Why Are College Students Studying The Life And Times Of Taylor Swift?
What qualifies Taylor Swift's incredible journey as a popstar to be studied academically at Arizona State Univerisity?
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 5, 2023
Pop stars are more than just entertainers. They become cultural icons, representing specific moments in history and shaping society's values, desires and aspirations. From the Beatles' mop-tops signaling a break from convention in the 1960s to Madonna's ever-changing personas in the '80s and '90s, these figures don't just provide a soundtrack to our lives. They mirror societal shifts, trends and emotions. For many, they're not just artists – they're inspirations, role models and even quasi-religious figures.
Today, Taylor Swift has undeniably claimed a spot in this pantheon of influential artists. In fact, her ongoing Eras Tour has transcended all expectations and is on track to net her over a billion dollars, potentially making it the biggest tour in history.
With this as context, it's easy to see why so many people are enamored by Swift's story. However, it doesn't explain how studying her life and work academically (as anArizona State University course intends to) will help us grasp complex concepts of social psychology.
According to Alexandra Wormley, the instructor of the course, the answer lies in the way Taylor Swift's work, life and fandom reflect and illuminate various topics within social psychology, such as romance, escapism through fiction, revenge and social development. Wormley says that the goal of the course is not to analyze the pop star, but to use her as a lens to deepen students' understanding of these topics through empirical readings, in-class discussions and research question generation.
Here are two reasons why studying a pop-culture icon like Taylor Swift is a viable way to learn more about ourselves as a society.
1. Pop Culture Icons Are Powerful Agents Of Social Change
Pop culture trendsetters can influence public opinion, raise awareness, mobilize action and challenge norms through their art, activism and personal choices. They can use their fame, charisma and credibility to attract attention, inspire emotions and persuade audiences to adopt certain views or behaviors.
For instance, a 2017 paper found that celebrities can have a significant impact on health-related outcomes, such as cancer screening, vaccination, smoking and suicide prevention.
Like many pop culture figures, Taylor Swift has used her platform to express her personal and political views. As an icon of feminism and a champion of LGBTQ+ rights, she is a role model for many young people. Her advocacy inspires others to speak out about the causes they believe in and helps raise awareness about important social issues. By using her voice and visibility, Swift has demonstrated the power of pop culture icons to influence public opinion and drive social change.
By using her actions as a starting point, we can trace the origins and directions of different social phenomena (both positive and negative) to paint a holistic picture of what drives change in society.
2. Pop Culture Is Often A Driver Of Social Identity
Pop-culture can reflect who we are, who we want to be and who we belong with through music, stories and images. They can also shape our social identity by providing us with models of behavior, values and norms that we can adopt or reject.
Social identity is the part of our self-concept that is based on our membership in social groups, such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender or fandom. Social identity theory, for example, explains how we use social categories to define ourselves and others, and how this affects our attitudes, emotions and actions.
A 2017 study published in International Studies Quarterly found that "synthetic experiences" rooted in fiction can significantly shape our views on something as vast and intangible as international politics. In this study, for instance, the researchers found that readers who disliked the novels of Tom Clancy reported higher levels of anti-Americanism and anti-militarism.
While not entirely fictional, celebrities' lives are often quasi-fictional and open to public interpretation. Their relationship problems are frequently blown out of proportion and their struggles with mental health are always on display. This leads to the development of parasocial relationships with them, which can be harmful if left unchecked.
For example, Taylor Swift, who has a loyal following of fans who call themselves "Swifties" are known to defend her from any criticism, attack her perceived enemies, and celebrate her achievements. Some Swifties even engage in negative or harmful behaviors, such as cyberbullying, harassment of other celebrities or fans who disagree with them or threaten Swift's reputation.
Pop stars like Taylor Swift transcend entertainment, becoming windows into our society's cultural and psychological intricacies. Arizona State's academic venture isn't a mere celebrity spotlight but potentially a deep dive into human behavior and societal shifts. Through Swift's music and advocacy, we gain a unique perspective on our evolving identity and societal dynamics. This unconventional academic approach, though surprising to some, leverages the immense power of pop culture to reveal profound insights into our collective human experience.