Taylor made: What university students are learning from the music icon - Hindustan Times
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Taylor made: What university students are learning from the music icon

BySukanya Datta
Oct 21, 2023 07:16 PM IST

Varsities are teaching courses in Taylor Swift – social psychology, literature, feminism. Take a peek at the debates, and the history of popstars in academia.

We can plant a memory garden

 (Images: Adobe Stock; Getty; HT imaging: Monica Gupta) PREMIUM
(Images: Adobe Stock; Getty; HT imaging: Monica Gupta)

Say a solemn prayer, place a poppy in my hair…

And we will never go back

To that bloodshed, crimson clover

Uh-huh, the worst was over…

That’s from Taylor Swift’s The Great War (Midnights; 2022).

At Ghent University in Belgium, students of linguistics and literature are examining the lyrics of this and other Swift songs, seeking parallels with the verses of poets such as Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, William Shakespeare. In particular, they are studying how Swift, 33, and the 14th-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer use metaphors of war in works on love.

College-goers in at least five other universities are poring over the singer-songwriter’s discography, in courses launched between 2022 and 2023. In streams of study ranging from social psychology and the music industry to the liberal arts and business, the courses deconstruct her lyrics to explore themes such as the rules of critical thinking, ideas of ownership and identity, studies of fandom, literary feminism, and the individual’s impact on the zeitgeist.

Red between the lines

Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it

I’d like to be my old self again

But I’m still trying to find it

At Arizona State University, students of social psychology are exploring concepts of revenge, rivalry, conflict, social development and escapism, through her songs. Every week, course coordinator Alexandra Wormley picks a few tracks by Swift that relate to a subject in the syllabus. There is plenty to choose from; Swift has released more than 200, many of these written or co-written by her too.

Meanwhile, at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), first-year liberal arts students are playing and replaying the five-minute and 10-minute versions of Taylor Swift’s All Too Well (see lyrics above).

The first version is from her original catalogue, which her first record label resold, against her wishes. To reclaim her music, Swift re-recorded four albums, which is a legal but daunting thing to do (which is why not a lot of other angry artists have done it). She re-released the songs with the words Taylor’s Version attached, indicating that all proceeds would go to her.

The 10-minute version of All Too Well, released in 2021, includes four new stanzas that make it more intimate and vulnerable as a break-up ballad. But that isn’t what the students are discussing. They’re talking about what the existence of these two parallel tracks says about ownership, control, and the eco-cultural frameworks of our time.

Can an artist have total control over their work? How does that change the way we think about the work itself?

The Taylor Swift Songbook, which is what the course is called, also explores interpretation, linguistic traditions, and approaches to critical analysis and research, through the lens of Swift’s music. “Because she is acutely conscious of the act of remembrance and how her life is unfolding, the popstar’s lyrics are an excellent tool to understand interpretation in particular,” says course coordinator and professor Elizabeth Scala.

New arrangements

Swift is not, by a long shot, the first music icon to draw academic attention. Others studied in this manner include Beyoncé, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

Beyoncé has served as the face of a number of courses on black feminist thought and experience, in countries ranging from the US to Denmark. Swift is arguably one of the most widely represented musicians across academic streams.

There has been a rise in the number of courses focused on individual pop stars, says music and culture journalist Bhanuj Kappal.

With the internet and social media easing barriers of access and discovery, and contributing to the fragmentation of the music industry, there is no one cultural or musical movement that has the potential to capture the world’s attention anymore (as, say, jazz did in the 1920s and ’30s), Kappal adds. Hence the shift to single-celebrity focus.

The genre is the person. Which is why, for instance, certain American media organisations now have Taylor Swift and Beyoncé reporters.

Part of this, of course, is the result of circumstance; part of it is careful design. Where earlier music superstars were largely endorsers, the internet, ecommerce and social media have made it possible for today’s to be business magnates too.

As the billionaire rapper Jay-Z put it: “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man!” He owns a record label, a talent-management company, a music-streaming service, in addition to collaborations with and investments in giants in the food and beverage, entertainment and fashion spaces.

Beyoncé similarly owns and collaborates with entertainment companies, fashion and cosmetics brands, among other business enterprises. Swift engages with fans directly, in ways that are being labelled “marketing genius”. She leaves a trail of Easter Eggs across albums, for instance, that fans can spend months trying to find and decode.

Some include personal secrets hidden, for example, in the pen name of a co-writer. (“William Bowery” turned out to be former boyfriend Joe Alwyn, the name taken from his great-grandfather, William Alwyn, and The Bowery Hotel, where Swift and Alwyn first met.)

Fifteen years after Britney Spears lost control over her entire estate, while still creating and generating revenue, this is a new world of artists who have fought for, wrested and retain the reins.

“Technology allows them to hybridise their art, their presence and influence. They’re no longer beholden to studios or big corporations or other kinds of external forms of control,” Scala says.

And they sing about it, in songs such as The Man (Lover; 2019).

I’d be a fearless leader

I’d be an alpha type

When everyone believes ya

What’s that like?

I’m so sick of running as fast as I can

Wondering if I’d get there quicker

If I was a man

And I’m so sick of them coming at me again

‘Cause if I was a man...

I’d be the man

“Swift is someone who actively thinks about the writing in her songs — the act of it, as well as visualising her journey as a book,” Scala says. “This is what makes her songs good study material. It was while listening to the re-recorded album Red (Taylor’s Version; 2021) that I started realising her work lends itself well to the idea of interpretation, deep reading and critical analysis that I hope to get my students to learn.”

There is, of course, the eternal question of whether Swift’s art has driven her fame, or vice-versa. Why her as the subject of these courses rather than, say, the unique and edgy Billie Eilish? Would the primary difference, if we were being honest, be sheer scale and saleability?

It’s a worrying thought, Kappal notes. “This kind of approach has, in the past, led to the mindset that commercial success is the defining factor to determine whether or not you’re worth being engaged with critically.” That mindset is a big part of why Milton and van Gogh died uncelebrated; why the world then swung in the other direction and feted anyone with the hint of great promise, in an effort to avoid making that mistake again.

But then the world turns again, or does it?

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