• The Vindicator

The Literary Legacy of Taylor Swift

Universities embrace the pop star as a narrative icon.

Written by Elise Provident

Taylor Swift is the talk of college campuses across the country, but not for the reason you might think.


This January, New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music launched a course dedicated to the study of Swift’s career. Taught by Rolling Stone contributor and NYU alumna Brittany Spanos, the course follows Swift from her start as the prodigious new face of country music to her current status as a genre-bending singer-songwriter. Shortly after the course was announced, NYU also revealed that Swift would receive an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts for her accomplishments in music and film, in addition to speaking at the commencement ceremony for the class of 2022.


Swift, 32, released her self-titled debut album in 2006 at the early age of sixteen. Since then, Swift has released ten more albums and announced her twelfth, entitled “Midnights,” that will be released on Oct. 21. “Midnights” will be Swift’s first new release since 2020 when she unexpectedly dropped the Grammy-nominated, alternative sister albums “Folklore” and “Evermore” in July and December respectively. “Folklore” won Album of the Year at the 2021 Grammy Awards, establishing Swift as the first female artist in history to win Album of the Year three times. This monumental achievement came less than two years after her being named both the American Music Awards Artist of the Decade and Billboard Woman of the Decade in 2019.

The volume and quality of work produced by Swift in the span of less than two decades, amplified by her determination to release both new and re-recorded content in such a short amount of time, caught the attention of Spanos and NYU.

“Midnights” follows Swift’s decision to re-record her albums created under former label Big Machine Records after her first six albums were controversially sold by executive Scooter Braun in 2019. Despite being re-recordings, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” and “Red (Taylor’s Version)” were tremendous commercial successes of 2021, and the rest of Swift’s re-recordings are highly anticipated by fans. This series of re-recordings has reaffirmed her presence as a force to be reckoned with, both in the music industry and in the court of public opinion.


The volume and quality of work produced by Swift in the span of less than two decades, amplified by her determination to release both new and re-recorded content in such a short amount of time, caught the attention of Spanos and NYU.


“I’ve been covering Taylor Swift since I began my writing career a decade ago and have been a super fan of hers for even longer,” said Spanos in an interview with Variety.

In this way, Scala demonstrates what Swifties have been insisting for well over a decade: Taylor Swift is first and foremost a poet and storyteller.

“To me, the class was a no-brainer when Brittany first suggested it,” said Clive Institute Chair Jason King.“She’s a Taylor fan but she also understands how to contextualize her culturally, and get students to think more deeply about her and her music.”


In her course curriculum, Spanos situates Swift and her music within the lyrical and sonic traditions of the country and pop music industries while highlighting her innovations as an interdisciplinary singer-songwriter. This contextualization places Swift in conversation with predecessors such as Carole King (whom Swift inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021), James Taylor, Dolly Parton, Shania Twain and more. Spanos also encourages her students to consider the influence of race, class and gender in Swift’s body of work. Such sociological analysis requires close readings of her lyrics in the same vein as collegiate-level arts and literature courses.


Elizabeth Scala, professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, focuses on this literary lens of analysis for her new class offered this fall, “The Taylor Swift Songbook.” Instead of situating Swift in the context of other singer-songwriters, Scala analyzes her work in conjunction with literary greats such as Shakespeare, Keats and Frost.

The growing acceptance of Swift as an artist who is not only credible, but also exceptional, implies dramatic changes in how we as a society value women’s art.

Scala says her intention is to demonstrate how Swift elaborates on centuries of literary tradition, both narratively and through the use of figurative language. In this way, Scala demonstrates what Swifties have been insisting for well over a decade: Taylor Swift is first and foremost a poet and storyteller.


This sudden wave of recognition by the music industry and academic institutions comes after years of ridicule towards Swift and her music. As a young woman in the entertainment industry, Swift has encountered a wide variety of criticism for her public persona. Much of the censure directed towards her stemmed from misogyny within the music industry and our societal expectations of what a popstar should or should not be. For years, Swift was degraded as yet another pretty, blond popstar who wrote songs about her seemingly ever-growing list of ex-boyfriends. This pervasive oversimplification of her work diminished her accomplishments as a singer-songwriter, while helping to perpetuate blatantly sexist commentary about Swift circulated by tabloids and pop culture commentators.


In 2017, Swift released the album “Reputation.” The album focuses on her rise and fall in social favor and its effect on her personal relationships, a topic that she elaborates on in the 2020 documentary “Miss Americana.” This documentary and its coinciding album, “Lover” (2019), marked an increase in her reputation, which rose exponentially with the release of her subsequent projects including “Folklore.”

By embracing Swift as an influential, decade-defining artist and writer, universities are vindicating women’s art and the female experience as a whole.

The growing acceptance of Swift as an artist who is not only credible, but also exceptional, implies dramatic changes in how we as a society value women’s art. Our society has a historical tendency to devalue art that is perceived as overtly feminine, especially that which speaks to the experiences or desires of young women and girls.


Swift herself admitted in conversation with Mike Mills at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival that she is “very fascinated and always have been… with this phase of becoming a young woman where you’re this very fragile and vulnerable age.”


Throughout all of her work, Swift champions the experiences of girlhood, emphasizing the best and worst moments of coming of age, falling in (and out) of love, and navigating a male-dominated world. By embracing Swift as an influential, decade-defining artist and writer, universities are vindicating women’s art and the female experience as a whole.


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