Yet another college course on Taylor Swift makes clear: She’s more than a pop star
If she could talk to Taylor Swift, recent UC Berkeley grad Crystal Haryanto knows what she’d say:
“When I was a kid, I would listen to you because I wanted to learn everything about you. But as I grew up, I realized that I was listening to you because I was learning everything about me.”
Though she may never get the chance to meet the pop star, Haryanto will soon be sharing her love for all things Swift with some lucky students and fellow fans.
She put together a course, “Artistry & Entrepreneurship: Taylor’s Version,” that will be available at Berkeley as a student-led, for-credit class during the spring semester, the latest in a wave of higher education offerings that highlight Swift’s ascent to global phenomenon.
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She’s not the first musical artist to be studied in a collegiate setting; Jay-Z, Queen and Bob Marley are among many who have drawn student interest for decades.
“People … imagine it as being some kind of validation of that artist,” Robert Fink, a professor of musicology and humanities at UCLA, said of such course offerings. (UCLA does not have a class on Swift — yet.)
The first to teach the Beatles or Bob Dylan at UCLA were English professors, who “had less of a phobia about that stuff,” Fink said. He explained that many university music departments “held onto a notion of popular music” as less-than-deserving of the attention.
Nowadays, “probably it’s more likely to have a Taylor Swift than a Megan Thee Stallion class because people think of Taylor Swift as a lyric writer, and thus a poet, and thus somebody you can talk about as a text,” he said.
Though Fink doesn’t plan to teach a course on Swift, he imagines such a class could discuss “genre and race and whiteness,” “the state of the music industry,” and feminism and girl culture.
Stanford University will offer a student-led class centered on Taylor Swift’s songwriting and storytelling.
“People have started to realize: Oh, this is probably one of the representative artists of this period in the industry and culture,” he said.
A number of other prominent universities have added similar offerings in recent years to appeal to a generation of Swifties who see her music as more than a fad.
Stanford will offer a course focused on Swift’s songwriting in April. Earlier this year, another Stanford student taught a course on Swift’s 10-minute song “All Too Well.”
Last year, classes about Swift’s songwriting and legacy thrilled Swifties at the University of Texas at Austin, Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, and New York University — where Swift received her honorary doctorate alongside the class of 2022.
Berklee College of Music currently offers a songwriting course tracking Swift’s evolution.
The high-profile Taylor Swift reporting job at USA Today has been filled by a self-proclaimed Swiftie and award-winning journalist, Bryan West.
Haryanto, who works as a research analyst in the Bay Area, will have a chance to put her own spin on the trend at UC Berkeley.
“I had the most fun dreaming up the unit on personas, perceptions, and personalities,” she said in a statement. “There’s so much to unpack in terms of the relationship between Taylor as an individual and an image in the media, and how she constantly reinvents her music and style.”
Alongside the musicality, the “entrepreneurship” part of Haryanto’s course title points to another aspect of Swift worth studying: her sprawling commercial empire.
Swift’s Eras Tour has sold an estimated $700 million in tickets and added over $4 billion to the U.S. GDP, according to an analysis by Bloomberg.
‘Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour’ continued its reign at the top of the box office despite a solid opening weekend for ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’
The tour made her a billionaire, one of only a handful of artists to reach that level of wealth.
The official concert film from the Eras Tour brought in nearly $100 million at the domestic box office in its first four days, ranking as one of the biggest October movie releases ever.
Swift’s power to influence the conversation extends beyond music to the National Football League, where early rumors of her relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce were enough to spike viewership of a recent game among teenage girls by more than 50%.
Fink, who chairs a newly created music industry program at UCLA, said he sees Swift as a “kind of ideal type”: the artist-entrepreneur who controls her career.
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In contrast to rock stars in decades past whose tours were marked by partying and trashed hotel rooms, Fink said, Swift and others such as Bruce Springsteen and James Brown have made seeming in control of their careers part of their image. “It’s different from the way people imagined how big pop stars are supposed to function,” he said.
In rerecording her first six studio albums after the master rights were sold to an investment fund, “obviously there’s money reasons to do that,” Fink said, but also a “need to be in control of [her] stuff and do it [her] way.”
After decades of teen sensations who were men, from the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys, there is power in young women having “somebody who is literally representing them,” Fink said.
And those teens and young women looking for representation have plenty to find in Swift’s 10 studio albums.
Cultural dominance. History-making album sales. Sold-out stadiums. Add them up, and Taylor Swift’s current moment has little precedent in pop-music history.
Her records “seem to mark the different stages of her growth as an artist and as a person,” said Nate Sloan, a musicology professor at USC and host of the “Switched on Pop” podcast, allowing listeners — and those who clamored for tickets to Swift’s career-spanning Eras Tour — to relive “their own growth and their own coming of age” through her music.
Swift is an example of “the need for contemporary artists to mine their personal lives for their creative expression,” Sloan said.
Some critics use that to “cheapen her songwriting to a degree,” distinguishing between crafting a story and channeling real-life emotions, Sloan said. He disagrees with that characterization, calling it a gendered critique.
The music industry relies heavily on artists’ identities as part of their brand, and “female artists have even more pressure to do this than their male counterparts,” he said.
Before, “we just expected artists to make a good record,” he said. That Swift can keep so many fans interested in her story “reflects the level of craft and intention that she brings to her work.”
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At Berkeley, Haryanto’s course will seek to break down “stereotypical critiques” of Swift, she wrote, discussing topics like “what it means to be a victim or a victor.”
Admission will be application-based. Given the number of Swifties on any college campus, there might be some competition.
Applications for the course open on Taylor’s birthday: Dec. 13.
Former Times staff writer Cari Spencer contributed to this report.
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