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Grading Taylor Swift’s ‘Karma’ With a Buddhist-Studies Professor

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Few songs on Taylor Swift’s tenth album, Midnights, were met with more anticipation than “Karma.” After years of speculation that Swift had shelved an album of the same name, she finally threw fans a bone, releasing what some thought to be its saved title track. There’s no way of telling when the song was written, but it is pretty clearly about, well, karma, an idea Swift has been flirting with for years amid her feuds with figures like Ye (formerly Kanye West) and Scooter Braun. In lighthearted singsong over a jaunty synthpop track, Swift dreams of payback for people who talk shit and steal from her. Then she launches into a series of metaphors, comparing karma to everything from her boyfriend to a cat to a god. It’s one of her more playful moments on the album.

But could there be something more to it? Karma isn’t just central to the Taylorverse — it’s a millennia-old concept guiding multiple South Asian religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. When I sent the song to Dr. Sarah Jacoby, an associate professor of religious studies at Northwestern University who focuses on Buddhism, she wasn’t surprised to see Swift talking about karma. “I’m totally fascinated by the ways in which the imagery and ideology of Buddhism is seeping into everyday life in contemporary Chicago or North America and other places as well, often without a citation,” said Jacoby, who teaches a course called Buddhism in the Contemporary World. Still, she was surprised to find that Swift showed a pretty good grasp of the idea of karma in the song — to the point that she even brought it to her Introduction to Buddhism students. “Now I sound like a Swiftie, but this is poetic,” she joked. Jacoby broke down the song’s lyrics as they relate to karma and revealed how she’d grade Swift on her understanding of the concept.

You wrote to me that “Taylor Swift has definitely been thinking about what karma really means.” What about the song made you think that?
It’s actually a pretty artful song, which is why it’s fun to think about. There’s an economy of words here. It’s repeated and it’s beautiful and catchy, and she has a lovely voice. If you really look at it, she doesn’t say all that much, but she does manage to communicate some interesting points in a way that if I were to say this, it would take me many more words, which is why I’m not a lyricist.

I like the expression “It’s coming back around.” The idea that what you do has a consequence that affects you in the future, that’s an accurate portrayal of karma. And there are different ways she says that. After that lyric, she says, “I keep my side of the street clean.” And that also makes sense if you pair it with the other lyric, “Karma’s a relaxing thought.” Karma is actually not at all a relaxing thought as it’s discussed in South Asian religion, because it means that negative acts, in that they’re harmful to others, will cause you pain and suffering in return. The only way you could think that karma is a relaxing thought is if you know you haven’t done anything wrong and you haven’t treated anyone badly and you’ve been ethical and virtuous in your dealings with people.

She defines her term early on and lets us know what we’re working with there.
I think she really learned something about karma to create this song. I also see some ways in which she’s taken an idea and put it into the love-song or love-lost frame of pop culture. The lyric that makes the least sense, unless — I’m definitely not a Swiftie, so maybe this has some other meaning to Taylor Swift that I don’t know. But if we think about the idea of karma, the lyric “Karma is my boyfriend” makes almost no sense.

That’s one of the lines I want to talk about. My interpretation of this song is Taylor is talking to some of the people who have wronged her. I read the “Karma is my boyfriend” line with what you were saying about her feeling confident that she’s been virtuous and ethical, and this being her good payback for that, that she’s dating a movie star, Joe Alwyn. There’s also the line at the end: “Karma is the guy on the screen / Coming straight home to me.” If this is Taylor Swift saying “this is my good karma, that I end up with a good boyfriend who’s a movie star,” is that something that checks out in Buddhism?
Here’s how you can think about karma: If you want to know what you’ve done in distant past lives, or even just how you’ve been as a person last week or ten years ago, look at your present conditions. Because your reality, both internally and the external world that you’re living in, is a product of karma. Karma just means action — it’s a Sanskrit word. And in Buddhism, it comes to mean intentional, ethical action.

The point of Taylor Swift having an awesome boyfriend because she has good karma does check out to some degree, that she’s experiencing a condition that she finds pleasurable and she’s understanding that as a product of her virtuous conduct in the past. She deserves this because she’s put in her positive karma. Buddhism wouldn’t put a ton of stock in the idea that having a great boyfriend is going to make you happy in the long run, because this is also a temporary condition. A Buddhist would maybe be a little worried about resting on your laurels there.

The other thing that is a little concerning from a Buddhist frame is she’s basically saying, “You all are screwed because you’ve been unethical, and I’m watching you from my clean side of the street.” But karma is more about thinking about what oneself is doing. You still have to do a lot of wonderful things with the condition and the circumstances and the privilege that you have. So if a Buddhist monk were talking to Taylor Swift, he might ask, “Do you exercise philanthropy? What do you support? How are you using this privilege that you have in this joyful, wonderful life to lessen the suffering of others?” And maybe she is; maybe that’s why she’s so sure that her side of the street is clean. Who am I to judge?

You pretty much answered another question that I had, which was, Would a Buddhist consider it to be bad that she is counting on karma to come back and get these other people?
Vengeance or revenge, which there’s a tone of that here in some of the gloating — to the degree that one delights in looking at others suffer, that itself accumulates negative karma. Forgiveness and compassion go along with karma, and so most people who take karma very seriously do not want it as their boyfriend and do not find it to be a relaxing thought. It’s pretty hard not to feel a little bit gleeful when someone who hurt you ends up being punished for that, but that’s the thing that comes through this song.

And with another line that I’m looking at, “Karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ’cause it loves me.”
I liked that line, actually. There are a couple that I really like. Can I tell you?

Yes, please.
I like, “Don’t you know that cash ain’t the only price?” That’s a correct interpretation of karma. Karma’s often compared to credit that you owe. Maybe the creditor didn’t call you today, but they will find you. “Karma’s on your scent like a bounty hunter / Karma’s gonna track you down.” That’s also exactly right, according to a Buddhist frame, that it follows you. Karma’s often compared to a wind, a force that doesn’t have an essence. There’s no thing called “wind” that you can pick up in the store, but yet it is incredibly potent, and it’s volatile and forceful, and it’s moving. So when she says, “Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend,” it’s fun and that’s pop song-y and has nothing to do with Buddhism, but the breeze actually picked up something that’s a real metaphor.

“Karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ’cause it loves me,” I think what I liked about that is it was totally surprising. It goes with “Karma’s a relaxing thought.” It’s an artful and cool way to say this scary thing, that our actions have consequences and that the consequence matches the act. So if I do something murderous, I might be killed. For that to be like a cozy kitty cuddling in your lap, that makes you think. It’s kind of arresting: A friendly, cozy, but also threatening way to talk about karma if you know what karma really means. And then is there some Swiftie inner meaning for “Karma is a god”? I thought that was a cool line — karma is not a god in Buddhism — but what does that mean to you?

I don’t see any reading of this that goes along with the Taylor Swift lore. I think it’s just her saying that karma is powerful.
That may be the right way to read it. I thought it was a cool line because people who take my classes often are coming from a Judeo-Christian background — not always, but often. And one of the things they really struggle with is the fact that there’s no creator God, there’s no all-powerful God in Buddhism. When I explain the Buddhist vision of the cosmos and why we’re here, I end up talking about karma and this idea of causality, that we create the conditions in which we live. And we’ve been in this process of cyclical rebirth since beginningless time. So karma is in some ways the Buddhist equivalent to saying that “I’m here because God put me here.” It’s saying, “I’m here because my karma led to my existence in this condition at this time.” I probably read so much more into that than Taylor Swift meant, but all that background made me think it was a cool line.

She probably is saying what you said: Karma is powerful. If you think about it as a god, it’s actually not helpful because a god, typically, is an all-powerful force that exists outside of you. And the whole point of the Buddhist focus on karma is to say that you have this present ability to choose what you do, and that means you can create a world which is less full of suffering. You don’t pray to someone else to do that for you; you get up and do it.

I would take it that this line toward the end, “Karma is a queen,” also doesn’t quite check out in the same way?
Right, I didn’t totally understand “Karma is a queen.”

I think it’s about power, again.
And feminizing that power, which is also a cool thing, because karma is never represented as female. When I hear that lyric and I imagine karma as a queen, What would that queen look like? is kind of a creative image. But “Sweet like justice” is right on, because justice is only sweet if you have not committed a crime. Karma and justice, they are ideas that work well together.

I have a few smaller questions about the song as well. A micro-narrative of this album has been that Taylor Swift is cursing a lot more than she used to. In some religions, that is a bad thing. Could that affect her karma in any way?
Harsh speech is part of what accrues negative karma — slander and gossip. In Buddhism, you can perform harm through the way that you talk, if you speak with a malicious intent or you diss someone, either to their face or behind their back. So if you are cursing in order to hurt someone, then that’s negative karma. But here, this thing about flexing like a goddamn acrobat, she’s not actually cursing at someone directly. And there is no god, so goddamn doesn’t — unless you translate that into a Buddhist language and use the three jewels or some Buddhist thing. You couldn’t say something bad about the Buddha, for instance — that’s considered harmful speech — but she didn’t do that here. That’s bordering on neutral to me.

And is there any way there could be good karma in writing a good song about karma?
Yes, there is. If someone were to listen to this and think — and I don’t know if they could based on these lyrics — My gosh, I have to be really careful about how I behave because if I’m not kind and generous, if I hurt people and cause others harm, then I’m going to be living in a world of hurt. So I should use Taylor Swift as a model and be the virtuous one. If someone were to learn that from this song and use that in their life to actually be kind and helpful, then this song would be earning Taylor Swift good karma.

Interesting. So being a professor, if you were to grade Taylor Swift on her understanding of karma through this song, where would you say she’s at?
That’s so funny because I’m teaching Intro right now. And yesterday, in the beginning of class, I played the song for the whole lecture hall. And because they just took a midterm, I said to them, “This is Taylor Swift’s midterm and you’re the grader. What did she get?”

Wow. [Laughs.] Oh my gosh.
My undergraduate students gave her a thumbs down, which is an easier thing to express in a big lecture hall than a letter grade. They were very judgmental, I think probably because they just had to memorize all these ideas about karma. So they were sticklers with her; they didn’t give her much leeway. I was actually a little bit of a kinder grader: I think she got a B. Even though we could nitpick about “Karma is my boyfriend,” truly that makes no sense, “Karma is a God” no, it’s actually not. I’m not saying that it’s somehow profoundly Buddhist; I wouldn’t go that far. But she amused me in her wordplay, and that wordplay showed an understanding of virtue and justice and the price of negativity.

A “B” exceeds expectations, and that’s what I think you’ve been saying that she did.
Totally. She exceeded my expectation. I thought it was going to be crap when you asked me. And then I listened to it and found myself humming it later.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grading Taylor Swift’s ‘Karma’ With a Religion Professor