Why I teach a course connecting Taylor Swift's songs to the works of Shakespeare, Hitchcock and Plath

pemUnusual Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching./em /p h2Title of course:/h2 p“The Taylor Swift Songbook”/p h2What prompted the idea for the course?/h2 pThis class is part of a group of introductory English offerings that focus on basic methods of literary analysis and research. It fulfills different requirements for potential English majors and the general student population, so I am always looking for news ways to engage them./p pFor a few years, I taught it as a Harry Potter course. I introduced students to classic British literature by exploring the Romantic and medieval literary traditions present in the novel. /p pBut earlier this year, I realized I was bored. I had been listening to a lot of Taylor Swift with my college-aged daughter, who had been home for a year during the pandemic. Swift had recently released “a href="https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/taylor-swift-red-taylors-version/"Red (Taylor’s Version)/a.” /p pListening to her track “a href="https://people.com/music/taylor-swift-reacts-to-all-too-well-song-of-the-year-grammy-nomination/"All Too Well/a” was my epiphany. Swift’s vivid imagery and emotionally gripping detail had all the markings of a great narrative poem. She writes the song in a way that mirrors the recursions of memory. Her verses become increasingly strong and build upon each other once she starts remembering the past. At the same time, the song’s imagery moves from fall to winter as she reflects upon the relationship’s beginning and frosty end. /p h2What does the course explore?/h2 pThis course pairs Taylor Swift songs with a number of poems, along with a play, a novel and a film./p pThe semester began with the pairing of Swift’s songs with Renaissance love poetry. One class analyzing the metaphors, similes and colors in the song “Red” turned, a week or so later, into an exploration of Shakespeare’s use of similar colors in his famous sonnet 73: “a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45099/sonnet-73-that-time-of-year-thou-mayst-in-me-behold"That time of year thou mayst in me behold/a.”/p pFrom “Red”:/p blockquote pLoving him was blue like I’d never known/p pMissing him was dark gray, all alone …/p pBut loving him was red/p /blockquote pShakespeare, meanwhile, begins his sonnet 73 with “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang,” before pointing to the oranges of autumn’s “sunset [that] fadeth in the west” and “the glowing of such fire / That on the ashes of his youth doth lie.”/p pWhere Swift moves from cool tones to “burning red,” Shakespeare moves through increasingly warm tones: from yellow, to orange, to red. But both move toward an intensity of color and heat./p pSome couplings are obvious. For instance, Swift’s “a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXzVF3XeS8M"Love Story/a” mentions the title characters of Shakespeare’s “a href="https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1513/1513-h/1513-h.htm"Romeo and Juliet/a” – “Romeo save me, I’ve been feeling so alone.” /p pOthers might come as more of a surprise: I paired Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel “a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/23/olivia-laing-on-daphne-du-mauriers-rebecca-80-years-on"Rebecca/a,” which Alfred Hitchcock a href="https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032976/"adapted for the silver screen/a in 1940, with Swift’s song “a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s5xdY6MCeI"the last great american dynasty/a.” /p pCentering on a scandalous woman named Rebecca – or Rebekah, in Swift’s song – the song, novel and film explore the relations of mad women and madwomen, the tenuous line between anger and craziness. It’s a theme Swift hits on in a number of songs, from her 2019 track “a href="https://genius.com/Taylor-swift-the-man-lyrics"The Man/a” to 2020’s “a href="https://genius.com/Taylor-swift-mad-woman-lyrics"mad woman/a,” which I paired with Sylvia Plath’s poem “a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49000/lady-lazarus"Lady Lazarus/a.” /p h2Why is this course relevant now?/h2 pI think this course tapped into the zeitgeist in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I first dreamed it up. Of course, Swift’s music is popular, and she has long had a devoted following. But the October 2022 release of her a href="https://www.nylon.com/entertainment/taylor-swift-midnights-breaks-records-streaming-sales-charts"record-breaking/a album “a href="https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/taylor-swift-midnights/"Midnights/a” has only made the course seem more relevant to students’ interests. As a class, we spent time exploring the ways tracks on “Midnights” revisited themes and writing strategies that appeared in Swift’s earlier songs./p h2What’s a critical lesson from the course?/h2 pAnalyzing Swift’s writing will hopefully help my students recognize how certain poetic and literary devices operate in older texts – as much as those same books and poems from the past help them appreciate Swift’s art at a deeper level. They seem especially eager to engage with older materials, like Renaissance seduction poetry and black and white film, when they can see traces of the same artistic techniques in the music videos and songs they watch and listen to today./p