Exactly 10 years ago, I experienced something so improbable I sometimes wonder if I might be making it up. Friends and students greet my retelling of the story with polite but notable skepticism.
This isn’t to say there’s no evidence. There is evidence. There was a whole stadium’s worth of witnesses. For some reason, though, that isn’t quite enough.
I believe sharing an experience is both rarer and more valuable than we often think it is. But how can people recall the same shared experience so differently? This is a question for believers of all sorts. Christians ask: If Jesus worked extraordinary miracles, why did so few of his contemporaries believe him at the time? The answer is that what we see and what we take away from an experience depends on what we bring to it.
To demonstrate, I want to tell you the story of Taylor Swift’s rain concert at Gillette Stadium on June 25, 2011.
It was the first night of back-to-back concerts in Swift’s “Speak Now” tour. For the first part of the evening, everything went according to plan. The show was highly polished, with lavish sets, costumes, dancers, and special effects. Come the halfway mark, though, the thunderstorm that had hung menacingly in the air finally unleashed its full force. Swift and the band were protected from the torrents, but more than 50,000 fans were squarely in the storm.
All of this transpired in just a minute or two. But it’s the song that accompanied the storm that made the deluge, for fans like me, something like a mystical experience. As it happened, just as the skies broke open, Swift began singing “Fearless,” the title track of her second album, the chorus of which includes the lines And I don’t know why but with you I’d dance / In a storm in my best dress.
Glittering from head to toe — even her guitar was bedazzled — Swift strutted out from under the awning that shielded her from the elements and performed the rest of the song, and the concert, in the pouring rain.
Taylor Swift is sometimes accused of being a little on the nose. If she can lack subtlety, though, she had nothing on the heavens that night, which delivered the most Swiftian metaphor imaginable. Without hesitation, Swift danced in a storm in her best dress, fearless.
Everyone was losing their minds. The teenagers with their glowing bracelets in the pit. Moms and dads in the stands. Boyfriends who had pretended they didn’t want to be here. Swift wasn’t performing “Fearless” — she was living it.
There are a few relics of the rain concert scattered across YouTube. The best of them spans the final song of her set, “Long Live.” In the hundreds of comments on that video, you can find people proclaiming — years later — the splendor of the events I’ve just recounted. Here is one of my favorites:
“I was there! It was one of the best nights of my life. It was the first time I saw Taylor live. It was a spiritual experience. I was crying. The sky was crying. I don’t know where the tears ended and the rain began. I would like my tombstone to say “‘attended the infamous Tswift rain show.’”
“I don’t know where the tears ended and the rain began.” That is a real Taylor Swift fan who wrote that sentence.
In a subsequent interview, Swift described the dancing-in-a-storm moment as her favorite from the entire tour. Curiously, however, some contemporary reviews of the event didn’t even mention it. Those that did focused more on the glamour of the sets and the costumes and seemed to miss the profundity of the moment in the rain, from which Swift emerged with a case of bronchitis that forced her to cancel the next leg of her tour.
This newspaper’s own retrospective litany of Swift’s Gillette Stadium visits also omits the fearless moment. Only the faithful over at The Swift Agency, a blog devoted to the performer, told the story: Swift goes to Foxborough, sings “Fearless” in the pouring rain, loves it.
In my own experience, even those who were at the concert sometimes fail to reassure me that the moment really happened. When I asked a fellow attendee to confirm the magic of my experience — “Tell me I’m not crazy!” — she said she definitely remembered it raining, but that was all. She seemed worried she might be disappointing me. I began searching the Internet for sources only after I started worrying I might have confabulated the whole thing. No wonder true believers in the YouTube comments feel compelled to attest to the moment’s veracity.
This is an enduring problem for the devout — Swifties and other disciples alike. Ten years ago, some people had the night of their lives at the rain concert. Two thousand years ago, some people witnessed Jesus’s works when he was still alive to perform them. In both cases, there were bystanders who missed the message.
The Gospel of Mark explores this very phenomenon. If Jesus worked extraordinary miracles, why did so few people believe him at the time? Mark replies with the “messianic secret,” the idea that Jesus intentionally concealed his identity.
So what was special about the people who saw the miracles? Our experiences are more vivid and memorable when they are shared. The trick is that sometimes sharing an experience means not just seeing or hearing the same things but sharing a common understanding of them. Philosophers and psychologists have noticed that our prior beliefs and attitudes may affect not only what parts of an experience stand out to us but also what we see in the first place. If we don’t have the same background, we may not see the same things. Really seeing, or really hearing, can require knowing the backstory.
Taylor Swift is no stranger to meanings hidden from the masses but plain to the faithful. A lover of secrets, she is an open song written in an esoteric chord. My speculation is that the people who really saw her “Fearless” moment in the rain knew something about how Taylor Swift’s story had led up to it. Everyone there had heard Taylor Swift’s first album. But not everyone heard the skeptics who had wondered if she could do it again. She could write about being the hometown girl on the passenger side of an old pickup once, but what would she sing about as a star?
When Taylor Swift reinvented herself for “Fearless,” sweeping the Grammys, ACM, and CMA awards, only some people in the crowd had the ears to hear. The people who understood the song were the ones who had seen the guitar string scars on the hand that composed it.
Near the end of her performance of “Long Live” at the concert back in 2011, Swift pointed to the crowd at Gillette and insisted This one is for them. The people who have danced with her in the rain are the ones who get it. The kingdom lights don’t shine for just anyone.
Ryan Davis is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University. He writes about ethics, political philosophy, and sometimes philosophy of religion. He once won a teaching award for “most Taylor Swift references.”