In the words of Taylor Swift, life is just a classroom. But in literal classrooms, students are now studying the famed musician.
Professors behind Swift-centered courses in Boston say not only is there huge demand from students for these classes, but also that there’s a lot to be learned from Swift’s artistry.
“She's literally using every single possible technique as far as classical musical developmental techniques,” said Scarlet Keys, a professor at Berklee College of Music. “Rhythmically, she's evolved into this really interesting writer. She's writing hooks that people can't stop singing. And as a literary poet, she's using every rhetorical device from hyperbole to alliteration, to allusion.”
In Keys' “The Music of Taylor Swift” course, which began this fall, she takes students through each of Swift’s albums to explore her lyrics and production. Homework assignments have included studying the modulations in “Getaway Car” and becoming the masterminds of their own musical compositions inspired by Swift.
Keys came up with the idea because her teenage daughter had Swift’s songs on constant rotation.
“I was really kind of noticing the music therapy of Taylor Swift,” Keys said. “And because she continued to be such a sensation and I did see so many students love her, I thought it would be really powerful to learn craft through one artist.”
Other educators, meanwhile, saw Swift's artistry as a way to connect students to other artists and less well-known literary works.
At Harvard University, Stephanie Burt is starting a new English class in the spring centered around the 12-time Grammy winner. “Taylor Swift and Her World” will examine Swift’s songs, along with listening to other famed musicians such as Prince and TLC. Swift’s work will be studied in parallel with works by Willa Cather, James Weldon Johnson, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth and more.
“It is simultaneously a course that appreciates her as an artist, and the spine of the course is really her art and of course that it reaches out to other kinds of literary and critical work," Burt said.
Currently, approximately 300 people are preregistered for the class, but Burt expects the total enrollment to be even higher.
The Harvard professor said she hopes students will come away with a toolkit for cultural and literary analysis, and an interest in the other artists they study in the class.
At Northeastern University, Catherine Fairfield is taking a similar approach. Her intersession course in January, “Speak Now: Gender & Storytelling in Taylor Swift’s Eras,” will explore how Swift engages with histories of women’s storytelling techniques across her musical eras and how she has engaged a global audience.
“We'll be looking at a lot of different literary histories,” Fairfield said. “We're going to be doing kind of a crash course through the eras to look at the aesthetics, the songwriting motifs, things like how gothic romance is brought into different albums, things like playing with 'Jane Eyre' and 'Rebecca' in [Swift’s] lyrics, and doing that on an era by era basis.“
Approximately 400 students are signed up for the class – and Fairfield hopes the class can be expanded to a semester-long course in the future.
Fairfield said students are eager to think critically about Swift’s music and how it connects to women’s culture and songwriting.
“When we study a songwriter, when we study a novelist, when we study a poet,” Fairfield said, “we're using a core number of really important media awareness, textual analysis and cultural study skills.”
And at Berklee, professor Keys says students end up leaving her classroom with more than knowledge.
“Once they're in that class and they're singing together, now they've got oxytocin released in their bloodstream and they're all happy and calm,” Keys said. “They're even making friendship bracelets for the last class.”