Why I'm teaching Taylor Swift at Harvard – WBUR News

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The first works of art that I cared about deeply and thoroughly, enough to write about them at stultifying length, were songs: Broadway songs, pop songs, 80s rock songs. Fourteen-year-old me wished she could be a singer-songwriter. Fortunately, I didn’t have the vocal chops. Or the piano chops.
So I became a 1990s fanzine writer, and then a literary critic, writing about the art forms that used only words — poems, essays and novels — while spending way too much of my free time keeping track of my favorite songs and bands.
I met my wife through an email list devoted to then-obscure pop groups like Heavenly. I found the keys to my own trans body by listening first to the angry queer joy of Team Dresch, and then to the quieter femme invitations of Blueboy. These singers and songwriters showed me who I could be. Most of my students have never heard of these bands.
Taylor Swift is different. Everyone with a cell phone knows her face, and it’s hard not to hear her most popular songs. I love them and some of the less well-known ones, too. They speak to my privilege, to my insecurities, to my wish for attention, to my hopes that everybody will love me for who I am. I find myself humming her melodies before bed and upon awakening, I feel (along with several million other Swifties) that she’s speaking for me.
That’s why I wanted to teach a course around her: her voice, her writing, her attitude, her art. And so, Monday afternoon, I go on stage in a Harvard lecture hall for the first lecture in the largest class I’ve ever taught. I’m experiencing wicked stage fright.
This is one of many courses that have sprung up, like mushrooms after rain this year. Mine seems to stand out because it’s a literature course, not a course in business or music production, and it’s taught for credit by a professor. It’s also unusual because we consider the songs as songs, with music and vocals, arrangements and productions, rather than treating them just as we’d treat page-based poems.
The course is called “Taylor Swift and Her World,” which means we won’t just listen to Taylor: We’ll hear other, less famous songwriters. We will read Willa Cather’s novels, and James Weldon Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” and the poetry of Alexander Pope.
Cather writes about white girls growing up in the heartland who want nothing more than to become famous musicians, and Johnson writes about the compromises required to be a performer. Pope writes about being famous and having to handle the sneaks and the haters and the low-down dirty cheats. If it works, we’ll make a few Swifties into fans of early 18th-century poetry, too.
That said, it’s a course about songs, and of course, I have my own favorites.
“Long Live” brings me back to every moment I appeared in public and looked for solidarity from the people near me: the first time I taught a class on my own, the first time I gave a poetry reading in a strange town, the first time I wore a dress on stage and nobody laughed at me.
“May these memories break our fall,” as Taylor hopes — prays? — in that youthful anthem. It holds just as much energy now as it did when I heard it first.
Swifties (like me) who wanted to make our idol as queer as possible gravitated to “Betty” at first because it’s a love song addressed to a girl, but that’s not what makes it so good. Rather, it’s a piece of storytelling with a fictional protagonist, a typically impulsive 17-year-old skater boy named James who couldn’t help himself last summer and wants you, Betty, to know he regrets everything.
Swift uses hammering melodies and simple chord progressions the way a poet like Robert Browning uses pentameters: The sound patterns serve the feelings that serve the character, and even though we only hear one voice, by the end we’ve got a whole social world.
In “All Too Well” (10-minute version), we can connect the dots between the words to the song and the facts about Swift’s life, and treat the song as an elegant memoir. We can look at the song — and at such other anguished and righteous breakup songs as “Dear John” — in the era of #MeToo: teen celeb Taylor learning, fitfully, how to handle, and how to push back against, initially flattering attention from grown-ass men.
And then, hearts smashed on the sidewalk outside the wintertime doorway, scarves abandoned in the kitchen, we can go back to the way Taylor plays with grammar: “you, that’s what happened, you,” where the pronoun turns into a tragic event. Then a noun becomes an adverb: “I remember it all, all, all; They say all’s well that ends well” (a play that might be Shakespeare’s least attractive love story), and only then Taylor remembers it “all too well.”
“The Best Day” (Taylor’s Version, of course) offers an answer to what we do with the privilege we have, if we have any, or if we have a lot. What do we make, if we become stable, successful adults, of the platforms and the resources and the soft blankets and the pastoral settings and, yes, the financial resources into which some of us (myself included) were born? We can deny it, or never mention it.
Or we can acknowledge it and say thanks to the individuals who brought us up, and think about childhood troubles, childhood joys, childhood oddities through that lens. When Taylor sings, “I don’t know why the leaves change in the fall,” she’s placing herself in the mind of the young child we know she can no longer be.
She echoes Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall.” Taylor can’t write tetrameters like Hopkins, but Hopkins couldn’t sing like Taylor can.
And when she sings, about being 13, “I don’t know who I’m gonna talk to now at school,” she’s placing herself alongside her younger listeners, and alongside most of us who were once 13, who remember the crushing finality of peer rejection. Only a few of us — Taylor included —could get this much back, this much (to quote William Wordsworth) abundant recompense: if only everyone’s mom could always be there.
I’m not exactly leading the Eras tour, but in my class, I will be trying to read a very big room and to work the crowd. I don’t want to give lectures from on high but to share a formative experience: to take, and to give, security and self-knowledge and delight through the work of this songwriter who understands as well as any performer ever has why performers need audiences.
I want to share what it means to listen with your whole heart, how solidarity among girls, women, fans — and for that matter, among queer nerds — can do what romance never can. And how an hour or three in a crowd, just listening and finding others like you, can move mountains, fight dragons, lift you up or give you the time of your life.
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Stephanie Burt Cognoscenti contributor
Stephanie Burt is the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard.
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