On her 2020 albums, folklore and evermore, Swift speaks directly to healthcare professionals — and we're listening.

By Jessi Gold, M.D., M.S.
Dec 11, 2020 @ 1:26 pm
Advertisement
Credit: Beth Garrabrant

There are very few things these days that can make my friends collectively smile or show any sort of emotion beyond sadness, anger, or hopelessness. If that sounds pretty grim, unfortunately, that is just the reality for many healthcare workers nine months into a pandemic. More people died on Wednesday than died on September 11th, and, as first responders, we have been there every step of the way. 

But that feeling tangibly changed yesterday when Taylor Swift announced her surprise album evermore, which dropped this morning at midnight. My social media feed was filled with hope and positive feelings. My texts were filled with exclamation points and happy faces. For the first time in months, we exhaled.

As a psychiatrist for healthcare workers and someone who has seen Taylor Swift in concert for every tour — including when she opened for Keith Urban when I was in college — nothing makes me happier than when my two worlds collide, and a new Taylor Swift album becomes a way to help healthcare workers (including me!) cope and heal. Perhaps I even cried a little with the announcement. Truthfully, it could not come at a better, more needed time for all of us. 

Brit Barkholtz, MSW LICSW, a clinical therapist who says her workload has increased a lot this year from the pandemic, expresses that after so many months of a rapid pace, she's worn down. She's turned to Swift’s music since they were both 16 when Swift released her self-titled debut, but this year, folklore and evermore resonate differently. She explains, “Both of her albums this year have come at points in my life where both personally, and as a healthcare worker, I have felt very depleted. Every healthcare worker I know has expressed a similar feeling — we all feel at capacity, and at points feel like we have nothing else to give.” 

We simply want to cope and survive in 2020 as healthcare providers. In turning to Swift, perhaps we want to be transported to nostalgic moments with less trauma and more dancing. Like a safety blanket (or cardigan), we cling to happy memories that she is associated with throughout our lives in hopes that we feel, well, happier.

Eve Bloomgarden, MD, assistant professor of endocrinology at Northwestern University and co-founder and chief development officer of Impact, recalls some of those happier moments, like singing “Love Story” on the bus after an on-call shift her intern year, the song cheering (or at least keeping) her up until she arrived home. For Danielle Belardo, MD, director of cardiology at the Institute of Plant-Based Medicine in  Newport Beach, Calif., Taylor’s music reminds her of studying for medical school, blasting 1989 and reputation during her cases in her fellowship training. Mariam Ali, MD, an endocrinology fellow, met her best friend in medical training through their mutual love of Swift. And Courtney Emery, DNP, PMHNP-BC, remembers a moment during hurricane Sandy when the power went out, and the hospital generator failed, and she used a battery-operated boombox to sing and dance to songs from Red with the kids on a psychiatric unit to keep their spirits up. 

Taylor Swift’s music is woven like a fabric throughout our medical careers. Each album is another chapter, and folklore  — very much sonically and emotionally — represents where we are right now as healthcare workers during a pandemic. Jane van Dis, MD, an OBGYN, notes, “Honestly, folklore is really the only music I've listened to during the pandemic. Namely, it's been hard to focus, and I've leaned on folklore because it feels like a safe place to be mentally ... There's something about this album that feels refreshing and comforting. And above all, I feel seen. Swift captured the way I've felt: insular and reflective, and in need of solace and comfort.”  Kirstin Manges, Ph.D. RN, adds, “When folklore was released — it was like a breath of fresh air when I needed it the most. It was cathartic to listen to and provided comfort for dark and isolating times.”

Credit: Beth Garrabrant

And then, of course, there is the song “Epiphany.” Track 13 on folklore was written about healthcare workers during COVID-19 in parallel to the experiences of Swift’s grandfather during his time in World War II. You might miss the references the first time you listen to the song, or do what I did when I first heard the words “med school” in a verse of a Swift song, which is rewind it, and listen again and again. But once you hear it, if you are a healthcare worker, I can pretty much guarantee it will make you break down into tears and say something along the lines of, “SHE GETS IT! SHE SEES US!” 

Dr. Ali explains the same thing happened to her. "It wasn’t until I was walking home after an exhausting day at work in the wake of COVID’s second surge, that I recognized the words 'med school' were spoken. And every line after that so beautifully and tragically highlighted my feelings about everything I had witnessed that day which I couldn’t ever properly put into words. I’ve listened to this song a million times since and it always takes me back to that exhausting day.” Megan Ranney, MD, emergency physician at Brown University and co-founder of GetUsPPE, echoes her sentiment. “It was just another beautiful T.Swift touch, emblematic of all the ways that she pays attention to the world around her," she says. "But what mattered most was that it gave us freedom to feel. The first time I heard it, I started crying.”

Something med school

Did not cover

Someone's daughter

Someone's mother

Holds your hand through plastic now

Doc, I think she's crashin' out

And some things you just can't speak about ...

Dr. Belardo feels those words hit her hard. She says, “I've seen patients die of COVID, say goodbye to their families over the phone, and I always think, ‘that is someone's family, that is someone's friend.’ Sadly it seems many Americans are numb to the daily death toll from COVID, but I will never be numb to seeing someone else’s loved one die.”

In so many ways, the lyrics in this song make us cry because we feel seen and validated. Somehow if Swift gets it, maybe we aren’t alone. Maybe people are listening. Maybe our hard work every day and our sacrifices matter.

Cadence Kuklinski, DO, explains, “It was a completely different experience to feel seen by a popular culture icon, when so many healthcare workers are facing frequent scorn and derision, not only by strangers but by their friends and family as well. 'Epiphany' was a nice reminder that it’s not going completely unnoticed.” 

Kelsie Nick, RN, CCRN, PICU, adds that while she has always been a Swift fan, her appreciation of the singer deepened this year in a way she did not think was possible. She often feels healthcare is isolating, and not something that is easy casual conversation, but Swift has helped it feel easier. She adds, “Being there while a patient's heart stops, or struggles to breath is not something you can speak about on a first date. Taylor's song 'Epiphany' gives the general public a glimpse into our world and with that hopefully understanding why the healthcare world is so exhausted.” 

In her Entertainment Weekly 2020 Entertainer of the Year interview, Taylor was asked about people not wearing masks and crowding in bars. She explained she thinks about healthcare workers and noted, “If they make it out of this, if they see the other side of it, there's going to be a lot of trauma that comes with that; there's going to be things that they witnessed that they will never be able to unsee.”  It highlighted yet another way Swift has helped frontline workers throughout the pandemic, by advocating for social distancing and masks (even going as far as joking that that is why she wrote folklore in the first place), and modeling evidence-based public health behaviors in her video shoots, her personal choices, and even her concert cancellations. 

Dr. Ranney explains, “In a year when so many celebrities ignored or flouted basic precautions, implying that they were above the rules, it was refreshing and reassuring to hear her speak out on these essential public health measures.” Jen Gunter, MD, an OBGYN and author of The Vagina Bible, adds, “This is a big thing for me. Seeing her use her privilege this way… Sadly, I don't think it will change any minds (anti-maskers will be anti-maskers), but it is nice to know that some people are taking notice.”

Even if people don’t listen and behaviors don’t change as a result, it is still nice to have someone on our side at all. It inspires us and gives us hope to keep going, which is so incredibly needed right now. Dr. Bloomgarden notes, “Her music reaches so many people internationally, hearing her support healthcare workers and promoting public health measures that we have been begging people to follow for months just felt like a gift. It's exhausting to feel like we are fighting this pandemic alone, and to have someone understand, support, and amplify our message gave me the strength to keep fighting, singing, shouting, and working to care for my patients.” 

The next chapter, evermore, comes at just the right time to inspire us to keep fighting. It is like she sensed we (for sure I) needed her emotionally and delivered. 

Jessi Gold, M.D., M.S. is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis