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.Swift attained a rare level of celebrity in 2023, inspiring two full days’ worth of scholarly analysis by taking a single step outside — specifically at “Taylor Swift: The Conference Era,” an academic gathering to study Swift’s musical, cultural, and societal impacts.”The question I’ve been asked over and over again while planning this conference is, ‘Why?'” “Why Taylor Swift?” organizer Natalia Almanza of Indiana University asked. “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.”
Despite having covered Swift for the past decade and following her career since her debut single hit country radio in 2006, this was an aspect of the Swift phenomenon that I had not before investigated. I periodically heard that another prestigious institution, such as Stanford University, was offering a Swift-themed individual class, such as “The Last Great American Songwriter: Storytelling With Taylor Swift Through the Eras.”But I didn’t realize the breadth of Swift scholarship existed until I arrived at Indiana University’s Buskirk-Chumley Theater on a beautiful fall morning and picked up a schedule that included lectures like “Aesthetic Jurisdiction, Parasocial Engagement, and Negative Space Intellectual Property in the Taylor Swift Fandom.”
Furthermore, “Joy as Affective Rebellion and Feminine Power in the Music and Life of Taylor Swift.”I was completely overwhelmed. One lecture claimed to investigate “Escapism Through the Lens of Intertextuality and Lacanian Ideals in Taylor Swift’s Folklore,” and I feigned to understand what was going on while secretly researching Jacques Lacan. I found myself back in college, having failed to bring a laptop to class, taking notes on my phone, and having no idea what metric manipulation was or how it influenced Swift’s storytelling.Until now, I would have firmly proclaimed myself an expert in Swiftian studies. How much more could I learn about her?This year, I spent a lot of time reporting on how Swift and the Eras Tour captivated our culture. This involved several hours of observing and conversing with the steadfast Swift fandom. The Swifties, who are only growing in number as parents expose her music to their children, were the driving force behind everything.
An unusual demand for tickets prompted a Senate hearing on ticket business mergers.Cities on the tour received record-breaking visitors, contributing to a multibillion-dollar boost to the US economy.The Eras Tour” film’s approximately $100 million opening weekend was the most profitable domestic release of a concert film ever.I witnessed fans sobbing when Swift started off her first tour in nearly five years in Glendale, Arizona, in March. When they refreshed resale sites for hours and still couldn’t buy tickets, I witnessed people dance and sing in parking lots outside the stadium in Philadelphia. I watched them demonstrate how they learned the set list for the 312-hour show at the last U.S. stop, in August, in California. (Hundreds of thousands of people watched the concerts live on TikTok, so they knew every phrase, pause, and note change.) I went to the Chiefs-Jets game in October to see if Swifties would go to East Rutherford, N.J., for a glimpse of Taylor; they did, and some brought binoculars.Swift’s relationship with her fans is really about her music. Her words convey love, death, and life in such a personal yet universal way that you get the impression she’s singing about you. It’s why the “Taylor’s Version” reissues of her first six albums — which she’s rerecording in order to own the masters — are considered as significant events.”Taylor Swift: The Conference Era” began to take shape late last year, following the extraordinary success of Swift’s 10th studio album, “Midnights,” the first record to sell more than one million physical copies since 2015. Swift was a portal into limitless subjects: artistry, songwriting, production, economics, race, gender, feminism, fandom, and social media, and Indiana University has experience presenting pop-culture-themed conferences regarding K-pop and the John Wick franchise.”Many scholars and people have been studying Taylor Swift for a while now,” Almanza told me in an interview. “There’s a lot of buzz in academic studies about Taylor and how she can be used to communicate other things in the arts and humanities.”
According to Almanza, over 75 people submitted papers, and about 1,000 people attended the conference, making it the first Swift conference of such size and scope. One professor informed her that after speaking at Bob Dylan, Nirvana, and the Beatles events, they were excited to discuss a notable female musician.The weekend in Indiana featured a Swift dance party, trivia, and karaoke; attendees exchanged friendship bracelets, wore Eras Tour apparel, and posed for photos with Swift cutouts. There was an interactive screening of “Cats,” Swift’s 2019 film musical. During “A Rhetorical Examination of Taylor Swift’s Revision Process,” the presenter attempted to play a video of Swift and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff creating the lyrics to “Getaway Car,” however the video did not play.I could act it out for you,” one audience member said, garnering knowing laughter from every self-respecting Swift fan who has seen the video multiple times.However, organizers felt it was necessary to include talks from both Swifties and impartial observers with a critical view. This wasn’t supposed to be a Swift fan club.Attendees questioned whether Swift’s online participation was genuine fan outreach or a clever business plan.They talked about Swift’s periodic political outbursts.They discussed Swift accepting the Grammy for album of the year in 2016 with solely male colleagues onstage.
Madison Lazenby had already been thinking about the controversy surrounding Swift and Matty Healy when the two were romantically linked when she received the call for papers for the conference this summer. Healy, the main vocalist of the British band the 1975, has been chastised for making unpleasant remarks, including as laughing and agreeing when a podcast presenter made racial remarks against rapper Ice Spice. Some Swift supporters petitioned Swift to publicly confront Healy’s behavior. (She didn’t.) Lazenby undertook extensive research on the subject, culminating in a presentation titled “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, explained. “It felt like a very productive space, since it was able to do both.”
As a pop culture reporter, I find myself in an unsettling number of debates defending my beat. Pop culture is a reflection of society — what we believe, what we fear, and what we seek — and hence deserves thorough coverage. So the keynote from Mary Fogarty of York University in Toronto, who co-edited a special issue of Contemporary Music Review called “Taking Taylor Seriously” in 2021, piqued my interest.During her talk, Fogarty, an associate professor of dance, emphasized the importance of holding a Swift conference at a university, where individuals learn what important.”What I loved most about the conference was that people were really doing that kind of critical engagement with Taylor Swift as a star and a persona,” Fogarty said later, adding that Swift is “invigorating” popular music research. “But people were addressing it head-on and demonstrating the kind of seriousness that can result from looking at a really significant historical figure,… which Taylor Swift is.”I can almost hear the protests in the article’s comment section. Calling Swift a historical figure will surely elicit comments like “WHO CARES?” and “Shame on WaPo for covering this!” as well as the traditional “Who?”
Swift’s existence, a generation’s time span into her career, strikes a nerve in individuals they may not even recognize, particularly in terms of her gender as she enters her mid-30s. Many of the questions and answers included technical issues or critiques of Swift’s work. However, as Amelia Morris sat for her panel after speaking on “Taylor Swift, Bedroom Cultures, and Escapism in an Age of Precarity,” a woman in the audience inquired about Swift’s plans to marry and have children 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 remarked following the event. “Even for someone like Taylor Swift, who is mythologized.”Morris claims her pupils laugh when she shows them an article by a Shakespeare scholar comparing Swift to Shakespeare. Morris hypothesized that it’s because Swift’s art speaks deeply to the experiences of young women and validates adolescent emotions, which many people regard as “suspicious.” Later, Morris informed me that when the conference was announced, there was much of negative feedback on X, formerly Twitter, calling it a waste of time, and organizers received harsh 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 went on to say.
After sitting through hours of these sessions, I felt less intimidated by the academic setting and more connected to participants who took pop culture as seriously as I did. Although thinking about “Timbral Nostalgia Explored Through Taylor Swift’s Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” and “Taylor Swift as Transmedia Storyteller” was a bit scary, there was a sense of comfort that I wouldn’t have to justify to anyone why Swift merits this degree of investigation. Everyone was aware.The Eras Tour will resume its global tour in February, returning to the United States in fall 2024. Her conference era will also continue. More academic events are planned for next year, including a “Swiftposium” at Australia’s University of Melbourne, which got over 400 entries.
Sure, Taylor Swift isn’t William Shakespeare, but doesn’t the connection make sense? She’s only 34 years old. The already massive canon will continue to expand.As I walked out of the conference, I reflected on how one presenter described Swift’s fan base as “unmanageably large.” Surely, it will continue to increase, and we’ll need research and analysis to stay up, especially if the meaning and context of her work shift over time.Swift means different things to different people, as I discovered this year. There will always be something for us to rant about, consider, argue, examine, critique, or praise. So perhaps the question isn’t “How much more is there to learn about Taylor Swift?”Will we ever have time to learn it all?” perhaps.