It’s somewhere between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. and I am wide awake, headphones shoved into my ears, my eyes brimming with tears.
I’m listening to Taylor Swift’s latest album, “Midnights,” which was released at midnight (of course) on Friday. Once again, Swift puts words to emotions that many of us experience but can’t adequately or eloquently express. Only this time it’s more direct than covert: She’s calling out depression and the sleepless nights it causes. She’s referencing an eating disorder. In many ways it’s her most vulnerable album yet; she’s plainly talking about her mental health ― and mine. Maybe yours too.
The most clear references to this are in “Anti-Hero” and “You’re on Your Own, Kid.” In the former, she nails some of the nuances of depression, stating: “Midnights become my afternoons, when my depression works the graveyard shift, all of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room.”
In “You’re on Your Own, Kid” Swift references an eating disorder ― a struggle Swift alluded to dealing with in the 2020 Netflix documentary “Miss Americana.” “I gave my blood, sweat and tears for this, I hosted parties and starved my body, like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss,” she sings.
People on Twitter noticed the references, too. Some shared how it made them feel validated in their own mental health experiences:
“When artists talk about their real challenges, it shows people who might be struggling themselves that they aren’t alone,” Dr. Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told me.
“It is why people listen to song lyrics and say things like ‘I feel seen,’ because they actually feel like their story is similar and not something to hide. And since they really look up to Taylor Swift, it helps them feel like it is OK, and normal even, to struggle.”
While we still have a long way to go, the stigma surrounding mental health and mental health disorders has dropped drastically in recent years ― and a large part of that is because of public figures who talk openly about their own experiences. Research shows celebrities’ disclosures about their mental health challenges can increase advocacy and education around specific conditions.
Swift has never directly shared a particular diagnosis (except for the aforementioned eating disorder) in detail, but she’s still adding to the overall conversation in a meaningful way with her music. She’s providing fans a way to cut and paste her lyrics to match their own lives and mental health.
“I think people often look at celebrities and the face they put on publicly and think that means they are amazing and happy all of the time, Gold explained. “But when you hear about what is actually going on behind the ― sometimes fake ― smile, it makes you feel even more connected to them, makes them even more real, and helps you relate that much more to them and their music.”
“We knew from her initial announcement of ‘Midnights’ that this album was going to feel like a therapy assignment done while not sleeping, and there is something so human about that experience,” she said. “A lot of us are up not sleeping and thinking about our past or future and having negative thoughts about ourselves or others, and as she names those experiences, we feel that much more understood and that much less alone.”
Of course an album can’t replace regular therapy ― but listening to these songs can feel pretty damn close to the actualization you may experience in a session, and that in its own way is cathartic. There’s nothing like feeling understood by an artist you admire ― and knowing that maybe they’re right there with you too.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.