Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Jeffrey S. Chapman’s fiction piece, Taylor Swift Won’t Survive the Labyrinth
John: The poet Juvenal coined the phrase “bread and circuses”—the method by which the political classes distract the governed so that they can wield their power with impunity. Is a high-definition TV, a pirated Netflix password and a Papa John’s pizza better or worse than eating a loaf of bread at a Roman circus? What if it was a 4K TV?
Jeffrey: Netflix. Hulu. Prime. Instagram. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. Snapchat. The Roman emperors wish that every Roman citizen carried around a little Circus Maximus in their pockets like we do now. They were able to distract the population for a couple days a year. The technocrats have us for hours every day. All of these apps are designed to pull us away from deep thought by feeding us the equivalent of mental Big Macs. It’s delicious. Somehow it reminds you of your childhood. But it’ll make you feel like shit in the long run.
And the generals don’t even have to provide bread anymore. We pay for the pleasure of being distracted.
Expanding further, Cicero said, “The evil was not in the bread and circuses, per se, but in the willingness of the people to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games which would serve to distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease.” What could he have possibly been talking about?
First off, I think the best way to understand the difference between real and unreal things is by watching the 1972 Coca-Cola commercial, “Coke, It’s the Real Thing.” Coke understood our deep hungers better than anyone.
We all want something real, but we tend to do what is easy. I want to write for eight hours a day, but I keep picking up my phone. It’s crazy.
Since we’re talking about bread, it’s a great example of this. There’s a fantastic Marxist reading of toast by Arthur Asa Berger, “The Crux of Toast.” He argues that every piece of toast is a tragedy. According to him (and I think he’s right), bread hasn’t been the same since it became mechanized and mass-produced. The shape of bread had to become standardized and brick-like—in an assembly line, bread has to be made in a pan—and the whole thing became more cake-like, with a soft crust. Because we don’t make bread at home anymore, we miss the smell and warmth that comes from baking. We turn to the toaster to recreate the experience: it warms the bread, approximates the smell of baking, gives the bread a bit of crunch. But it’s never the same as a bread that has been produced by the human hand. We know we’re missing something. Wonder Bread might fill us up, but it doesn’t satisfy us. We can still get bread made by hand, but it’s expensive. Real bread becomes the domain of the rich.
Isn’t this why so many of us, while staying at home because of the pandemic, are making sourdough bread and beer bread and all other kinds of “real” bread?
How do you think Taylor Swift feels about the circus? Was her heart secretly pierced when she stumbled on this quote as she worked her way through the classics (in the original Latin, natch)?
So. The first thing we should say is that Taylor Swift fucking loves bread. Yes, she’s aware that bread is on the outs because no one wants to eat too many carbs anymore, but she doesn’t care. Yes, she’s aware of how annoying it is to be one of those people who can eat carbs and carbs and carbs and not gain any weight, but that doesn’t stop her from loving bread. She loves all bread. She loves it dense and she loves it fluffy. Toasted and fresh. She loves it more than she loves rice, pasta, potatoes, or any other newfangled starch (or the ancient grains that are so oldfangled as to come back around to being hip again). She just loves bread.
People want to hate her for it because they care too much about carbs, but at the end of the day, it just makes them love her more, because they too want to not give a shit. They admire her free will. They love that she used to come to Latin class with a chocolate croissant every single day and eat it with fervor and passion, like she just didn’t give a damn about carbs, while we all watched and ate our handful of almonds or ¼ cup of dry flaxseed.
She also loves circuses. Yes, she feels for the poor elephants, but Holy shit! Elephants standing on their heads!
Yes, Taylor Swift sees parallels between Juvenal’s Rome and modern times. She does wonder at times whether we have allowed ourselves to sign away our deeper interests for tawdry and transient pleasures. She often finds her mind drifting to the lines from Seneca’s essay, “On the Shortness of Life”: “You will find no one willing to share his money, but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property, but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
If the Romans had already noticed the bread and circus effect and yet we’re still doing it today, is there any hope?
Yes! To understand Taylor Swift is to understand that there is always hope.
Taylor Swift loves spectacle. It’s what she does. She grew up with it. Every inch of her being is primed to appreciate spectacle. And while it seems like this would contradict her fundamental goodness in the world, it actually doesn’t. She believes that society arrives at enlightenment through music, dance, drama. At first we just watch, dull and entertained, but slowly we begin to question and probe and desire more.
Sure, many people argue that she is overly optimistic, that the people will be seduced by the bread into accepting the circus as normal, that they will never question the inherent violence en masse, but Taylor Swift disagrees. Taylor Swift gives humanity more credit than that. Of course she does. We love her for the trust we have in us.
Why aren’t the generals ever really happy?
The generals would be perfectly happy if people would just shut up and let them control the country completely. But people are weird about that and need a little convincing. So the generals built the labyrinth so that the people would be entertained and scared: entertained that other people are suffering and scared that they themselves may suffer. They want to nurture a national schadenfreude. People will keep watching, even if they find it awful and grotesque, because they would rather be horrified than bored. The generals want complete control. They want, as some leaders would say it, to dominate the people with just a little splash of military violence.
But trying to have complete control over the poloi is a little bit like trying to hold onto an angry cat. It will inevitably wriggle free and you’ll get a few painful scratches in the process and a day later those scratches will look angry and red and you’ll wonder if they’re infected. Because you will always have people like Taylor Swift who smile in the face of adversity.
The Generals don’t sleep well at night. They worry that the people will wake up and ignore the distractions and take to the streets and denounce them. And maybe people will start to listen. And there won’t be enough space in the labyrinth for all of them or tear gas to disperse them.
If Taylor Swift were an unstoppable force and Justin Timberlake an immovable object, what would be the result of their meeting?
Yes, Taylor Swift is an unstoppable force. And yes, JT is an immovable object. We all know this is true. But the reverse is also true: Taylor Swift is an immovable object and JT is an unstoppable force. This is what makes the two of them so special.
We are predisposed to think that we are trying to figure out which of these would dominate, which would budge. We think of it in terms of force. But when Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake meet, they don’t dominate one another. They vibrate in harmony. It is as natural as making that first pot of coffee in the morning. When you are around Taylor Swift or Justin Timberlake, you are struck simultaneously by a feeling of intense energy and inexplicable calm. There’s really only one word for it: happy.
Some theorists argue that both of them, brought together, become the purest physical expression of the 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop (I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony)” ad campaign. And really, at this moment, don’t we all need someone to buy us a home and furnish it with love, grow apple trees and honeybees and snow-white turtle doves? I think Taylor Swift will do this for us, at least in our hearts, in a metaphorical sense. And maybe in a literal sense too. I wouldn’t put anything past Taylor Swift.
* It should be noted that Taylor Swift had Justin Timberlake on stage during the 1989 tour.
** It makes me very, very happy to have referenced two different 70s Coke ads in an interview about Taylor Swift. Is it an accident that if you add up C-O-K-E, divide it by two, and add it to 1972, you get 1989, the year of Taylor Swift’s birth?