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Taylor Swift fans are upset over reports of her breakup. A psychologist explains why

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: If this is true, I cannot fathom how she's doing shows amidst all this.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Entertainment Tonight reports Taylor Swift and her boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn, have broken up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2, BYLINE: My therapist will be hearing about this on Monday.

RASCOE: Swift's fans aren't holding back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3, BYLINE: Please, how am I supposed to listen to "Lover," "Sweet Nothing," et cetera, after this?

RASCOE: These are just some comments taken from Reddit...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4, BYLINE: All too unwell.

RASCOE: ...And dramatized by our WEEKEND EDITION staff. Odds are these commenters don't know Taylor Swift, and yet they seem to feel personally affected. Psychologists call that a parasocial relationship - a one-sided connection we form with people and characters we will never meet. Kate Kurtin is a professor at Cal State Los Angeles who has studied parasocial relationships. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

KATE KURTIN: Hi. Good morning. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: What does a parasocial relationship, especially, like, with a musician, with a singer, rapper, look like? Like, what's the line between a parasocial relationship and just being a fan?

KURTIN: The imagery that I get in my head is a fan is, like, those millions of people that would follow the Beatles around. And when the Beatles would look at them, they would faint outside of their hotel room. Whereas, like, a parasocial relationship, one of the questions that we ask is like, do you want to invite this person to your birthday party? You know, like, I want to hang out with you. I don't just want to see you from afar. I'm not going to break down police barriers to be in your presence. But I think if we hung out, we would have a lot in common.

RASCOE: OK. In a paper you've published, you mentioned this 96-hour live stream that Katy Perry did, which included a therapy session. Like, is that sort of the content that make people feel more connected to a celebrity?

KURTIN: Exactly. And full disclosure, it was Katy Perry that brought me to this line of research. Parasocial relationships are built in the same ways that our friendships, our interpersonal relationships are built. So there are these three layers of attraction. So the first one is social attraction. The consumer wants to be friends with the media persona. Then there's a physical attraction. It could be because we are both women or because we both have brown hair. And then finally is task attraction, the extent to which we believe they are capable and talented and credible.

RASCOE: That's very interesting to, like, break it down like that. These people - like, they're not really relatable to us. Like, they're rich, and they're famous. What is this feeling, like, we can relate to them?

KURTIN: I think some of it is also aspirational. You know, I was asking myself that exact same question with Katy Perry. Our lives at the time really couldn't have been more different. But her message meant something to me. You know, how we were processing politics at the time meant something to me. And so I was able to attach myself to different parts of her personality, and then, honestly, you know, ignore the rest of it. Or say, like, oh, that's just her, just like the way we do with our friends.

RASCOE: Well, it's kind of like you can try to find vague things of, like, relatability, right? Like with Beyonce, I could look at her - we've kind of grown up together...

KURTIN: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...In a way. She's from the South. She has three kids. I have three kids. You know, now she's singing about being a wife and a mother.

KURTIN: And your relationship with Beyonce is empowering.

RASCOE: Taylor Swift is kind of an interesting case because a few years ago, she pulled back from social media and from interviews and - but she still also has this confessional, like, songwriting style.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPINESS")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) There'll be happiness after you, but there was happiness because of you.

KURTIN: I think she's actually phenomenal and doing everything basically textbook. And in the paper, we talk about how there's this less-is-more mentality. With Taylor Swift, she really only lets the fans in in her music...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPINESS")

SWIFT: (Singing) Haunted by the look in my eyes that would have loved you for a lifetime. Leave it all behind, and there is happiness.

KURTIN: ...That we can then listen to over and over and over again and make our own connections. And then the cycle continues, and our relationship just gets stronger and stronger because we feel that she is so authentic.

RASCOE: And the thing, though, now, is that with some of those confessional songs that Taylor Swift wrote, she wrote them about a relationship that has now ended, and that seems to be making fans sad.

KURTIN: I love it so much. I love that fans are grieving with her. You know, we all had love songs until the relationship ended, and now those love songs are breakup songs. With a lot of, certainly, young people, Taylor Swift is teaching them how to think about love, and it's feeling very raw for people, and I love that they are communicating about that in a very real way because these relationships are real. They fill the need that we have for interpersonal connection.

RASCOE: That's Professor Kate Kurtin of Cal State LA. Thank you so much for joining us.

KURTIN: Thank you so much for having me. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.