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This University of Texas professor knows Taylor Swift’s songbook all too well

Eva Rinaldi via Flickr
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

With her 10th studio album set to release next month, Taylor Swift has already solidified herself as one of the most prolific artists of her generation.

Her long and storied career, which started in 2006 with the release of her first album, has been characterized by a transition from a teenage country singer to a global pop sensation. She’s also been the center of a number of high-profile media stories around her personal life – including public fights with Kanye West and record executive Scooter Braun.

Elizabeth Scala, a professor at the University of Texas – and a self-identified Swiftie (a Swift superfan) – is teaching a class focusing on the singer’s catalog and songwriting this semester. Scala spoke to the Texas Standard about how her class is going and the cultural impact of Swift’s music.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: I’m guessing that there’s a similarity between your class and Taylor Swift concerts in that it’s probably standing room only at this juncture, if you have any standing room in that classroom. Is it pretty well-registered?

Elizabeth Scala: It is full. But right now this course is a freshman seminar, so it is full at 16. And I’m thinking about what Taylor Swift does as a songwriter. She’s a well-decorated songwriter. She’s a very good lyricist. And I’m having the students kind of think really hard about the kind of verbal play and figures that they see in Swift’s writing. And then I’m having them go to some really old traditional literature that they may or may not be familiar with. And they’re going to use what they do when they analyze Swift’s writing at that kind of level in detail, and then take it over to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Sylvia Plath, and look at what’s going on in the other literature as well.

Plath, Shakespeare, Marlowe – these are some of the greats. Are Swift’s music and lyrics of that caliber? 

You know, it’s not really a course on literary value, but it is certainly a course on what makes literary value. And, you know, the students would say that they don’t read Shakespeare for fun, but they listen to Taylor Swift all the time. You know, she’s not a poet, so she’s not trying to write something that only appears on the page that you have to hear or understand only through looking at those words as they’re printed and as they’re visually laid out on the page, which is what a poet does. She’s also working with music.

I think you have to look at her writing as a songwriter, not as a poet. But there are certainly poetic aspects to the way she writes a song and constructs the narrative. She’s extremely famous for her bridges – the part of the song that moves between a couple of verses and a repeated chorus to the final verse that kind of concludes the song and takes it to another place. And her bridges, man, are they fantastic.

She gets a lot of attention for being rather autobiographical. Is that fair to say? A lot of her past loves and that sort of thing seem to make appearances. 

You know, the one thing is, if you don’t want a breakup song written about you, don’t date Taylor Swift. I think that’s what people said in the media for some time. But this is really going to be a topic for the class that we talk about because, you know, every writer is drawing on their own experience in some way, even when they’re creating something that’s a complete fiction. So every song is highly autobiographical. Every song is written from a fictive point of view.

One of the things that you’ve talked about in relation to Swift’s music is this concept of “girl culture.” Could you say a little bit more about that and how Taylor Swift has a big role here? 

Absolutely, one of the things that I’ve really been thinking about, possibly because it’s what I know the least about, is her early music. Instead of just thinking of it as her country music origins – she burst on the scene at 16 years old, 17 years old with her first studio album; she won a Grammy Best Album of the year for her second – she was writing about what it was like to be a teenager. Right? Young love, being in high school.

These are the things that made her a huge star with a very young female audience. I think that her initial label, like when they took her on as such a young girl writing about a young girl’s life, like they really rolled the dice and found out there’s a huge market out there, right? A market of young girls consuming things that are important to them, and that’s really kind of paid off. So I think that Swift really speaks to and for that young girl culture. And I’m kind of really interested now in thinking about the modern invention of girlhood – things that we don’t put a lot of value on, and yet they are really, really important to the way girls become women.

Taylor Swift hasn’t been far away from our thoughts, collectively speaking, for some time. She really landed hard with the squabble with Kanye West and the fight over her masters with the record executive manager Scooter Braun. When did this idea to focus on Taylor Swift come to you? Are you, not necessarily a Swiftie, but are you a fan? 

I am a diehard, front of the line, big Swiftie right now. I am absolutely all in. I became a Swiftie over the year or so that my daughter spent home with me from college during the pandemic. She was the DJ on our Spotify. She loves Taylor. We listened to a lot of Taylor Swift, and we talked a lot about the songs from the vault and the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” and the five-minute version of “All Too Well” – and I realized that I was thinking about Taylor Swift all too much.

And because I teach this intro course on literary analysis, writing and research, I just started listening to those songs and thought, wow, you know, I could teach this song in this way and that song in that way. And all of a sudden, the syllabus kind of formed in front of me, and you know, I did it.

Well, let’s have some fun, professor. What should we go out on? Do you have a favorite Taylor Swift song? 

My favorite song changes all the time, but I think it really is “New Romantics.”

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