Psychology and Relationships

'Swiftie' moms are passing down their passion — and parasocial relationship with Taylor Swift — to their kids

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Karen Vladeck didn't expect the note she wrote to her daughter's first-grade teacher to go viral. But, like all Taylor Swift-related content, it did. 

The email was informing the teacher that her daughter would be missing a day of school to attend Taylor Swift's The Eras Tour concert in Houston, which is about three hours away from Austin, Texas, where Vladeck lives. 

Vladeck wove in different song names from Swift's catalog. "I hope this doesn't leave any Bad Blood between you and Maddie…," the email reads.

"People pull their kids from school for way stupider reasons than to go to a Taylor Swift concert," Vladeck says to CNBC Make It. "There are a lot of kids who stay home for no real reason." 

Vladeck was a Swift early adopter.  

"One of my first songs I ever listened to, I was in my college dorm room and cried, was 'Tim McGraw,'" she says. 

Now, she is part of a sizable demographic that has children and wants them, too, to love Swift. 

We've all seen mega stardom surrounding pop stars before, but "Swifties" are a different breed of fans. 

With Madonna or Michael Jackson, much of the allure was the mystery. Listeners regarded them as an untouchable talent.

With Swift, it's the opposite: Fans' fervent defense and support of the musician isn't because they see her as a God, but because they see her as a friend.

Swift has created millions of military-grade strength parasocial relationships, or one-sided relationships one might have with a celebrity or someone they don't know very well.

And moms like Vladeck, all of whom started listening to Swift when they were still functionally children, want their offspring to not only love the music, but to love Taylor. 

'I think it's brilliant that she says she just sits around and watches TV'

Parasocial relationships were initially studied in the context of news anchors. If a viewer felt more connected with the anchor, they were more likely to trust what they were saying.

A parasocial relationship can form if three things are true:

  1. Physical attraction: This doesn't mean that you have to be sexually attracted to the celebrity or character, but that their physicality is relatable to you. Maybe they are the same race or age as you, or they look like your friends and family. 
  2. Social attraction: The viewer would like to socialize with the character or celebrity.
  3. Task attraction: The viewer perceives the character or celebrity to be capable, credible or talented. 

Based on her fans' behavior, one could argue Swift ticks all these boxes more effectively than other pop stars, says Kate Kurtin, a communications professor at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Her most recent breakup, for example, has Swifties leaving flowers outside a house the star used to own in New York City.

"People are saying, 'how can she go on in her tour after this breakup?'" Kurtin says. "Katy Perry was on stage when Russell Brand asked for a divorce. We have it on video, her crying through the music. I don't remember people showing up at Katy Perry's house with flowers." 

Taylor's ability to successfully contrive parasocial relationships with millions of people has more to do with how little she reveals than how much, Kurtin says.

"That's the part Taylor Swift has done so brilliantly," she says. "She has remained vulnerable and authentic in her music but isn't giving too much away so we no longer connect with her." 

Because, taking a closer look, Swift's life is hardly relatable. Her family moved cities to support her ambitions, something that would be cost-prohibitive for most Americans. Her dad bought a 3% stake, estimated to cost $120,000, in the record label that signed his daughter. Swift herself owns a private jet that costs an estimated $40 million. 

These realities don't make her less talented, but one would think they make her less relatable — evidently not. 

She has remained vulnerable and authentic in her music but isn't giving too much away so we no longer connect with her.
Kate Kurtin
communications professor at California State University, Los Angeles

When Sally A. Theran, a psychology professor at Wellesley College, asked her students what they liked most about Swift, they answered that she is "so relatable."

"That was shocking to me because to me, she is a multimillionaire," Theran says. "To me, she is not relatable."

Theran, who has been to two of Swift's concerts with her daughters, says the "Easter eggs" Swift is known to plant in her music videos is one of the ways fans feel more connected to her.

"You have to be a pretty involved fan to know what she is referring to," Theran says. "It makes you feel seen and known by her. It's a way she is communicating with only the people who are the biggest fans." 

Theran echoes Kurtin's thought that Swift's selective sharing is intentional and beneficial, as it allows people to project relatable feelings onto her.

"I think it's really helpful to remember that she is actually a grown woman," Theran says. "She is pretty savvy business-wise. When people grieve for the end of her relationships, it's important to remember that we don't actually know what she wants out of her life, and we are projecting that on to her."

'If I saw Jake Gyllenhaal on the street, we would have words'

Jessica Sawyer, 38, and her 7-year-old daughter attended The Eras Tour concert in Philadelphia. 

"We are actually going to Disney World first and I think she is more excited knowing that we get back from Disney and a couple days later she is seeing Taylor," Sawyer said when I spoke with her before the concert. 

Sawyer's relationship with Swift mirrors Vladeck's. 

"I was a senior in college in 2006 and I was already into country music," she says. "I heard the song 'Tim McGraw' come out and I had to have the album." 

To her, Swift is an exemplary role model.

"With the song 'The Man,' she had a lot of questions," Sawyer says. "And [my daughter and I] had a talk about how when you get older, you might be treated differently, but you don't have to take that lying down. Taylor Swift doesn't." 

And, similar to most Swifties, Sawyer feels a personal connection to Swift.

"People make fun of her because the songs are about her ex-boyfriends and we all know who they are, but it makes you root for her," she says. "Like if I saw Jake Gyllenhaal on the street, we would have words." 

The song "All Too Well" is believed to be about a short-lived relationship between Swift and actor Jake Gyllenhaal. 

"The thing we love about her is in addition to her being a public figure, she is kind of a nerd," Sawyer says. "You feel like you could be friends with her. If it were up to her, she would be a pretty normal person." 

You feel like you could be friends with her. If it were up to her, she would be a pretty normal person.
Jessica Sawyer

'When I was pregnant, I would hold my phone to my belly and play Taylor Swift'

Similar to Sawyer and Vladeck, Jessica Dinney, 37, was instantly charmed by Swift's debut song, "Tim McGraw."

Dinney, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, attended The Eras Tour concert in Tampa, Florida. Her two-year-old daughter was too young to join, but it's important to Dinney that she instill a love of Swift early. 

"When I was pregnant, I would hold my phone to my belly and play Taylor Swift," she says. "God, I sound psycho saying that." 

Dinney shares the Swifties' sentiment that Swift represents herself authentically. 

"The way she relates to her fans, people feel like they genuinely know her and are friends with her even if they have never met her before," she says. "I remember following her on Twitter back in the day and the stuff she would post, it wasn't like you were reading a celebrity tweet, it was like reading tweets from a friend. She was very real and wouldn't put on a celebrity facade." 

She hopes her daughter feels that connection, too. 

"If my daughter is going to look up to anybody, I'd love for it to be her," Dinney says. 

And if she doesn't? 

"Honestly, I'd be crushed [if my daughter didn't like Taylor Swift]. It'd be like her telling me she doesn't like 'Friends' or 'Harry Potter,'" she says. 

Seeing Swift was 'more effective than therapy' 

To nobody's surprise, seeing Swift in concert only makes her fans more enamored.

Dinney went with eight friends to the Tampa show. 

"I've seen Taylor in concert before, but the fandom level present at this tour was off the charts," she says. "It seemed like every single person there was a superfan, so that definitely made it an even more fun and exciting environment to be in."

Photo courtesy of Jessica Sawyer.

Sawyer, who took her daughter to the Philadelphia show, said it was "literally one of the best nights of her life." 

"I will never forget my daughter looking back at me when Taylor first came on stage going, 'My heart is beating so fast,'" she says. 

Unbeknownst to Swift, she also shared an emotional moment with the pop star. 

"The catharsis of sobbing while Taylor sang 'Marjorie' after a difficult few months of my grandma moving into assisted living was more effective than any therapy I've done," Sawyer says.

"It was just everything — everything we could have wanted and more." 

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