Reading & Literacy Q&A

Can Taylor Swift Get Students to Love Poetry?

By Madeline Will — June 19, 2024 8 min read
Singer Taylor Swift performs on stage during her Eras Tour at the Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh on June 7, 2024.
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Taylor Swift’s lyrics are studied by college students across the country, including at Harvard University, for their literary value. Should they be woven into the high school and middle school English/language arts curriculum, too?

Elizabeth Scala, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who taught one of the first university courses on the literary significance of Swift’s songwriting in fall 2022, thinks so. She is leading a webinar for secondary ELA teachers in Texas next month on how they can incorporate the pop star’s songs into their instruction in a standards-aligned way.

After all, many of Swift’s songs include motifs, metaphors, allusions, and other literary and poetic devices. The artist also makes reference to several familiar middle and high school texts throughout her discography, including The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet.

“What I do with [the students in my course] is get them to read a bunch of older love poetry that I think they would have no patience for if they didn’t realize that Taylor Swift is doing something very similar,” Scala said. “She is one of the latest makers in this very, very long history of love poets that goes back to a time that’s incredibly, intolerably masculinist and sexist. Students have no patience for it—but she comes right out of it. She uses the very same techniques that they do.”

Scala spoke to Education Week about how teachers can lead analyses of Taylor Swift’s songwriting and which songs are good choices for middle and high school classrooms. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does the analysis from your Taylor Swift course translate to the middle and high school levels?

I’m teaching [my] course to freshmen. Right now, it’s still a small seminar. It is kind of their intro to literary studies course.

I am dealing with students who are coming to college right out of high school. I’m helping them with that transition. And I have seen a big shift with students, especially after the pandemic—students who have ... not really had that old-school, in-person, full high school [or] middle school experience. I’ve seen the damage that has really done to their skill sets, and to their ability to write, their ability to engage, their ability to just be in a room and talk with people, talk to grownups.

I think that what I’m working on with these freshmen are some of the same problems that high school teachers are dealing with—we have people who want to be English majors who don’t like to read or write. They like books, they like stories, they like film, they like representation, but they do not have the patience to do long-form reading or long-form writing. They have the patience for, like, two paragraphs. ...

I do think that it’s social media—they have a TikTok attention span, and they don’t really want to think about things very deeply, or for a very long time, or from a number of different angles. I think they’re interested in Taylor Swift, and their ability to pay attention to what she’s doing in much more depth is something I tried to capitalize on.

I’m going to try to give [teachers enrolled in this webinar] a cornucopia of approaches to Taylor Swift, that can help them do everything from reading comprehension all the way up to advanced writing and research.

[Students are] interested in Taylor Swift, and their ability to pay attention to what she's doing in much more depth is something I tried to capitalize on.

I’ve read what the teachers’ hopes are for the course. They’re having a hard time getting students to read anything, getting them to pay attention, and [students] are especially poetry-resistant. Tapping into an interest that students have outside of school will get them, maybe, to pay more attention to what they’re working on, be more interested in what’s going on in the classroom, be a little bit more engaged. And then treating [Swift’s songs] as poetry is a great double whammy, right? It takes something that everybody has found really difficult, and it’s making that even more engaging and palatable.

What Taylor Swift songs do you think are most ripe for analysis?

Well, I’m going to be dealing with students from middle school through high school, and this is Texas. I’m really trying to be sensitive to the constraints that teachers will feel placed upon them. So on the one hand, the students will be most interested in Taylor’s most recent work, and yet that recent work, she’s written as an early 30s adult. It has more cussing in it, it’s got more adult themes, more adult concerns.

I’m trying to figure out a way to ... give them some recent work on “Midnights” and “Tortured Poets” that isn’t explicitly sexual. We are going to focus on “Clara Bow,” [a track on Swift’s latest album with commentary about how women in the music and film industries are pitted against each other].

The reason I’ve chosen “Clara Bow” is because they have no idea who Clara Bow or who Stevie Nicks is, and I want to give them different ways into this material. Everybody jumps to ... trying to figure out, what does the song mean? They don’t go through and think about: OK, who’s speaking? Who’s listening? How does this song position me as the reader? What am I supposed to know? What am I not supposed to know? How do I fill in the gaps? Is it telling a story? Is it elaborating on a situation? There’s a lot of questions in there. I’m going to try to tease all that out.

[While listening to “The Tortured Poets Department” album], I was noticing her vocabulary. Taylor Swift does not always talk in her songs in the most colloquial manner. You can start asking [students]: Why is she using this language?

You can have them ... talk about expressions that they hadn’t heard before. What do they mean? Where did they come from? Look up their etymologies. Look up who these figures are. [In “Clara Bow”], why is she aligning herself with these other two female performers?

See also

Taylor Swift performs as part of the "Eras Tour" at the Tokyo Dome on Feb. 7, 2024, in Tokyo.
Taylor Swift performs as part of the Eras Tour at the Tokyo Dome on Feb. 7, 2024, in Tokyo.
Toru Hanai/AP

I am going to really try to unpack that song in a bunch of different ways before I get into the poetic analysis part where we deal with the song structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. We’re going to talk about, if you treat them as stanzas, what kind of repetition do you see between different parts of the song? Once you establish repetition, you can now notice variation. The bridge is always this really different part of the song—the music often changes, the rhyme scheme changes. What do you see between one line and another? Is the rhyme scheme consistent?

Taylor Swift uses rhyme, but she often uses slant rhyme so the words don’t rhyme absolutely with the same ending—they have sort of the same sound at the end. And she often uses assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds, much more than alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds within lines.

We are going to get at how teachers can actually make students care about learning about literary terms, because it gives them a better way to talk about what they find innovative, meaningful, important, artful in her music, which they generally like. [Now], they have no other way of dealing with it other than saying, “Well, to me, it’s good.” Can we come up with an objective reason why it’s good? What makes it good?

It’s not just that it speaks to you—it does do that. But if we’re going to talk about literary value, it’s more than that. It’s something general, objective, describable, able to be evaluated, and so forth. I’m going to try to move them in that direction.

Swift often makes use of foreshadowing and allusions to tease her upcoming projects. Do you include that aspect of her work?

I do not really do that so much. One of the things that I may talk about is, what does it mean for something to be literary? Separating informational and literary is probably something these teachers should think about doing very specifically. The literary seems like language that is very self-conscious of itself. It’s about, what is the texture? What does something sound like, not just what does it mean?

Because if she was trying to say things clearly and what they mean, she could do everything in a sentence, right? The fact that it’s a song, and that she’s ... dancing around what she’s trying to say, and finding all these different words for it, and using heavily metaphorical language—she’s trying to obfuscate what she’s trying to tell you, which might be a little like an Easter egg, in a weird way. Sometimes she’s throwing out red herrings, and sometimes she’s playing this game with her fans and seeing if they’re really paying attention.

I love it, because it’s like she’s training the literary critics out there to do the work.

One of the things I love about “Tortured Poets” is how there’s so much repetition between songs. She uses certain nouns and phrases in very different songs. It’s weaving a set of references to itself. She’s creating this tapestry in which she is playing with the different things that some image or some collocation of words can mean placed in different contexts.

Which Taylor Swift songs do you recommend for an ELA teacher who hasn’t listened to her much?

It’s probably the “folklore” triangle songs I would send them to. [The songs “betty,” “cardigan,” and “august” center around a teenage love triangle.]

That would be something that they could sink their teeth into in a really interesting way—from the more simple idea that, here’s a narrative with three characters, and they’re all talking about their point of view, all the way to a later high school classroom where you can actually start to ask [more theoretical] questions. Are these people rooted in the same timeframe? They’re all telling the story from their point of view, but are they all telling the story at the same moment, or are we deep in the future, or back in the past? You can make that much more sophisticated.


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