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Higher Education

Taylor Swift at Harvard

Author: tephanie Burt Source: The Atlantic
December 30, 2023 at 15:45
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty.
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty.

Why the pop superstar’s work is worthy of study
Last month, Harvard announced that I would be teaching a class next semester called “Taylor Swift and Her World,” an open-enrollment lecture partly about Swift’s work and career and partly about literature (poems, novels, memoirs) that overlaps with, or speaks to, that work. When the news came out, my inbox blew up with dozens of requests, from as far away as New Zealand. Reporters wanted to know whether Swift would visit the course (not expecting her to), whether her online superfans were involved (some will be), whether Harvard approved (yes, at least so far), and, above all, why a Millennial pop star deserves this kind of treatment at a world-class university.

In some ways, the answer is simple. If the humanities ought to study culture, including the culture of the present day, and Taylor Swift is all over that culture, then of course we should ask why and how the Swift phenomenon came to be. That’s what a cultural historian of the future would do, looking back at how Americans embraced Swift as an artist, debated her rise, and changed their perceptions of her over time. It’s also what a cultural anthropologist would do, decoding the rituals around Swift’s concerts and album drops, or finding cross-cultural patterns in the way that her fans respond to her voice and her work.

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