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I sat in at UP's three-hour class about Taylor Swift—here’s what I learned

By Angel Martinez Published May 02, 2024 9:46 pm

I haven’t attended an in-person class since COVID-19 robbed me of the experience. Heck, I graduated from college two years ago. But walking along UP Diliman’s Plaridel Hall, I’m filled with the fear that I’m in the wrong building on the complete opposite side of campus or that I forgot to go through today’s assigned reading.

Thankfully, I follow the signs on the wall (and the instructions of the friendly lady guard at the door, who wonders why she’s never seen me before) and peer inside an open room labeled as the TV Studio. That’s when I know I have nothing to worry about. I’m greeted by a slideshow of pictures from the Eras Tour, and now I'm sure this is a subject I already know all too well.

Outside the designated classroom for UP's course on Taylor Swift

I’m here to study Taylor Swift.

Earlier this year, the UP College of Mass Communication announced they were joining the likes of Harvard University, New York University, and Stanford University by offering an elective on the American pop superstar. More than 300 students competed for around 10 slots, with the determination they used to conquer The Great War with Ticketmaster. The demand was so overwhelming that the department had to open up another section.

While most were either envious and excited, some online users were quick to express disappointment. “Parang gusto ulit mabuhay ni Rizal ngayon sa pinaggagawa niyo,” a Facebook commenter shared. “Sayang pera ng tax payers,” said someone else in the same thread. As I sit in the lobby of the Maskom building, I update my friend regarding the day’s agenda and she replies, “Ano naman paguusapan niyo? Love life niya?” Despite the excessive vitriol towards this class before the semester began, I show up with an open, objective mind.

But then again, I’m in the same skirt I wore to my own Taylor concert in March—a deep green with fruits and flowers, hopefully to symbolize folklore—with friendship bracelets dangling around my wrists. I was never one for subtlety. As I find my place in the center of the second row, I overhear fellow early birds having a spirited discussion surrounding The Tortured Poets Department, Swift's most recent release. Most of them don’t like it, but based on my personal experience, they’ll come around sooner or later. 

I used the same skirt I wore when I watched Taylor Swift's Eras concert in Singapore in March.

Soon, head Swiftie Dr. Cherish Aileen Brillon arrives. As she sets up her laptop, she shares her experience from last week’s TTPD listening party (“Di hamak ang dami compared sa nung pumunta ako sa 1989 listening party!”) and lists her favorites from the new album. The title track and Guilty as Sin? are her top two—a woman of taste! She’s cool and laidback, clad in a green polo and slacks and neon-high cut sneakers: not exactly the archetypal Swiftie you’d expect to teach a typical course on her music. But that’s not what this class is. 

Today’s lecture revolves around the intersections of race, class, and gender viewed through the lens of Swift’s constructed celebrity. “Authenticity is at the center of Taylor’s image: Her music is open and vulnerable, and she’s established a strong connection with her fans, too,” Dr. Brillon starts. “But while we like to think that music is universal, it can’t always transcend what we think it can transcend.”

For the next three hours, we go down several rabbit holes that deconstruct several injustices embedded in the fabric of our society. I learn that Swift's shift from country to pop was no coincidence, but a warranted and inevitable move. There was a need for her to express herself outside of the conventions of the genre, which is very gendered and rooted in a specific place compared to pop music.

We also discuss how women in other genres like rap and rock are pigeonholed into stereotypes, and how only female artists are implicitly required to reinvent to maintain relevance. In fact, Dr. Brillon brings up that Swift was only considered respectable again after she abandoned her juvenile image from Lover and shifted to a mature alternative folk.

Dr. Iris Brillon of UP's College of Mass Communication during the three-hour Taylor Swift class

Before the mandatory attendance check, I introduced myself to those present and promised to be as lowkey as possible. But I find myself instinctively wanting to raise my hand. Over an hour in, Dr. Brillon surveys the room for their favorite Swift lyrics and all I want is to wax poetic about “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath,” from the 10-minute version of All Too Well.

Anyway, the kids need no help in keeping the discussion alive. The small room is composed predominantly of women, from disciplines as varied as economics and tourism. Dr. Brillon says that those who do like Swift were mostly influenced by their older sisters or mothers—help! Case in point: When she inquires if anyone knows Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott, only a few raise their hands, making the generational gap in the room painfully evident.

But the most important thing is that not all of them are Swifties. When Dr. Brillon asks her students how Swift can make her feminism intersectional, no one bristles at the question. “Acknowledge her privilege,” a student pipes in. “Give her platform to those who need it,” suggests another. It’s a safe space, where those with an outsider’s point of view are free to engage with those who know Swift well enough to be in her inner circle.

Next week, the class is watching Miss Americana as their introduction to celebrity and politics. Prior to that, they’ve had social media sensing analytics activities and trivia games. Last session, Dr. Brillon requested everyone to dress up as their favorite Taylor Swift era and invited them to discuss how genres target specific consumer groups. All of these requirements will culminate in a Swiftie convention, which I assume won’t be too different from the public events fans are so well-versed in organizing.

For Dr. Brillon, it’s important to apply all course learnings in real life: no rote memorization of the records Swift has broken, although I’m sure many of us would have aced that kind of test. After all, the very idea for the course came about after her interactions with Filipino Swifties during the previous national elections. Rather than allow their love for Taylor to remain a mere online identity, these young people found a community and felt compelled to act in accordance with the values espoused by their idol.

I definitely had a blast learning about Taylor Swift and her connection with different aspects of life.

This is enough proof that it’s possible, even totally rational, to approach Swift as a serious subject of study. Now that her public persona encroaches on so many facets of modern life, students can use her as a jumping off point to explore everything from political movements to current notions of mobility and success. 

“I remember people would question why I wouldn’t focus on Asin or other 70s rock groups in the Philippines. And while I get where they were coming from, they’re singers. You can look at them from that perspective but where I’m coming from, I want to look at celebrities and their role in contemporary society,” Dr. Brillon tells PhilSTAR L!fe. And who better, after all, to examine than the unequivocally definitive star of our time?

Perhaps the furor on social media was as intense as it was because it’s Swift we’re talking about, who already has a polarizing level of popularity as it is. Or maybe because highbrow critics hate devoting attention to mainstream cultural products, when there are topics more worthy of intellectualization. (I think of the inherent bias against entertainment writers vis-a-vis reporters covering hard news.) As mentioned in Dr. Brillon’s lecture, it seems any field dominated by or associated with women finds itself at the bottom of every food chain.

But, as Dr. Brillon shares, we’re already a country so deeply entrenched in celebrity culture, we just haven’t stepped back and seen the bigger picture. “We discuss their lives in detail, we elect them into office, the children of today want to be them. Filipino society is conditioned to think that these public figures are there purely for entertainment purposes, but they’re not. Maybe now is the time to ask why.”