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Top 40 Philosophy: Taylor Swift, “Shake It Off”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

Welcome to “Top 40 Philosophy”* where I get to do one of my favorite things: analyze vapid pop music philosophically, just to prove:

  1. that you can do philosophy about anything, and
  2. that doing philosophy about something actually makes it (the thing) better, for some reason.

I’ll be working primarily from Billboard’s Hot 100 list, but reserve the right to analyze songs that aren’t actually in the Top 40. Just so you know.

Today on Top 40 Philosophy, we have this week’s #1 song, “Shake It Off,” by Taylor Swift.

The video above is a spoof–along the lines of “Choreography” from White Christmas–of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, among other things. (Remind me to talk about the ontological status of spoofs sometime.)

The song belongs lyrically to the “My Critics Are Wrong and/or Irrelevant” genre, and thus makes no significant contribution to English literature. But it does raise an interesting point about what philosophers call “epistemology.”**

The first verse is about what people say. The second is about what they (don’t) see.

In drawing this contrast, the song implies that knowledge comes from seeing. If people only saw Ms. Swift’s actual life, they would know what she is really like. But they don’t. Their claims are mere hearsay, not knowledge.

The philosophical question this raises for us is this: Does all knowledge come from first-hand experience (“seeing”)? Or can knowledge ever come from what some authority, expert, or witness tells us?

*Can I call dibs on “Top 40 Philosophy”? I like it, and want to keep it for my very own.

**”Epistemology” is the study of knowledge (of what knowledge is, how it is different from mere opinion, how to get knowledge, and so forth). Use this word when you want to impress people at cocktail parties.


  1. Jeff Stallard
    Jeff Stallard

    As far as I’m concerned, the term is yours.

    Just this morning I was telling my wife how refreshing it is to see a music celebrity making fun of themselves. She just rolled her eyes and called me a fan boy. I just sent her a link to this post.

    a) Hearsay is not knowledge, and
    b) Eric Hoffer was right that we know ourselves chiefly by hearsay,

    does that mean that the more we think we know ourselves, the less knowledge we actually have?

    November 13, 2014
  2. Jeff: Thanks! (I shall have to do a post on intellectual property. What an intimidating subject.) And I agree about the refreshingness, so you’re not alone. 😉

    That Hoffer quote is fantastic. I’m going to have to ponder.

    November 13, 2014
  3. Jeff Stallard
    Jeff Stallard

    FYI, here’s the full Hoffer quote that I have. I forget which book I found it in, but The True Believer seems like the likely source.

    So we acquire a sense of self worth either by realizing our talents, or by keeping busy or by identifying ourselves with something apart from us – be it a cause, a leader, a group, possessions or whatnot. The path to self realization is the most difficult. Similarly, we have more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate. We cannot derive an absolute certitude from anything which has its roots in us. The most poignant sense of insecurity comes from standing alone and we are not alone when we imitate. It is thus with most of us; we are what other people say we are. We know ourselves chiefly by hearsay.

    November 13, 2014

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