Long before she became a staff writer for Rolling Stone, Brittany Spanos has been a Taylor Swift fan since her teenage years. It was the singer’s second record, 2008’s Fearless, that led Spanos on the path to becoming a Swiftie. “I just really loved that album,” she recalls now. “I remember “You’re Not Sorry” was the first song I really loved by her, and it’s such an angry song. (laughs) All my favorite songs by her are kind of angry ballads. After I got into Fearless, I started to love her debut [2006’s Taylor Swift]. I was a big fan from then. Red [Swift’s 2012 LP] definitely solidified a lot of that.”
It seems only fitting now that Spanos, who has extensively covered the star for the magazine, is currently teaching a course about Swift at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. The class, which began on January 26 and runs through March 6, critically examines Swift’s career in relation to such topics as songwriting, musical influences, the music industry, feminism and race.
“It’s been sort of fun to see what people are most drawn to about Taylor,” Spanos says about the course, which was earlier reported by Variety. “I wasn’t really sure going into it who would sign up for it. I was kind pleasantly surprised that there were so many students who already had a base level of knowledge of Taylor.”
When she was an NYU undergraduate student, Spanos took courses at the school’s Clive Davis Institute focusing on topics about music and musical artists, such as David Bowie, Nirvana, P. Diddy and punk rock. A couple of years after she graduated and joined Rolling Stone, Spanos reached out to Jason King, who chairs the institute, about her teaching a similar music studies class. “I’m a huge music history nerd,” she says. “I wanted to one day be able to return [to NYU] and teach a course like this. I really loved taking all of those [classes]. I found them also very important and formative for how I thought about those artists and coverage of them over the years.”
She adds: “I sent [King] a shortlist of artists I cover extensively and have a strong level of knowledge about that I would feel comfortable teaching a course on. And Taylor was at the top of my list. She’s someone that I’ve been listening to since I was a teenager and whose career I have always been really fascinated by.”
The class, which consists of about 20 students, is an opportunity to tackle deeper issues surrounding the singer’s career beyond her celebrity. For instance, one of the course objectives is the examination of the pop and country music influences on Swift’s songwriting.
“We’ve been going chronological in the albums, so it’s either one or two albums per week,” Spanos says. “And obviously, Taylor Swift comes from the country world. That’s a big part of her narrative. She’s also a songwriter, another big part of her narrative. We went in-depth for the first two weeks into the country world that was happening around her—what it meant to be a pop crossover in country music. I felt it was really important to talk about that because country is obviously the base for everything else about Taylor.”
Another course objective is the examination of youth and the music industry in the context of Swift’s rise and musical development. “We look at every pop single star,” says Spanos, “especially pop stars who come to fame as teenagers, and the way that they are often celebrated in the early years but then exploited for whatever reason—especially with Taylor coming up at the same time as a teenager…Of course, girlhood is something that she used to explore in her music, even now as a 30-year-old woman. That’s a big subject of Folklore and Evermore—she has these teen girl characters who are going through the same things she was going through as a teenager. It’s a topic that she explored over the course of her career.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Swift course is the discussion of race, as stated in this objective for the class: “Students will learn about the politics of race in contemporary popular music, and to interrogate whiteness as it relates to Swift’s politics, songwriting, worldview and interactions with the wider cultural world around her.”
“If we’re talking about any pop figure,” Spanos explains, “you should be talking about race. Every single pop person is a product of how we discuss and incorporate ideas of race and race relations in the world. Taylor Swift is a white pop star, and whiteness factors into country music, pop music and pop success. I think that’s always going to be important.
“Country music historically has left very little space for Black artists,” she continues. “Pop music exploits Black bodies and Black art to help mature white artists…She represents, I think, for a lot of people very “white” tastes. There are constant jokes about the idea that if you’re a Black or any non-white person loving Taylor Swift is weird or that goes against the grain of your identity. So that’s something that we’ll definitely be discussing.”
Spanos marvels at Swift’s artistry and output, especially the singer’s ability to navigate her career in crossing over from country to pop; Swift’s sound especially took a surprise turn with 2020’s Folklore and Evermore albums. “I don’t think I anticipated that she would ever release an album like 1989,” Spanos says, referring to the singer’s 2014 foray into synthpop. “I think by Red, that was the beginning of me being very connected to the songwriting and feeling like this is an artist who even between her second [Fearless] and fourth album [Red] has grown so significantly. I was very much like: ‘She’s a brilliant songwriter’ And even as she moved to synthpop, it’s not like the songwriting weakened, in my opinion. She was still writing really strong, sharp reflections on her life, on her romantic life, on her friendships and her celebrity, and how people perceived her. I always found it really fascinating.
“With each album, I’ve been surprised by what turn she’s taken. She could’ve easily continued to make more synthpop and still would have been really fun. I was very just pleasantly shocked by the turn that she took with Folklore and Evermore. It’s a return to her roots in a lot of ways, in the way that she approaches her guitar-driven songs and songwriting in general.”
An invite to visit the class has been extended to Swift, but Spanos acknowledges that the singer has a very busy schedule. Still, “I would love to have this deep dive songwriting conversation with her because so many of the students are coming from that place and are curious about that,” she says. “I think it would be wonderful to have that experience and see what kind of wisdom on songwriting she can impart on these students.”
Overall, Spanos says she hopes her students will develop a new way of understanding Swift. “Especially if you’re coming from a stan perspective, loving an artist can be complicated and should be complicated. I think you should be able to look at the artist from all sides.” And another takeaway that Spanos hopes on behalf of the students is enjoyment. “If we break into an “All Too Well” singalong in the next class, then I’ve done my job. Having fun while being able to really contextualize and allow yourself to have a critical eye when talking about your favorite artist is what I do daily, and I hope to provide that for my students.”
[Disclaimer: My writings have previously appeared in Rolling Stone]
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