Old School, New School: Taylor Swift, Higher Education, and the Forgotten Classics
I sing of arms and of a man, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labours, both by sea and land, he bore…
Thus does the great poet Virgil begin his epic “The Aeneid,” the tale of the fall of the ancient city of Troy and the rise of Rome from its ashes. Penned before the birth of Christ, the poem inspired Dante Aligheri’s “The Divine Comedy” and even some of C.S. Lewis’s work, and is still read, studied, and taught in classrooms and lecture halls throughout the world. From Aeneas leading his men out of the flaming Troy to Dido’s tragic death to the war against the Amazons, “The Aeneid” lauds and memorializes courage and duty, featuring some of the most artful language in the Western canon. “The Aeneid” also hearkens back to Homer’s epics “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” composed over 600 years prior.
‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake…
And thus does Taylor Swift sing in her song “Shake It Off,” penned 2,014 years after the birth of Christ and hearkening back to the year 1989, as evinced by the album title “1989,” a subtle nod to the year that the pop singer was born. Just as Virgil inspired Dante, so Taylor Swift inspired Ryan Adams — not to be confused with Bryan Adams, a singer whose music you’ve actually probably heard. And while Virgil’s “The Aeneid” was inspired by centuries of war, romance, and the cradle of Western culture, Swift’s songs are largely inspired by her poor choice in men and thinly-veiled left-wing activism. Yet Harvard University, one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, is now offering a for-credit course on Swift.
One might think such a course a good idea: an opportunity for aspiring musicians to hone their skills in the style of a top-selling star, a chance for artists to immerse themselves in Swift’s own ever-evolving, chameleonic approach to image, perhaps an occasion for wannabe music producers to study the artist’s domination of music sales over the past few years. Yet one would be wrong. The course “Taylor Swift and Her World” is offered by Harvard’s English department, not the music department, and focuses on “the songwriting, singing, performance, or life and career of Taylor Swift” as a form of literature.
Taught by Stephanie Burt, a self-described “diehard Swiftie” and biological man who identifies as transgender, the course will, according to the professor’s gushing descriptions, be a means of deifying Swift as a sort of modern-day, music industry Prometheus, stealing artistic fire from the gods and gifting it to the people of the 21st century. “We are lucky enough to be living in a time when one of our major artists is also one of the most famous people on the planet,” Burt quipped. “Why would you not have a course on that?”
Perhaps precisely because Swift is one of the most famous people on the planet and is not only 33 years old but, notably, not dead. Of course, whether Swift is living or not really has little to do with the quality or value of her work, but it is indicative of one of the crucial differences between the pop singer and, say, Virgil or Homer or Dante or John Milton or William Shakespeare or practically any name from the pantheon of Western literature — namely, the difference that Swift’s work has not stood the test of time.
The pop star’s first album was released less than 20 years ago — I have neckties in my closet that are older than her self-titled debut. Of course, this isn’t to say that Swift’s work won’t stand the test of time, although a country ballad-turned-synth-pop-turned-indie folk tune catalog doesn’t seem like the sort of thing historians will be overly interested in 600 years from now; they’re more likely to ponder what led to the decline and fall of the American Empire and why the Western populace so blithely allowed their children’s genitals to be mutilated in the name of rainbows and an acronym.
The title “classic” has seemingly been diluted over the years, losing much of its meaning and potency. Once upon a time, it took at least a century before a book or a painting or a piece of music was dubbed a “classic,” and only upon conference of that noble, illustrious title would it be deemed worthy of study.
Today, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is considered a classic and is required reading in most American high schools, but upon its publication in 1925 it was a commercial failure, selling less than 20,000 copies. When he died in 1940, Fitzgerald considered himself a literary failure. Yet almost a hundred years after it was first published, the novel’s themes of love lost, of obsession, and of nostalgia have practically become a part of the fabric of American culture. Vincent Van Gogh died unrecognized and in abject poverty, having sold only one of his more-than-2,000 pieces of art, but he is now known as one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time, over 130 years after his death.
Of course, not all “classics” went unrecognized as great in their own time — Shakespeare, for example, was sponsored by Queen Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens secured fame and fortune from his prolific literary output, Rudyard Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Evelyn Waugh was a wealthy literary celebrity. But the reason the work these men produced is still read and taught in classrooms, the reason their writings are adapted for big-screen Hollywood productions, the reason their books are still stocked by booksellers the world over is because they have stood the test of time.
A common fallacy is the conflation of fame with immortality. Of course, fame does not guarantee immortality. No, immortality is more nearly synonymous with timelessness, which is really the quality that makes a classic a classic. Virgil’s epic asks how man ought to respond to fate, duty, and tragedy. Dante ponders what makes a man good and what makes a man evil. Milton tries to answer why anyone — man or angel — would choose Hell over Paradise. Shakespeare’s plays are a veritable cornucopia of questions and musings on the timeless, from romance to tragedy to heroism to sacrifice. Dickens treats the human condition, seeking the good amidst all the ugliness. These questions, ideas, and illustrations are truly timeless, baffling and elevating the minds of men from pre-Christian Rome to medieval France to Victorian England to the present day.
Meanwhile, Taylor Swift asks why it didn’t work out with her last boyfriend, why TV pundits gave her such a hard time for not telling her fans Donald Trump is the devil back in 2016, and why people feel the need to tweet or Instagram photos of everything. Suffice it to say that Agamemnon, Julius Caesar, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Theodore Roosevelt would all likely find the ultimate meaning of Swift’s songs equally unintelligible.
Of course, another purpose of education and of literary studies is to engage with the timeless, to sit at the feet of the great thinkers, speakers, and writers of old and ask as they do, “What is true?” The course proposed by Burt seems as though it will be more focused on adoring and gushing over Swift than on asking her, “What is true?”
The same goes for other courses on Swift. Oh yes, there’s more than one, yet another indication of the apparent cultishly-adoring nature of these courses. The University of California Berkley is offering a course on “the relationship between Taylor as an individual and an image in the media, and how she constantly reinvents her music and style,” the University of Florida is proposing a class comprising “13 gorgeous weeks of discussing Taylor Swift’s discography, with a focus on her evergreen songwriting,” while New York University offered a Taylor Swift course in which students learned “to deconstruct the way her creativity and songwriting have made her a durable presence in a quickly evolving music industry” and “about the politics of race in contemporary popular music, and to interrogate whiteness as it relates to Swift’s politics, songwriting, worldview and interactions with the wider cultural world around her…”
Ultimately, the classics will go on coursing through the veins of the Western world, whether Harvard considers them relevant or not, while Taylor Swift’s music, though popular now, will someday be nothing more than a faint and distant memory, a half-remembered hum with words one can never quite seem to recall. In his seminal novel “Brideshead Revisited,” the author Evelyn Waugh writes of a young man unfamiliar with the classics and unmoved by their timelessness:
“He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry — that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast-flowing tears of the child and the man — Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St Crispin’s day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. … Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon — these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.”
Top that, Taylor.
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.