Taylor Swift

[OPINION] Taylor-made: Why the UP course on Taylor Swift need not be so polarizing

Adelle Chua

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[OPINION] Taylor-made: Why the UP course on Taylor Swift need not be so polarizing
UP offers a course on Taylor Swift, exploring the pop icon's influence on class, politics, and fandom activism. Anything wrong with that?

There was a flurry of reaction in January when the Department of Broadcast Communication of the University of the Philippines announced it would be offering a course (as in, a subject for one semester, not a four-year undergraduate degree as some believed) on pop icon Taylor Swift. 

Now, the semester has started. Associate Professor Cherish Iris Brillon, PhD is teaching two classes of BMAS 196 – Special Topics in Broadcast Media (Celebrity Studies: Taylor Swift in Focus). There are 25 students in each class; one class is made up of Broadcast Media Arts and Studies majors, and the other is made up of anybody interested. Some of the students are Swifties, some are casual listeners, and some are not fans altogether. “It’s an interesting mix,” Brillon says. 

There have been BMAS 196 courses on KDramas, for instance, or porn studies, but this is the first time an entire semester will be devoted to a specific figure. Hence, the nagging question: why Swift? 

For Brillon: why not?

Says the course syllabus: “This three-unit elective explores Taylor Swift through the lens of celebrity studies. It specifically focuses on the conception, construction, and performance of Taylor Swift as a celebrity and how she can be used to explain the public’s and media’s relationship with class, politics, gender, race, and fantasies of success and mobility. More importantly, this course looks at how Filipinos have appropriated Taylor Swift not only as a transnational icon, but as a signifier of an emerging type of local fandom activism.” 

Objectives are for the students to demonstrate an understanding of the key concepts associated with celebrity studies, analyze the roles played by various stakeholders in the construction of celebrities, and critically evaluate the role of celebrity in contemporary society. 

One session looks into the political economy of celebrity, including the role of capitalism and politics. The last session is a discussion of celebrity in Philippine society. 

“So, see, this is not a course about song lyrics,” Brillon says.

But what exactly does celebrity entail? Brillon says there are several criteria. One must be a product of the broadcast culture – TV and radio, specifically, appliances that are very much a part of an ordinary household. Second, people must be interested in their private lives, such that there is a collapse of boundaries separating the public from the private. They have to be ordinary and relatable, but also extraordinary at the same time. 

Celebrities are transnational because they are no longer limited to their home countries – they are everywhere. Celebrities are seen, as in visible, even omnipresent, especially with the technology and numerous platforms available. They are no longer limited to music: Swift, for example, has numerous endorsements, is into acting and producing, and will even direct soon. She is a businessperson. She’s got awards. Indeed, Swift is a product of a hyphenated culture – very aspirational to young people, showing them that they can be anyone, anything they want. 

In turn, look at how fans have appropriated Swift – with images of her in a sablay circulating online. So why shouldn’t our students study celebrity, when we elect people to public office on the basis of personality politics?

Brillon hazards a guess as to how and why Swift rose to the stature she now enjoys, even when she has been around for a while: During the pandemic, Swift released albums – Folklore and Evermore – that attracted new listeners and fans, including those from a younger generation.

“It’s the way she writes the right songs, like she knows what you are feeling and she is able to articulate the things we cannot utter.” Brillon cites the song Epiphany, which likened the pandemic to a war and paid tribute to frontliners: “Something med school did not cover/ someone’s daughter, someone’s mother/ holds your hand through plastic now/ Doc I think she’s crashing out.” 

That, and many more. 

Brillon is a Swiftie; she even recently went to Singapore to watch Swift in person. She observed that the audience had a good mix of age groups and nationalities. Indeed, concerts showed the power of celebrity to bind people hungry for connection, especially after we were all isolated during the pandemic.

As an academic, she looks forward to teaching other courses related to her research work. She has looked at superheroes in media culture, with notions of heroism, powers, and mission. She has also been vocal about her interest in Darna, which fuses the Philippines’ colonial past and our distinctly Filipino culture. She wants to explore the idea of contemporary loveteams, how they sometimes limit individual artists, and breeds fans who cannot distinguish real from reel life.

Brillon wants to explore, as well, the idea of fandom and how it can be harnessed into a new social movement. In fact, the idea for this course, Brillon says, was sparked by a 2022 study she did on how Swifties were active during the 2022 presidential elections. In the same election, celebrities themselves went out of their way to campaign: “Before, it was an open secret that celebrities were being paid to support this or that. But in 2022, a lot of celebrities who came out were not paid.” 

Does Brillon expect to teach the Taylor Swift course for many semesters? Technically, BMAS 196 is open to other topics that professors can propose, and the department could have many other plans. “We may have started with Taylor Swift, but we can have other celebrities or another focus in succeeding semesters. Now we are just trying to see where this will take us,” she says. – Rappler.com

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