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Harvard's Taylor Swift scholars have thoughts on 'Tortured Poets'

Fans of Taylor Swift often study up for a new album, revisiting the singer's older works to prepare to analyze lyrics and song titles for secret messages and meanings.
Last Updated : 22 April 2024, 03:20 IST
Last Updated : 22 April 2024, 03:20 IST

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Fans of Taylor Swift often study up for a new album, revisiting the singer's older works to prepare to analyze lyrics and song titles for secret messages and meanings.

"The Tortured Poets Department" is getting much the same treatment, and perhaps no group of listeners was better prepared than the students at Harvard University currently studying Swift's works in an English class devoted entirely to the artist. The undergraduate course, "Taylor Swift and Her World," is taught by Stephanie Burt, who has her students comparing Swift's songs to works by poets and writers including Willa Cather, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

On Thursday night, about 50 students from the class gathered in a lecture hall on campus to listen to Swift's new album. Mary Pankowski, a 22-year-old senior studying history of art and architecture, wore a cream sweatshirt she bought at Swift's Eras tour last year. The group made beaded friendship bracelets to celebrate the new album, she said.

When the clock struck midnight, the classroom erupted into applause, and the analysis began. First, the group listened through the album once without discussing, just taking it all in.

Certain lines, however, immediately caused a stir, said Samantha Wilhoit, a junior studying government -- including a reference to singer Charlie Puth and the scathing lyrics of the song "The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived," Wilhoit, 21, said.

A line from the song "I Can Do It With a Broken Heart," in which Swift sings, "I cry a lot but I am so productive," also seemed to resonate, Wilhoit said, laughing.

A smaller group of students, including Pankowski, stuck it out until the early hours of the morning to see if Swift would drop additional music. At 2 a.m., they were rewarded with an additional "volume" of 15 tracks called "The Anthology." Pankowski said she didn't go to sleep until hours later.

Speaking with The New York Times together on a video call Friday morning, several students from the class discussed their thoughts on the 31 new songs and brainstormed their final papers, which are due at the end of the month.

"The song 'Clara Bow' reminded me of 'The Song of the Lark,'" Makenna Walko, 19, said, citing the Willa Cather novel that follows the career of an aspiring opera singer, Thea Kronborg. "She's talking about a girl trying to make it out of her small town and trying to get to Manhattan, and what it's like to have these big, musical dreams and try to pursue them," she continued. "That's a narrative that has shown up a lot in Taylor's own life, over the course of her own career. In a lot of ways, it's Taylor's story, too."

Lola DeAscentiis, a sophomore, zeroed in on the song "But Daddy I Love Him," comparing it to the Sylvia Plath poem "Daddy." She plans to explore the link in her final paper.

"I hesitate to say that the song was anywhere near the genius of Sylvia Plath -- no offense to Taylor Swift -- but I can definitely see some similarities in the themes, like sadness, depression and mental health," DeAscentiis, 20, said. (DeAscentiis also drew a distinction between being a fan of Swift and being a devoted Swiftie. She said she identified as the former.)

"The way that Taylor overlays her relationship with the significant other that she's talking about in the song with the relationship that she has with her father -- I think that was very Plath," she added.

Another student, Ana Paulina Serrano, echoed DeAscentiis, noting that the class had learned about the genre of confessional poetry. "Is Taylor considered a confessional poet?" Serrano, a 21-year-old junior majoring in neuroscience, asked the group on the call. In support of her own position, she offered as evidence Swift's song "Mastermind," a track off "Midnights," in which Swift reveals herself to have calculated and plotted the outcome of a relationship.

"Sometimes she's confessing things that we, like, already knew or assumed, but she often seems to feel this need to explicitly tell us," Serrano added.

Isabel Levin, a 23-year-old senior studying integrative biology, said she thought Swift's delivery on several tracks had a spoken-word quality. She wondered whether some lyrics had initially begun not as songs but as more traditional poems.

Swift has said she categorizes her songs by the type of pen she imagines using to write each. A "frivolous, carefree, bouncy" song is a glitter gel pen song, while a fountain pen song might be more "brutally honest," according to Swift. Quill pen songs are "all old-fashioned, like you're a 19th-century poet crafting your next sonnet by candlelight," she explained during her acceptance speech as songwriter-artist of the decade at the Nashville Songwriter Awards in 2022.

And with what implement might Swift have written "Tortured Poets?"

Quill pen, for sure, Walko said.

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Published 22 April 2024, 03:20 IST

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