Taylor Swift at Harvard

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Written By Pinang Driod

Last month, Harvard announced that I would be teaching a class next semester called “Taylor Swift and Her World,” an open-enrollment lecture partly about Swift’s work and career and partly about literature (poems, novels, memoirs) that overlaps with, or speaks to, that work. When the news came out, my inbox blew up with dozens of requests, from as far away as New Zealand. Reporters wanted to know whether Swift would visit the course (not expecting her to), whether her online superfans were involved (some will be), whether Harvard approved (yes, at least so far), and, above all, why a Millennial pop star deserves this kind of treatment at a world-class university.

In some ways, the answer is simple. If the humanities ought to study culture, including the culture of the present day, and Taylor Swift is all over that culture, then of course we should ask why and how the Swift phenomenon came to be. That’s what a cultural historian of the future would do, looking back at how Americans embraced Swift as an artist, debated her rise, and changed their perceptions of her over time. It’s also what a cultural anthropologist would do, decoding the rituals around Swift’s concerts and album drops, or finding cross-cultural patterns in the way that her fans respond to her voice and her work.

I’m a literary critic, though. I write and teach, most often, about how individual works of art and artists function: how the parts of a piece of literature fit together, how they sound, what they say, and what they do for us when we read, hear, or see them. Does Taylor Swift really merit that kind of attention?

Again, yes. College English courses are of course meant to challenge students, but students also benefit from studying art that they love—art new and old, art in many genres. Works of art—unlike, say, protein-folding experiments or criminal-law trials—exist to move us, to delight us, to transform our emotional lives as well as to change our mind. As the literary scholar Rita Felski has argued, we can learn best about particular kinds of art, and why or whether they matter, by asking what they do to and for the people who love them—especially if those people are us.

My students will analyze Swift’s work, think in detail about it, maybe create footnotes to it, in order to see how the verbal skills and musical elements that move us are not just all in our head—they are choices Swift makes to communicate a particular message or feeling. Students will in turn gain tools for literary and cultural analysis that they can take along as they study other eras and other words, and hopefully discover more art that they love.

People love Taylor Swift for good reasons. She is a songwriter of genius, both as a lyricist and as a musician—one whose work is sophisticated enough to reward close study. Although it goes against a few generations of Dylanology, college classes on Beatles lyrics, and the like to say this, songs (at least in the era of recorded music) don’t work the way page-based poems do—no more so, at least, than novels work like stage plays or stand-up comedy works like memoirs. Taylor Swift writes witty, insightful, sometimes profound words that require tunes and music, and the music requires the words. I’m no musicologist, but I do know something about chords and melodies, and my class will look at how they drive and support her lyrics.

To take one example: Swift’s 2022 song “Anti-hero,” which addresses her public image and the way that both she and her fans have viewed her tumultuous, breakup-studded love life. The final line of the chorus—“It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero”—speaks to the status she knows she’s gained, as the target of both parasocial devotion and brickbats. She knows that her fans might be getting tired of defending her against every slight, but she surely feels exhausted too; she’s projecting. The song’s force comes through not just in the words but in the descending leaps that carry the vocal melody, ending the chorus a full octave plus a major third below the high me near where the chorus begins. The antihero gets a swift descent, and an anticlimax: She’s tired of her turmoil, and she knows we are too, but we keep watching.

I’m not the only one who believes Swift’s body of work fits this kind of analysis. (I’m not even the only college professor teaching a class about her.) My students will be reading my favorite literary writers’ pop-music criticism (Carl Wilson’s, for example), about Swift and other artists. We will be hearing and thinking about other pop-song writers whose skill sets overlap with Swift’s—some of them famous, like Dolly Parton and Prince, and others (Scott Miller, Marcy Mays, Keith Girdler) who had worse luck or fewer extramusical skills to navigate the star-making machinery.

I would not be teaching this course if I did not love Swift’s songs. But I would not be teaching this course, either, if I could not bring in other works of art, from other genres and time periods, that will help my students better understand Swift and her oeuvre. We will be reading two novels by Willa Cather about ambition, talent, and femininity in an earlier Middle America—novels about young women who want to become self-sustaining, recognized musicians, one who succeeds and one who fails. We will be reading James Weldon Johnson’s sharp-edged, irony-driven 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex–Colored Man, about a very different set of barriers for a young man who seeks musical success.

We will also look at three centuries of page-based poetry, meant to be read, not sung, on other topics central to Swift: childhood nostalgia and adulthood regret (William Wordsworth); girlhood, daughters, and heterosexual pessimism (Laura Kasischke); reactions to the haters and the low-down dirty cheats (Alexander Pope). I’ll take advantage, frankly, of a classroom full of Swifties to introduce hundreds of students to these poems. I will also help us attend to the way those poems describe being 15, or being 7, or being a constant target for unruly fans and resentful rivals in the streets of London—an experience that the Swift of her album Reputation shared with the Pope who wrote the great “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.”

People (like me) who think that college English courses should study works of art we take pleasure in will, I hope, be happy with these choices. So will people (like me) who think that college English courses should build analytical skills that can be applied in other contexts. As for the people (unlike me) who think that college English classes should focus on classics, on works that have stood the test of time (how much time? whose test? what kinds of works?), I hope they’ll end up happy with this course too. If you want, and I do, more undergraduates to read Pope and Wordsworth, Cather and Johnson, you might notice how many students will come for the Taylor and stay for the other writers involved.

The course, if it works, isn’t just a way to write about and listen to lots of Swift. It’s a way into centuries of literary creation in novels and memoirs, page-based verse, and prose. It’s a way, too, into literary and cultural reception: What do fans do with the work and the artists they admire? That said, it’s also a way through the work of one particular artist, one who has shown many of us her life, and even our own life, in her songs—an artist worthy of study, an artist so many of us already love.

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