swift’s history of stalkers.
Balogh and other Swifties are quick to distinguish themselves from fans like this, calling them clout-chasers.
“I find it questionable if those fans really care about her,” Balogh said. “If you’re camping outside her recording studio or exposing her location, you have no life. Yes, she’s the biggest celebrity in the world right now, but she has the right to her own privacy. It reminds me of Princess Diana.”
Emma Coleman, a 23-year-old who runs a Swift Twitter fan page, says that as a fan, she recognizes that Swift is “not a piece of content for me to consume.”
“Sometimes, I think people forget that,” Coleman told HuffPost. “They think she walks on water, and they also think they are owed a piece of her and have the right to see her at any time.”
The intensity of this fan-bond is the reason Colemon thinks fans will go after anyone who “dares to criticize Taylor.” (Swift fans doxxed a Pitchfork reviewer in 2020 because she gave the singer’s “Folklore” album an 8.0 out of 10.)
“Unfortunately, it can take just a few people to make someone’s life very scary.”
– Shira Gabriel, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo
Coleman actually met Swift during one of the singer’s “Lover” listening parties at her home.
“For most Swifties, I actually think the relationship she has cultivated with her fans over the years has actually really helped keep that respect in place,” Coleman said. “I don’t see how anyone could meet her and go home and be OK with treating her like a piece of content after that.”
Some fans may engage in questionable behavior ― following her around and filming it for TikTok ― because it cements their feeling of connection to the group, said Jaye L. Derrick, an associate professor of psychology who studies PSRs at the University of Houston.
“Given the size of Swift’s fanbase, fans know that there are many other people out there who share their love of Swift, which may drive some problematic behavior, like following her around and posting it online,” Derrick said. (Those same intrusive TikToks have racked up high view counts.)
Here’s how to make sure your fandom is healthy.
Problems arise when the PSR with the celebrity becomes more important than the person themself, said Gabriel, one of the researchers who studies parasocial relationships.
“So it isn’t just feeling a bond with Taylor Swift, it’s feeling that your identity as a Taylor Swift fan becomes central to who you are,” she said. “You become so into being attached to being a ‘Swiftie’ that you forget that she’s a real person. Instead, you become attached to the idea of them.”
Driving to Taylor Swift’s house or following her car is not something you would do in a healthy PSR.
“That’s all very atypical behavior,” Gabriel said. “Unfortunately, it can take just a few people to make someone’s life very scary.”
Meredith Beardmore, a psychotherapist who often dissects Swift’s lyrics on her popular YouTube channel, had some advice for Swifties who may be losing sight of what a healthy fandom looks like.
“I’d encourage you to ask yourself these questions: Does focusing on Taylor relieve me from stressful or strained relationships? Would I invade my best friend’s privacy? Do I feel I have deserved a say in Taylor’s life ― or have I set unrealistic expectations of her to be ‘perfect’ ― because I have invested in her?”
Answering “yes” to these questions might signal that your fandom is having a negative effect on your life, Beardmore told HuffPost.
If your daily relationships or connections take a back seat to your fan relationship, that’s unhealthy, too, she said.
“We often engage in unhealthy parasocial relationships to avoid issues within our own lives,” she said.
Ultimately, fandom should be fun, not obsessive.
“Taylor goes out of her way for us each and every time, so I think it’s incumbent upon us to give her the space she needs,” Balogh said. “At the end of the day, Taylor is just a normal person who deserves privacy as much as you and I do.”