The Unparalleled Literary Presence of Taylor Swift in English Literature Programs

In spring 2021, I embarked on a new podcast venture called Studies in Taylor Swift, where I found myself navigating the uncharted territory of the emerging field of Taylor Swift studies. While there was hardly any existing literature on analyzing Swift’s work in an academic context, I had no trouble locating guests who possessed expertise in teaching Swift or delving into the scholarly implications of her lyrics.

Then, in 2023, I had the opportunity to develop a summer school course at Queen Mary University of London centered around Taylor Swift and literature. This course garnered attention from the media, albeit due to a journalist reaching out to me to verify if my class had been the first of its kind. However, it was actually a literature class at The University of Texas at Austin in 2022 that broke ground as the initial academic exploration of Swift’s work to attract significant media recognition.

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Before diving into the topic at hand, it is worth noting that Swift has been a presence in English departments for quite some time. As an example, when her song “cardigan” was released in 2020, I utilized it as a teaching tool in an introductory English class. The focus was on close reading, a method of analyzing a text that involves examining specific details.

One specific line from the song that sparked a discussion was “You drew stars around my scars / But now I’m bleedin'”. The aim was to unravel the purpose of the conjunction “but” and whether it implied the reopening of old scars or the creation of new ones. We delved into the various interpretations of drawing stars around the speaker’s scars, such as transforming pain into art, diverting attention from it, fetishizing it, or even potentially planning future harm to oneself.

By taking the time to closely analyze and interpret these lyrics, we were able to explore the many layers of meaning within Swift’s work. It is through such discussions that we can gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities of language and storytelling.

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In addition to English literature, various academic fields like media studies, fan studies, and celebrity studies have already conducted significant research on Taylor Swift’s life and career. However, even before becoming a subject for lectures and seminars, Swift’s work was already being read and discussed by many people, including our students, with the same level of attention typically given to literary texts.

Swift actively encourages this level of engagement with her intricate web of interconnected references. For instance, her 2022 song “Maroon” serves as a more mature rendition of her earlier work “Red,” which was also the title of her 2012 album centered around a doomed love affair. This aligns with her inclination, showcased in songs like “cardigan,” to utilize imagery of blood and rust to depict the sticky and challenging conclusion of a relationship.

With an understanding of Swift’s extensive body of work, “Maroon” transcends being solely about a failed relationship. It also delves into the speaker’s personal journey of repeatedly finding themselves stuck in the past, akin to being “marooned” on a deserted shore.

Swift’s influence is not the first instance of recent popular culture infiltrating academia. Many universities now offer courses on works like Harry Potter, and one of the first subjects I taught in an academic setting, as a guest seminar leader, was Fifty Shades of Grey.

However, the concept of incorporating Taylor Swift into literature classes seems to have captured the attention of the general public. In discussions within the media, there is often a parallel drawn between Swift and Shakespeare.
For example, when scholar Sir Jonathan Bate wrote an article praising Swift’s work, the headline and subhead emphasized his background as a Shakespeare professor (although he is currently a professor of environmental humanities). The Times even published a quiz alongside Bate’s article, challenging readers to determine whether a particular line was written by Swift or Shakespeare.
Similarly, when medievalist Elizabeth Scala included Swift in a class that covered various writers, the media once again highlighted the fact that Shakespeare was being taught alongside Swift. Despite Scala’s expertise in medieval romance, historiography, and culture, one headline referred to her as a “Shakespeare scholar.”
This repeated focus on Swift’s newfound connection and potential resemblance to the famous English writer leads me to believe that the interest in integrating Swift into literature classes is driven not so much by a desire to teach Swift herself, but rather by her status as an “author.”

The idea that analyzing Swift’s words in a university environment challenges Shakespeare’s dominance in literary studies is often discussed, whether in a negative or positive light. However, this belief stems from a common misconception about what actually occurs in literature classes, including Shakespeare-focused ones.

Although the approach to English literature has evolved since the 1960s, placing less emphasis on viewing authors as stand-alone figures of significance and authority, and more on understanding texts as products influenced by societal and linguistic factors, there still persists a perception that we primarily teach specific authors, particularly Shakespeare.

Having experience teaching both Shakespeare and Swift, I can confidently say that discussions about the literary value of popular forms, such as dramatic writing or song lyrics, are inevitable. It becomes apparent that it is challenging to separate our personal thoughts and feelings about a work from the societal value we have been taught to assign to it.

What truly matters is not whether Swift can be compared to Shakespeare. What matters is that the field of English literature is adaptable, inclusive, and open-minded. When studying Swift’s work as literature, it is essentially just another English class, as every English class necessitates exploring the concept of reading any text as literature. This holds true for even the revered works of Shakespeare.

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