From Alice in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby, Rebecca to Jane Eyre, the songs of singer/songwriter Taylor Swift are filled with clear and subtle literary references.
Now, a literature professor in Belgium has seized on the bookish qualities of Swift’s lyrics to launch a course using the US superstar’s songs to delve into the greats of English writing and the themes of their work.
For Elly McCausland, an assistant professor at Ghent University, Swift’s songs offer an opportunity to explore feminism, for example through The Man, and the anti-hero trope through the aptly named song Anti-Hero from her 2022 album, Midnights.
McCausland decided earlier this year to mastermind a course to start in September inspired by Swift’s work after listening to The Great War, also from Midnights.
“The way she uses the war, like a metaphor for a relationship, made me a bit uncomfortable and it got me thinking about Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy, which does a similar thing and also it’s very uncomfortable reading,” the academic told AFP.
McCausland knew all too well the power of the singer’s work as a “real Swiftie” herself and insists that the course, Literature (Taylor’s Version), is a way to make literature “more accessible” and “not to create a Swift fan club”.
“The whole point is to get people to think that English literature is not a load of old books from a long time ago festering in a library. But it’s a living, breathing thing and it’s continually evolving and changing,” she said.
The academic stressed other artists and media could be used for the same goal, for example, Beyonce or even the video-sharing platform TikTok.
McCausland’s course uses Swift’s lyrics as a gateway into reading some of the greats of the literary canon such as William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Thackeray.
Swift refers to the works of several more writers, including Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson, and McCausland noted parallels also with the style of other writers including British Romantic poets of the early 19th century.
In the songs Wonderland and Long story short, Swift mentions going down a “rabbit hole”, a reference to Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In a 2020 conversation with Paul McCartney published by Rolling Stone during the Covid-19 pandemic, the songwriter described her love of words and how she was “reading so much more than I ever did” including Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The course is very popular and McCausland has received requests to join from outside the university, even via private messages on Instagram.
There has been snobbery and criticism online, questioning the merit of using Swift’s work in higher education. McCausland made parallels with the scepticism singer-songwriter Bob Dylan faced after winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature.
Swift has gone from strength to strength since her debut album in 2006, reaching the pinnacle of her career this year with the Eras Tour, currently competing with Beyonce’s Renaissance to become the first billion-dollar tour. The 33-year-old also this year became the first woman to have four albums in the top 10 of the US charts at the same time.
Swift shows no inclination to slow down as she prepares for the Latin American leg of her tour starting next week before Asia, Australia, Europe and North America in 2024, all while preparing to release a re-recording of her 2014 album 1989 this October.
While McCausland’s course is perhaps the first of its kind in Europe, across the Atlantic, New York University’s Clive Davis Institute is believed to have launched the first course focused on the songwriter last year.
And in London, there was a summer school at Queen Mary University in July, titled Taylor Swift and Literature, looking at her work through a similarly literary lens. — AFP
US singer/songwriter Taylor Swift performs during her Eras Tour at Sofi stadium in Inglewood, California, earlier this month. (AFP)