Taylor Swift: why academics are studying the pop star

Taylor Swift, who is about to tour Australia with her much-anticipated Eras concerts, was the subject of a three-day academic conference, known as a Swiftposium, in Melbourne, where academics presented papers on her global impact.

Taylor Swift is the biggest pop star in the world and a seemingly unlikely subject of academic study around Australia and the world. The American superstar made Grammys history this month winning Album of the Year for the fourth time, soon after being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Forbes magazine declared the 34-year-old American the most powerful woman in the entertainment industry and fifth in the world for 2023, stating she is "an advocate for the empowerment of women and a champion for all musicians seeking greater ownership of their work."

The conference or Swiftposium - hosted by the University of Melbourne in collaboration with the University of Sydney, RMIT University, Curtin University, Auckland University of Technology and Monash University - highlighted how a single artist has impacted contemporary life, with papers exploring Swift’s influence across the intersection of music, economics, business, media studies, health, and societal and cultural impact.

Brittany Spanos, New York University (NYU) Adjunct Instructor and senior writer for Rolling Stone opened the conference, delivering a keynote address examining Swift’s career in relation to the music industry, musicology, feminism and race.

Dr Georgia Carroll, a researcher who completed her PhD on fandom and celebrity in the Discipline of Sociology at the University of Sydney delivered the Early Career Researcher keynote on the second day. Dr Carroll’s keynote was titled: "’My pennies made your crown’: Taylor Swift as your Billionaire Best Friend" and explored the intersection of fandom and economic consumption in the Taylor Swift fan community. It examined how Swift encourages individuals to purchase merchandise, multiple versions of her albums, and concert tickets in order to be viewed as the "right" kind of fan and gain her attention. 

Other papers covered topics such as lyrical poetics, cyber-security, AI, mental health, public relations and "Swiftonomics", referring to the economic impact of Taylor on local and global economies both in terms of her touring and her wider role in the entertainment industry. There was also a stream exploring Swift as a teaching tool in higher education, following recent courses on her and her work at institutions including Harvard University, Stanford University and NYU.
@abcnewsaus How well do you know Taylor Swift and her international impact? Academics from around the world have gathered at the Swiftposium conference in Melbourne to discuss her influence on music, cities, creatives and more.  #TaylorSwift #ErasTour #ErasTourAus #ABCNews - original sound - ABC News Australia


University of Sydney experts from philosophy, sociology, English and psychology share why they are studying the lyrics and music of the American pop star.

Philosophy, forgiveness and Taylor Swift



Associate Professor Luke Russell , lecturer in ethics and critical thinking in the Discipline of Philosophy, said the singer-songwriter has a strong view on forgiveness, a subject he has recently published a book on, Real Forgiveness.  

"I’m a philosopher who writes on the topic of forgiveness," he said. "Taylor Swift holds an interesting and contentious view about forgiveness, a view that she has explained in interviews and has expressed in her songs. 

"Swift rejects the claim that we always ought to offer unconditional forgiveness to those who have wronged us. This puts her in conflict with advocates of unconditional forgiveness, including many Christians and therapists. I think that Swift is right about this, and her insights on this topic can help philosophers to see why sometimes forgiving is the wrong thing to do." 

Greek philosophy, betrayal and Taylor Swift



Dr Emily Hulme is a lecturer in Ancient Greek philosophy in the Discipline of Philosophy. Her research interests include Plato’s epistemology and ethics, philosophy of language from Parmenides to the Stoics, and arguments concerning the status of women in the ancient world. Dr Hulme said:

"I work in Greek philosophy, a philosophical tradition where reflection on art and emotions is understood to be a key part of our development as humans. We can learn a lot about ourselves through emotionally engaging with art that pulls no punches in talking about vulnerability, trust, and betrayal. And Taylor Swift has a lot of songs that fit that bill." 

Sociology, identity, and Taylor Swift



Dr Georgia Carroll a researcher who completed her PhD in fandom in the Discipline of Sociology at the University of Sydney said:  "I wrote my PhD on Taylor Swift and her fandom because as a long-time Swiftie, I knew that there was something special about the relationship she shares with her fans. Many of Taylor’s fans feel as though they have grown up alongside her, built a real connection with her, and that her music has served as a kind of overarching soundtrack to their lives. 

"As sociologists, we strive to understand society and its intersection with culture, identity, social relationships, and power structures, and celebrity fandom is a perfect window into all’of those things."  

English poetry, Shakespeare and Taylor Swift



Professor Liam Semler , is a Shakespeare scholar and teaches Early Modern Literature in the Discipline of English. He has a new paper on teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets using the lyrics from Taylor Swift’s album Midnights. He also teaches a unit called Shakespeare and Modernity, using Taylor Swift’s lyrics. Professor Semler said: "As the marketing for Midnights as a concept album started to permeate popular culture, I felt there was a fascinating, but not explicit, array of parallels to early modern sonnet sequences. 

"There are plenty of songs on the album that work well in class and connect to thematic and poetic elements relevant to Shakespeare’s sonnets. In my unit ’Shakespeare and Modernity,’ Swift is part of a multidimensional picture as we explore the design principles and thematics of sonnet collections, including the literary work of Jen Bervin and Luke Kennard who rewrite the sonnets in fresh and provocative ways." 

Psychology, archetypes and Taylor Swift



Kayla Greenstien, a PhD candidate in psychology said: "I study the theoretical orientations behind psychedelic therapies, including Jungian archetypes and using myths to explore deeper truths about human experiences. 

"After seeing Eras Tour footage on TikTok, I started thinking about Taylor Swift’s entire artistic output as a form of uniquely modern mythopoeticism. There’s a lot we can learn about archetypal experiences and who’s voice they represent from looking at Swift’s work through this lens." 

Top Photo: Taylor Swift performs at the Monumental stadium during her Eras Tour concert in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko/AAP Photos)

Dr Jadey O’Regan and Dr Paul McDermott, both lecturers in Contemporary Music at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, reflect on the technology used in the new, and final, song by the Beatles and ponder its meaning and legacy.

Dr Toby Martin, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, explores the extraordinary songwriting of Irish musician Sinead O’Connor.

Dr Alison Cole, a leading expert on film scores and lecturer in Composition for Creative Industries at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, unpacks the beauty, humour and grandeur in Nicholas Britell’s score for hit TV show Succession.