How Taylor Swift became the Trojan horse of academia

Taylor Swift performs during "The Eras Tour" in Nashville, Tenn., May 5, 2023. According to Spotify Wrapped, Swift was 2023's most-streamed artist globally.

Taylor Swift performs during “The Eras Tour” in Nashville on May 5.George Walker IV/APCNN — 

Taylor Swift once said that if she were not a record-breaking, hit-making, three-time-Grammy-album-of-the-year winning superstar (our adjectives, not hers), she would’ve liked to have returned to the classroom.

“I would have gone to college, and I would probably be involved with a form of business where words and ideas are at the forefront,” she told GQ in 2015. “Such as marketing.”

She might be a bit too famous now to sit in on a business class for a marketing degree. But her music and persona have proven ripe for academic dissection on college campuses, amongst Swifties or otherwise.

Universities across the US, from Harvard to the University of Texas at Austin to Stanford, are now offering courses on Swift’s body of work and the decade-plus-long discourse her work and life have inspired. It’s a fitting honor for the singer-songwriter, whose stardom and success have reached new heights in 2023.

Arizona State this semester offered a course on the psychology of Swift’s songs. At the University of Florida, honors students will study the role of women in popular music beginning with Swift and moving onto Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin.

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At UC Berkeley, she’s inspired a business course in artistic entrepreneurship for her meticulous crafting of her own image and the lengths she’s gone to to own her work. And, naturally, the wordsmith has also inspired a bevy of English classes comparing her work to that of titans of the Western canon, from Shakespeare to Yeats.

Taylor Swift is something of an academic Trojan horse — including her name in a course description might immediately grab students’ attention, but instructors know now how to engage students by framing a potentially heady subject through the lens of possibly the most famous woman on Earth (or at the very least, Time’s “Person of the Year” for 2023).

“(Swift) gives us this lever to talk about what we’re otherwise having more difficulty convincing people is important,” said Elizabeth Scala, a professor of medieval romance, historiography and culture at the University of Texas at Austin, who next semester will reprise her literary studies course that uses Swift’s songbook as one of its primary texts.

The student response has been rapturous: Melina Jimenez, a senior lecturer who’s teaching the upcoming Swift course at the University of Florida, said her course, capped at 15 students, filled within seconds once registration opened.

Per instructors who teach her work, Swift’s music can do what many academics have tried and failed to do before — get students genuinely excited to learn something. It’s also much easier to write an essay about Chaucer when you’re comparing his work to one of Swift’s many earworms.

Swift’s appeal to students has made classes engaging and exciting

Before teaching their respective classes on Swift, the singer-songwriter had infiltrated instructors’ lives in various ways: Scala’s younger daughter is a diehard Swiftie and quizzes her mother on her favorite “Taylor’s Version” vault tracks. Jimenez listened in on Swift-centric conversations between her students but couldn’t decipher their meaning due to her not being a Swiftie.

“She’s the last monoculture,” Scala said. “Everybody can come together and enjoy (her music). It’s both highly specific and biographical but also really, really relatable to anyone.”

Scala’s literary studies class used to get students hooked through J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular “Harry Potter” series, but she was growing bored with the curriculum she’d built around the boy who lived. Then, in late 2021, Scala along with millions watched the premiere of Swift’s “All Too Well” short film, depicting a relationship gone sour set to the new, lengthier version of a song from Swift’s album “Red.”

While listening to “All Too Well,” Scala started, nearly inadvertently, drawing a curriculum around the song. She heard in its lyrics comparisons to the works of Homer. She found Swift playing with different literary forms and traditions. Even the debate between which version of the song was the true iteration felt like its own lesson.

“That’s when the popcorn went off in my head,” Scala said.

She asked her daughter, the Swiftie, to be sure the Swift-centric course would be as exciting to fans as it was to her, an academic. Her daughter told her it would likely be one of the most popular courses at the University of Texas at Austin.

Taylor Swift waves after speaking during a graduation ceremony for New York University at Yankee Stadium in New York, Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

Taylor Swift waves after speaking during a graduation ceremony for New York University in May 2022.Seth Wenig/AP

The first iteration of her Swift course, called “The Taylor Swift Songbook,” was offered in 2022. It was one of the first Swift-themed classes taught at a major university, along with New York University’s course that explored “the appeal and aversions” of Swift, taught by Rolling Stone journalist Brittany Spanos.

Suddenly, Scala’s students were finding new layers to appreciate about “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the Shakespeare plays to which high schoolers are most often subjected. When Scala reframed Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting like a song — uttering flowery quatrains at each other, the lovebirds make a sonnet, she said — her students finally found something new and exciting in the centuries-old text they found boring just a few years earlier. (It helps, too, that Swift incorporated Shakespeare’s doomed lovers into one of her most popular early songs.)

Part of the reason why Jimenez is offering her course at UF is to better understand the intense idolatry that follows Swift, she said. Swift’s fame has only multiplied in the years since her debut — even after “1989,” which many critics assumed was Swift’s artistic peak.

Then, in the pandemic came “Folklore” and “Evermore,” folk-influenced records featuring well-regarded indie artists like Bon Iver and The National. After that, came “Taylor’s Versions,” re-recordings of her albums with masters she did not have ownership of, and “Midnights.” And then, this year, she kicked off the blockbuster Eras Tour, the highest-grossing concert tour in history. Oh, and she recorded the tour for a film version of her concert, which became its own phenomenon.

Jimenez may not have been a born and bred Swiftie like many of her students, but she understood the cultural impact of women artists who preceded Swift — Parton, Franklin and Billie Holiday are regarded as feminist heroes who’ve irrevocably changed their industry and art.

“More than anything else, selfishly, I want to learn what makes Swift so interesting for young people,” Jimenez said. “But I also want to find connections with other women artists who have stirred similar feelings with older generations, and hopefully introduce (them to) students (who) hadn’t given (them) much thought because they hadn’t spent the same time with their lyrics.”

The classes ask hard questions about Swift, too

These Swift-centric classes aren’t about idol worship, though they are often heavily populated (and often taught) by Swifties.

Katherine Jeng, a student at Rice University who this semester taught the one-credit class “Miss Americana: The Evolution and Lyrics of Taylor Swift,” told CNN she wanted her curriculum to acknowledge criticisms of Taylor. This includes accusations of leveraging “rainbow capitalism,” or publicly supporting the LGBTQ community for financial gain, on the album “Lover,” or drawing ire for remaining publicly apolitical until after the 2016 election.

She wanted these conversations, similar to the ones she and her fellow students were having outside the classroom, to take place while encouraging students that it’s okay to still love a pop culture colossus who’s a work-in-progress.

“I wanted to make sure we allowed for space to recognize how she’s learning and growing as a person and as a celebrity,” she said.

Taking Swift seriously, flaws and all, has been a major element of her public reappraisal since “Reputation,” her 2017 album recorded after a public flap with Kanye West and his then-wife Kim Kardashian. She’s been a critical darling throughout her career, but her public relationships have often outshone whatever art she’s making. Her early material’s focus on girlhood, young love and heartbreak, among other familiar themes to anyone who’s been 16, hasn’t always been considered serious work worthy of recognition.

But Ava Jeffs has always taken Swift seriously. The Stanford sophomore views each of her albums as self-contained storybooks, with their own worlds, characters, motifs. She’s grown up with Swift, relating more to her music the older she gets. She even wrote her Stanford application essay on Swift’s song “Clean,” the final track on her renowned “1989,” which she rerecorded this year.

“(Swift) kind of, in a way, helped me get here,” Jeffs told CNN.

In the spring, she’ll teach a course about Swift’s narrative storytelling through song. She sees Swift as a lifelong English teacher, in a way, and her close reads of Swift’s songs have prepared her for her first time teaching, she said.

“They can get as much out of the work as I did, and as I do now,” Jeffs said. “They can use that in their own life to process things. That’s what people get from stories and songs — someone putting into words what you can’t sometimes. I think that’s what Taylor’s always done.”

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