Last night I watched a performance by Taylor Swift at Harvey Mudd College, and I was struck (as I often am) by her combination of candor and reserve. Here was a young woman who talked freely about her use of writing to tell her side of the story (something I do as well), talking freely about past relationships (without using names) and seeking to understand the patterns of behavior, showing concern for the love of her audience for familiar songs (which she played happily and enthusiastically without protest), and showing lots of affection for her audience and the people who led the efforts to win the concert for Harvey Mudd in the first place. With her pursed lips and general air of dignity, I could see that Miss Swift is a young woman who struggles with intimacy (and some of her songs suggest her family history has something to do with it–she is a careless man’s careful daughter, and I can understand her sentiments very well), but someone who gracefully deals with the awkwardness of being loved and adored by millions despite keeping her deepest core private. She genuinely enjoys performing for others and basking in their appreciation for her work, giving her a comfort with stardom that is not universal (Nik Kershaw had it, and has sung about his love of audience adulation , but Gerry Rafferty was notoriously uncomfortable with it).
When we look at someone like Taylor Swift, someone whose music is confessional and deeply personal but loved very widely, we might think that such a person has everything. She certainly lives a life of considerable privilege, and no one would argue that her life shows material poverty. But at the same time, she is certainly someone who feeds off of love. Whether it is her obvious appreciation of the love that she receives from fans, her somewhat thin skin when it comes from criticism (which inspired her Grammy-winning hit “Mean”), or the fact that she has song after song dealing with her romantic longings and their frustrations, she clearly is missing something in her life despite all the wealth and popularity, and that something is a stable and loving relationship. I feel a great deal of empathy with her because she strikes me as a decent young lady and her longings and lack of success are fairly widespread but her place in the public eye makes it that much more awkward and embarrassing.
I was even more struck by this phenomenon when I read about calls from Thailand for an extravagant birthday celebration with tens (or possibly hundreds) of thousands of adoring people for the 85th birthday of an ailing and very old man. (To be fair, I tend to associate extravagant birthdays with pagan rulers and death, though for some odd reason ). Of course, this old man is no ordinary elderly man seeking love for his birthday party, but the king of Thailand. And yet there is a great deal with that is similar between the situation of Miss Swift and King Bhomipol of Thailand. The king is even more privileged economically–in addition to the crown’s considerable financial holdings in the billions of dollars, he receives about $350 million or so in subsidy from Thailand’s government. One would think that this great deal of support from governments would lead to support, but that does not appear to be the case given Thai history–it is not only poor people who have a sense of entitlement, after all. One would be forgiven in thinking that the Thai king could feel that he has everything–but apparently he needs the constant adoration of the people, without having done as much for those adoring crowds as Miss Swift has done for hers.
There are a lot of similarities between the situation of Taylor Swift and King Bhomipol, who can serve as representative samples of world-class entertainers and world leaders. Both of them possess a great deal of material wealth because of their positions, as well as a great deal of influence. But what both of them long for is the love and adoration of others. No matter how much someone has, one always wants more–and no matter how beloved one is, one wants signs and evidence of that adoration over and over again. One never has enough of such things. If someone has every material good that they could possibly want, or the ability to purchase whatever they wanted if they wanted it, one can only give them love and respect and service and time and (hopefully sincere) praise. These are the sorts of things that never get old, nor can we ever have enough of them. And so they are the sorts of gifts we can (and are expected to) give over and over again.
We have to remember, as difficult as it may be, that stars and rulers are simply ordinary people. They are not demigods or superior to others, but are simply normal human beings with abnormal lives and positions. Most of them are insecure, needing frequent affirmation and support, wondering if the adoration they receive is sincere, so needing it repeated over and over again. Tyrants and entertainers share a love of often expensive spectacle and large crowds as evidence of the support and popularity that they have with others. But these spectacles often serve to create as much distance as they do provide shows of adoration. The amount of interaction one can have with tens or hundreds of thousands of people is limited to large gestures that often appear creepy and cult-like, to be used for propaganda purposes rather than genuine interaction. It is only with a small and intimate audience that one can achieve genuine interaction and interpersonal warmth. There is a tradeoff between depth of intimacy and the breadth of mass adoration. Which we prefer tells us (and others) a lot about ourselves.