What Keeps Us Up at Midnight
With the release of Midnights, Taylor Swift’s refrain of life awake at midnight is finally culminating in a curated anthem. Over 16 years, Swift has refined her motif of sleeplessness. In “Mary’s Song” she’s awake at “2 a.m. riding in your truck,” but six years later, “the lingering question kept me up, 2 a.m., who do you love?” In “All Too Well,” she’s “dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light,” but seven years later, “in the night, I pace like a ghost.”
Now, Swift invites us on “a journey through terrors and sweet dreams.” Insomniacs are welcomed into camaraderie as wayfarers, “who have tossed and turned and decided to keep the lanterns lit and go searching.” But where are we going? Swift is “hoping that just maybe, when the clock strikes twelve … we’ll meet ourselves.” Midnights promises 13 sleepless nights as stepping stones for the journey, and as a sleep medicine physician and collector of sleepless stories, I’m eager to hear hers.
In “Lavender Haze,” Midnights opens with a strong beat and Swift’s invitation to “meet me at midnight.” In this first track she isn’t alone. She’s staring at the ceiling with her boyfriend while processing the scrutiny of the outside world. Nevertheless, Swift finds refuge in the haze of new love, a theme she continues to build a few tracks later. With “Snow on the Beach,” Swift encapsulates the realization she is falling in love with someone who feels the exact same way about her. But as the “love spiral” from “Lavender Haze” clears, Swift’s mistrust creeps in, suggesting this love is too good to be true: “Can this be a real thing? Can it?”
From this spark of doubt, a flame of questions and memories spreads through the remaining album. In “Maroon”—a possible nod to Taylor’s Red era—Swift wakes, “with your memory over me.” Haunted by a vision of dancing without shoes and a romance that turned to rust, Swift tries to move on but admits, “I feel you, no matter what.” In “Midnight Rain,” Swift is haunted by a boyfriend and a life she left behind. But in “Anti-Hero” we hear a distinct crescendo for Swift’s insomnia as her critique turns inward:
I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser.
Midnights become my afternoons.
When my depression works the graveyard shift,
All of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room.
I should not be left to my own devices,
They come with prices and vices, I end up in crisis.
(Tale as old as time)
The lyrics resonate with the experience of a thousand sleepless nights. Within a few lines, Swift poetically summarizes a major barrier for many people suffering from insomnia—our thoughts and behaviors. The weight of anxiety crushes our ability to sleep, and many people develop what psychologists describe as a “conditioned arousal”—a phenomenon where years of worrying in bed conditions a person to associate bedtime with wakefulness and worrying instead of sleepiness and rest.
The recommendation for people experiencing this is simple in theory: get out of bed when you’re worrying, to “break” that conditioned association. Unfortunately, it is not the “quick fix” people want. But for everyone who recognizes they are getting “older but just never wiser,” there is wisdom in this practice, along with other principles of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (or CBT-I).
And not surprisingly (or maybe surprisingly for some), the Bible agrees with the importance of seeking this wisdom for our sleep: “Keep sound wisdom and discretion, / So they will be life to your soul and adornment to your neck. … When you lie down, you will not be afraid; When you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” (Proverbs 3:21b-22, 24 NASB 1995) Sound wisdom and discretion can come from many places, from science as well as from faith, and CBT-I is a good place to start to address thoughts and behaviors that are barriers to sleep.
But beyond our individual thoughts and behaviors, Swift accurately shows we are not the sole culprit for our sleeplessness. Trying to find her place in a society where a woman is labeled either “a one night or a wife,” working in a field of “industry disrupters and soul deconstructors and smooth-talking hucksters out glad-handing each other,“ Swift has plenty of reasons for sleeplessness. Similarly, I daily hear stories of barriers to sleep such as grief, trauma, or panic attacks. And sometimes the origin of these barriers is another person.
The Bible resonates with this insight. “If you ever take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, / for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to me, I will hear him, for I am gracious.” (Exodus 22:26-27 NASB1995) Following a sequence on the treatment of strangers, widows, and debtors, this teaching reminds us that God hears the lament of the sleepless and instructs those around him to respond with compassion. When our interactions with others have a good chance of impacting their sleep, it should give us pause. Rather than saying “You’re on your own, kid,” Christians should be the ones “lit from within,” patiently persevering with others on their sleepless journey.
Although Swift is not singing about the role of faith in relationships, some of the songs on this album offer hints of the hope such perseverance could offer. With whirring synths and syncopated vocalizing, “Labyrinth” opens with an affirmation: “It only hurts this much right now, was what I was thinking the whole time.” She still isn’t sure about trusting new love: “You know how scared I am of elevators / Never trust it if it rises fast, it can’t last.” But on this journey, Swift comes to see the good in perseverance, “Breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out,” which is mirrored in the second verse with “break up, break free, break through, break down.” Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques are helpful responses to sleeplessness, but Swift’s sequence of breaking follows a compelling story arc in and of itself. Breaking up from a bad relationship, breaking free of constraints, and breaking through barriers only to end in breaking down. But Swift finds hope in someone who would “break [his] back to make [her] break a smile.”
Beyond the labyrinth, Swift ends our journey of sleepless nights by exploring good relationships: in “Karma,” a relationship with something outside of ourselves; in “Sweet Nothings,” a fulfilling, romantic relationship; and in “Mastermind,” in a way, a relationship with oneself. Although the ghosts of midnights past continue to haunt, Swift has found solace with “the guy on the screen, coming straight home to me,” who presumably is the same one in “Lavender Haze” who doesn’t “really read into my melancholia.” In “Sweet Nothings,” he is breaking gender roles, “in the kitchen humming,” and in “Mastermind” he has “a wide smirk … [and] knew the entire time” that she was pursuing him..
But beyond this relationship, Swift recognizes something outside of herself. Although Swift lays the groundwork in “Mastermind,” she marvels at how “the planets and the fates / And all the stars aligned / You and I ended up in the same room / At the same time.” Swift identifies this force in “Karma” as a universal justice system that rewards the deserving. However, despite these gifts from a mysterious gift giver and the solace of a fulfilling relationship, in the context of the Midnights album, Swift’s sleeplessness persists.
What keeps us up at midnight? Swift accurately senses that the problem is both within and around us. A theology of sleep from the Bible shares the same conclusion but with a different explanation—our reality has been impacted by sin. Disordered creation mars our world, our relationships, and even our sleep.
Sleep is present in the first chapters of Genesis among a sequence of blessing Adam with Eve. But in a similar sequence of Abraham receiving God’s promise to become a great nation, sleep is juxtaposed with “terror and great darkness.” Disordered sleep is evident when Job exclaims, “When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ But the night continues, And I am continually tossing until dawn” (Job 7:4 NASB1995). The theme continues through the New Testament, with Jesus fervently praying in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death. But then Jesus relinquishes control, enters death, and is raised to new life. Along with its larger implications for our salvation, these scenes also paint a picture of what our own evenings and mornings can look like. A life hidden in Christ transforms our understanding of sleep, turning it into a practice of embodied trust.
Despite this understanding, a Christian theology of sleep does not promise refreshing nightly sleep for the rest of your life. Instead, it reveals a relationship that deserves our trust. A relationship with someone who intimately knows all our parts—the anti-hero, the vigilante, the mastermind—and continues to love us. He is love expressed in the common grace of human relationship. He is the author of “every good thing given and every perfect gift” (James 1:17 NASB), including the cat purring in your lap. He is the one who makes stars and planets align. He is with us every step of the journey, promising, “It only hurts this much right now.”
This knowledge spurs Christians to walk alongside Swift and others on their sleepless journeys. We can hear the echo signaling that there is something waiting for us beyond the labyrinth. However, while others are pointing to self-discovery, human relationships, or mysterious karma, Christians can sing of the paradoxical God who never sleeps but intimately knows our sleepless state through Christ. The one who meets us at midnight and walks with us every step of the way.
She shows that we are not alone in our sleeplessness, and that there are many other factors at play.
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