After this year, we’re all majoring in Taylor Swift

After this year, we’re all majoring in Taylor Swift

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — On a Saturday night in early November, Taylor Swift went out in New York City. Within hours, fans started dissecting every pixel of the paparazzi photos: the presence of longtime squad members Selena Gomez and Gigi Hadid; Swift’s Stella McCartney bag and thigh-high boots; the appearance of Brittany Mahomes, the wife of a teammate of Swift’s boyfriend, Travis Kelce, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs.

During the same weekend, roughly 800 miles away at Indiana University, another group of people also scrutinized every facet of Taylor Swift — but in the context of “the politics of longing” and the “deconstruction of time and memory” and “the grand unified theory of female pain.”

“And so, my overall argument for today is that Taylor Swift’s work is a source of escapism and comfort within the precarity of late-stage capitalism,” said Amelia Morris, a lecturer of communications at the University of Exeter in England. “And this thesis can be condensed into two points.”

The small theater was filled with students armed with notebooks and steaming cups of coffee, as well as a desire to better comprehend the most ubiquitous yet unknowable being of our time.

“Number one,” Morris said: “I argue that nostalgic girlhood is the anchor of Taylor Swift’s work, and a template for fans to explore their own experiences of gender and sexuality …”

In 2023, Swift reached a rarified echelon of celebrity: one who can ignite the internet by taking a single step outdoors and inspire two full days’ worth of scholarly analysis — specifically at “Taylor Swift: The Conference Era,” an academic assembly to study Swift’s musical, cultural and societal impacts.

“The question that I’ve gotten over and over again while planning this conference has been: ‘Why? Why Taylor Swift?’” organizer Natalia Almanza, of Indiana University, told attendees. “I’m going to answer that in the best way that I can: by introducing you all to roughly 30 Swiftie and Swiftie-adjacent scholars who are going to answer it for me.”

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Even though I have covered Swift for the past decade — and followed her career since her debut single hit country radio in 2006 — this was an area of the Swift phenomenon that I had not previously explored. I occasionally saw news that yet another elite institution was offering an individual class about Swift, such as Stanford University’s “The Last Great American Songwriter: Storytelling With Taylor Swift Through the Eras.”

But I was unaware of the depth of Swift scholarship until I arrived at Indiana University’s Buskirk-Chumley Theater on a lovely fall morning — and picked up a schedule that offered lectures such as “Aesthetic Jurisdiction, Parasocial Engagement, and Negative Space Intellectual Property in the Taylor Swift Fandom.”

And “Joy as Affective Rebellion and Feminine Power in the Music and Life of Taylor Swift.”

I was overwhelmed. One presentation promised to explore “Escapism Through the Lens of Intertextuality and Lacanian Ideals in Taylor Swift’s folklore,” and I pretended to know what was going on as I discreetly googled Jacques Lacan. Suddenly, I was back in college, and I had forgotten to bring a laptop to class, and I was taking notes on my phone, and I didn’t know what metric manipulation was or how it affected Swift’s storytelling.

Until this moment, I would have confidently ranked myself as an expert in the field of Swiftian studies. How much more was there to learn about her?

I spent a lot of time this year reporting on the ways that Swift and the Eras Tour consumed our culture. This included many hours of observing and talking to the unshakably devoted Swift fandom. The Swifties, who only keep multiplying as parents introduce her music to their kids, were the driving force of everything.

An unprecedented demand for tickets sparked a congressional hearing about consolidation in the ticketing industry.

Cities on the tour saw record-breaking levels of tourism, which helped give a multibillion-dollar boost to the U.S. economy.

The nearly $100 million opening weekend for “The Eras Tour” movie was the most lucrative domestic release of a concert film ever.

I watched fans sob at the opening-night concert in Glendale, Ariz., in March as Swift kicked off her first tour in nearly five years. I saw them dance and sing in parking lots outside the stadium in Philadelphia when they refreshed resale sites for hours and still couldn’t get tickets. I listened to them show off how they memorized the set list of the 3½-hour show at the last U.S. stop, in California in August. (Hundreds of thousands of people live-streamed the concerts on TikTok, so they already knew every word, every pause, every note change.) In October, I went to the Chiefs-Jets game to see whether Swifties would travel to East Rutherford, N.J., for a glimpse of Taylor; they did, and some toted binoculars.

At its core, Swift’s relationship with her fans is about her music. Her lyrics describe love and loss and life in such a specific yet universal way that it feels like she’s singing about you. It’s the reason that the “Taylor’s Version” rereleases of her first six albums — which she is rerecording to own her masters — are treated like major events.

“Taylor Swift: The Conference Era” started coming together late last year, after the enormous success of Swift’s 10th studio album, “Midnights,” the first record since 2015 to sell more than 1 million physical copies. Indiana University had experience hosting pop-culture-themed conferences about K-pop and the John Wick franchise, and Swift was a portal into endless subjects: artistry, songwriting, production, capitalism, race, gender, feminism, fandom, social media.

“Many scholars and people have been studying Taylor Swift for a while now,” Almanza told me. “There’s big energy around the field of academic studies talking about Taylor and using her to communicate other things in arts and humanities.”

About 75 people submitted papers, Almanza said, and about 1,000 people attended the conference, making this the first Swift conference of its size and scope. One academic told her that, after speaking at events focused on Bob Dylan, Nirvana and the Beatles, they were thrilled to discuss a prominent female artist.

The weekend at Indiana included a Swift dance party, trivia and karaoke; some traded friendship bracelets, wore Eras Tour merchandise and posed for pictures with Swift cutouts. There was an interactive screening of “Cats,” the 2019 movie musical starring Swift. During “A Rhetorical Examination of Taylor Swift’s Revision Process,” the presenter tried to play a video of Swift and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff writing the lyrics to “Getaway Car,” but the clip didn’t work.

“I could act it out for you,” said one person in the audience, drawing knowing laughs, because any self-respecting Swift fan has seen the video countless times.

But organizers believed it was important to feature presentations from both Swifties and objective observers that contained a critical lens. This wasn’t just going to be a Swift lovefest.

Attendees pondered whether Swift’s online activity was genuine outreach to fans or a cunning marketing strategy.

They discussed Swift’s sporadic political outspokenness.

They talked about seeing Swift accept the 2016 Grammy for album of the year with only male collaborators onstage.

They analyzed Swift’s relationship to feminism — specifically White feminism — and how it fits into her brand.

“While I am a Swiftie, she’s not perfect, and no celebrity is,” Almanza said. “I think having that holistic view was really important to me going into the conference.”

When Madison Lazenby saw the call for papers for the conference this summer, she had already been thinking about the controversy surrounding Swift and Matty Healy when the two were romantically linked. Healy, lead singer of the British band the 1975, has been criticized for offensive comments, including laughing and agreeing when a podcast host made racist comments about the rapper Ice Spice. Some Swift fans launched a campaign asking Swift to publicly address Healy’s behavior. (She never did.) Lazenby did a deep dive into the topic that wound up as a presentation called “Attempts for Accountability and Fandom Preservation Politics in the #SpeakUpNow Open Letter.”

“Everyone was coming into this with an appreciation for Taylor Swift, but also wanting to [talk about] their analysis and criticism,” Lazenby, a recent Hamilton College graduate, told me. “It felt like a very productive space, since it was able to do both.”

As a pop culture reporter, I find myself in an unfortunate number of conversations defending my beat. Pop culture is a reflection of society — what we believe, what we fear, what we desire — and is therefore a topic worth covering extensively. So I was especially intrigued by the keynote from Mary Fogarty of Toronto’s York University, who co-edited a special issue of Contemporary Music Review in 2021 called “Taking Taylor Seriously.”

During her presentation, Fogarty, an associate professor of dance, pointed out the significance of having a conference about Swift at a university, a place where people learn what matters.

“What I loved the most about the conference was that people really were doing that kind of critical engagement with Taylor Swift as a star and a persona,” Fogarty said when I talked to her afterward, adding that she thinks that Swift is “invigorating” the study of popular music. “But people were addressing it head-on and showing the kind of seriousness that can come out of looking at a really significant historical figure, … which Taylor Swift is.”

I can already hear the howls of protest in the comment section for this article. Calling Swift a significant historical figure will inevitably trigger comments such as “WHO CARES?” and “Shame on WaPo for covering this!” and the classic “Who?”

At this point, a generation’s time span into her career, Swift’s existence hits a nerve in people they might not even realize, particularly in regards to her womanhood as she enters her mid-30s. Many of the Q&As involved technical queries or analyses of Swift’s work. But when Amelia Morris sat for her panel — after presenting on “Taylor Swift, Bedroom Cultures and Escapism in an Age of Precarity” — one woman in the audience asked about when Swift might get married and have babies with Kelce.

“I found it really fascinating, because it really kind of speaks to this anxiety around unmarried women and the kind of obsession with heteronormativity,” Morris said after. “Even for someone like Taylor Swift, who is mythologized.”

Morris said her students laugh when she gives them an article from a Shakespeare scholar who compares Swift to the Bard. Morris theorized that it’s because Swift’s work speaks deeply to the feelings of young women and validates teenage emotions, which many people find “suspicious.” Later, Morris told me that there was plenty of nasty commentary on X, formerly Twitter, when the conference was announced, calling it a waste of time, and organizers received rude emails from fellow academics.

“It shows how there’s still such a snobbery and gatekeeping both within academia and within wider media narratives about what we see as kind of serious points of scholarship,” she said.

Sitting through hours of these panels, I grew less intimidated by the academic surroundings and felt more of a kinship with attendees who took pop culture as seriously as I did. Although it was a bit daunting to think about “Timbral Nostalgia Explored through Taylor Swift’s Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” and “Taylor Swift as Transmedia Storyteller,” there was a sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone why Swift is someone who deserves this level of research. Everyone already knew.

In February, the Eras Tour will continue its trek across the world, boomeranging back to the United States in fall 2024. And her conference era will continue, too. More academic events are planned for next year,including a “Swiftposium” at the University of Melbourne in Australia that received more than 400 submissions.

Sure, Taylor Swift is not William Shakespeare — but isn’t the comparison making more and more sense? She’s only 34. The canon, already vast, will keep growing.

As I left the conference, I thought about how one presenter called Swift’s fan base “unmanageably large.” Surely that will keep growing, too, and we’ll need study and analysis to keep pace, especially as the meaning and context of her work change over time.

As I witnessed this year, Swift means something different to everyone. There will always be something for us to rave about, to think about, to debate or dissect or criticize or praise. So maybe the question isn’t: “How much more is there to learn about Taylor Swift?”

Maybe it’s: “Will we ever have time to learn it all?”

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