Lyric Waiwiri-Smith is a lifestyle and entertainment reporter at Stuff and a lifelong fan of Taylor Swift.
COMMENT: Can I ask you a question? Did you ever have someone argue with you about Taylor Swift in a crowded room, and every single one of your friends was making fun of you?
Personally, this is a situation I’ve found myself in countless times, to the point where my now well-rehearsed speech defending Taylor Swift’s legitimacy as an artist and the quality of her personhood could make even the hardiest and most cynical crumble.
For women and queer people, it can be hard to find a place to intellectually discuss Swift, or any prominent female musician, without being met with thinly-veiled misogyny or being belittled for having seemingly vapid interests.
As a lifelong and passionate fan, I feel like I deserve an honorary doctorate in Taylor Swift studies. So when I caught wind that Victoria University was offering a seminar on Taylor Swift’s recently released album Midnights, I wondered if perhaps my request to speak was lost in the mail.
I may not be a poet laureate, slam poetry finalist or have a PhD like scheduled speakers Chris Tse, Ronia Ibrahim and Summer Kim Lee, but after putting in 14-years worth of critical dissection of Swift’s lyrics (yes, I was treating Fearless with the same reverence as a Shakespearean scholar at 8-years-old), I have a few thoughts to share.
And so I logged on via Zoom to sit in on a seminar hosted by the English Literatures and Creative Communication Programme at Victoria University of Wellington, titled “After Midnights – poetics, periodising, position”.
Lecturer Dougal McNeill introduces the class with a look at the lyrics Swift had provided to a remix to HAIM’s song Gasoline, likening the style to poet Yeats, before comparing a quote from the T. S. Eliot essay Tradition and the Individual Talent to Swift’s place as a songwriter amongst legends such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
Tse, who was named as Aotearoa’s new poet laureate in August, is the first of the speakers to share his thoughts on Swift and Midnights, saying he had “never said yes to something so quickly” when approached for the seminar.
Explaining that his first introduction to Swift was her 2012 album Red – “something about it really struck me, and I might have been because I was going through a breakup at the time” – Tse then shares a poem from his collection He’s So MASC, titled Notes for Taylor Swift Should She Ever Write a Song About Me.
The poem muses on collecting lovers and “[lacking] the mechanics to say no,” finally asking to “make [him] a hit song for the ages, the last great crossover ballad.”
“What I find quite fascinating about Taylor Swift is the sort-of blurring of eras,” Tse says.
“Ever since she started this re-recording process of her first six albums, everything is starting to blur a bit and getting the past mixed with the present and future.”
Indeed, where Swift’s previous albums where reflective of a particular time in her life where a certain aesthetic, sound, or lover was at the forefront, Midnights offers a kaleidoscope look at her life without a linear perspective, having the listener guess which songs belong to her late teens or early 30s.
Tse likens the idea of Midnights’ ethos as a tale of “thirteen sleepless nights and the thoughts that creep into your head” by sharing another poem he had previously written on the theme, called Five Ways of Looking at Yourself in a Cracked Mirror, with lines on mourning love and self identity,
Ibrahim, features editor of VUW student magazine Salient and the next speaker to take the floor, talks about her relationship with Swift, from falling in and out of love and back again.
“I first fell in love with [Taylor Swift] when I was seven in 2008 with her Fearless album, but then I was friends with people that I care very much about their opinions,” Ibrahim says.
“I think it became popular to hate Taylor Swift and know that boys didn’t like girls who liked Taylor Swift or liked pop music.
“I had a very long period of internalised misogyny where I pretended to hate Taylor Swift.”
It’s true – for many years (and even still now), hating Taylor Swift was a popular opinion.
I have always tried to be unapologetic about my defence for the musician and wasted so much of my time and energy being teased by others for this devotion, but held steadfast in my belief in her. Then there are those (mostly women) who were shamed into leaving their love for Swift behind – just one of the many casualties of a sexist society.
Ibrahim shares a poem on the “femininity and youth Taylor Swift brings to [her],” and another inspired by the stylised “stuttering” Swift adopts in her lyrics (noticeable when she sings lines like “I-I-I”).
Professor Summer Kim Lee, a guest speaker from the Department of English at the University of California, also speaks on the shame faced by young women who are fans of Swift.
“I remember listening to her in my headphones on the train and being like, ‘if anyone actually knew this was happening there’d be so much judgement’,” Lee says.
“My attachment to her was already structured by shame... I think so much of being a Swiftie is having deep amounts of shame.”
She also shares her thoughts on Midnights, and how the album has served her mostly throughout the night, a listening habit she supposes Swift had intended.
She also touches on Tse’s point of the “warping of time,” where “each song refuses the linear time”, leading the listener to not know “which moment each one is coming from."
Professor Lee also proposes that her favourite track on the album, Midnight Rain, could be a follow-up to Swift’s 2017 love song Delicate.
“I decided it's a song on the comedown and disappointment that being delicate, untouched, and fragile is not what it’s turned out to be,” Lee says.
She believes that the pain Swift sings of in Midnight Rain was brought out in heartbreaks, and was necessary in her development as an artist. Of all the Swiftian fan theories that have popped up in the week since Midnights’ release, I think this is probably my favourite.
The seminar wrapsup with a round of questions, including about theories on the Gaylor rumours and Speak Now being her next re-record. I felt as though an itch I’ve had in my brain for over a decade had finally been scratched.
This was also probably the most engaged I’ve ever been in a University class, and it wasn’t even for a paper (or degree) I was studying.
It was exciting and validating to hear Swift being discussed amongst academics, with care and intention put into the dissection of her music and legacy – the classroom devoid of a judgemental presence for liking something that even New Zealand’s poet laureate can discuss at length.
If Victoria University is ever looking to create a paper on Taylor Swift, à la NYU’s course, let it be known that I am available to chat.