Texas Tech University

A New Era

December 19, 2023

A New Era

Texas Tech offers one of the first university-level courses on the music of Taylor Swift.

Sarai Brinker's inbox has filled up with messages from excited colleagues and friends in the past week.

“Seriously jealous of your students.” 

“Looks like you beat Harvard to the punch.”

“I wish I could take this course at my university.” 

They are responding to a course Brinker is teaching on the music of Taylor Swift, and the fact Texas Tech University was one of the first schools in the nation to offer such a class – ahead of places such as Harvard. 

Sarai Brinker smiling and standing in a garden with arms crossed.
Sarai Brinker

The course is a collaboration between Texas Tech's School of Music and Honors College. Designed as a first-year experience, Brinker's course uses Swift's material to teach music appreciation. 

“I love that Texas Tech was one of the first places to do this,” Brinker said. 

She notes that other universities offer classes around the topic of Swift's career and lyrics, but she could not find another university teaching Swift's actual music. 

“I think that's the beauty of Texas Tech,” Brinker said. “We take risks out here and because of it, we tend to be really innovative.” 

Bigger Than the Whole Sky

Whether you're a die-hard “Swiftie” or don't care for her sound, it's hard to deny the phenomenon that is Taylor Swift's musical career. 

Swift has produced 10 original studio albums before the age of 32. Her works span four genres, and she has won 12 Grammy Awards. After Elton John's farewell tour, Swift's “The Eras Tour” is the second largest-grossing tour of all time – and it's not over (so watch out, Elton John).

Throughout all of this, Swift has not only earned fans, but she also has created a community. 

“Swifties” as they call themselves, span from kindergarten to 45 years old, sometimes older. Over the summer, millions flocked to “The Eras Tour” with DIY bracelets adorning their arms, each spelling out names of Swift's albums with craft store beads. The bracelets are reminiscent of friendship bracelets – made in the weightless and whimsical days of elementary school. 

And that is part of the nostalgia Swift plays at. 

“She writes it all,” Brinker said. “Swift explores themes like coming of age and first love, revenge and loss, even grief.” 

Many “Swifties” grew up with this music, the songs relevant through their own coming of age. Like the memory of a friendship bracelet, McKenzie Dixon remembers where she was each time Swift dropped a new album. 

“My family moved a lot when I was growing up,” Dixon, a first-year speech pathology student at Texas Tech said. “So, each state I lived in is associated with an album in my mind.” 

Swift's music gave Dixon a soundtrack to her own experiences. 

“Red” released when she was in California. 

“1989” released when she was in Arkansas. 

“Reputation” released when she was in New Jersey. 

“Lover” and “Midnights” released after she moved to Texas. 

“Those were the songs that got me through,” Dixon recalled. “I still remember dancing to Swift's debut album when I was in preschool. There was never a time in my life when Swift was not releasing music.”

So, when it came time to enroll in her first semester at Texas Tech, Dixon jumped at the chance to take the Taylor Swift honors course. She and her dad were going through the course catalog and the class caught Dixon's eye. With a limited number of seats, Dixon quickly registered.

“I didn't care if I needed the credit or not,” she recalled with a laugh. “I just love Taylor Swift and I knew I needed to get into that class.”

Dixon hasn't been disappointed. 

“This class has been the best part of my semester,” Dixon beams. “Professor Brinker is amazing, and she has created a really fun environment.”

But fun hasn't meant easy. 

The students in Brinker's course have learned about timbre, melody, harmony, rhythm, key signatures, theory and form. 

Speak Now

On an afternoon in late November, Brinker announces to the class they've arrived at their last era. A photo of Swift's most recent album “Midnights” comes up on the screen. Excited whispers are heard throughout the room and one student silently fist pumps the air. 

The lyrics and sheet music to Swift's “Karma” are printed out. Brinker asks them to listen to the song once as they annotate the lyrics. Then again as they make notes on the sheet music. 

“What instrumentation is Swift using to drive home her lyrics?” Brinker asks the class. 

The class discusses the use of synth-pop along with the rhyme scheme of the chorus. 

“The song almost rhymes, but not quite,” says one student. 

The students agree that Swift leaves the listener on edge, just as one feels when karma might come back to bite them. 

The discussion is artistic and acute, playful and ponderous.

This is one of Dylan Randall's favorite aspects of the course. 

“Listening to music on your own is nice, but you're only ever going to have your perspective,” Randall said. “I love our discussions because someone will hear something in the music I've never considered.

“I think that will transfer to the rest of college. You must be open to others' perspectives. This class is a chance to practice that with a topic we all love.” 

Randall, along with the others, is enthusiastically at work on his final project. Brinker asked each student to create a work of art that exhibits an “era” from their life.

“I ended up writing an album,” Randall said. “Which is crazy because I just listen to music; I'm not a musician. But this class pushed me to try something new.” 

Randall says the project has been an outlet from the stress of his other science-heavy courses. He is pursuing a degree in biochemistry but knows the skills he's learned in Brinker's class will make him a more curious and innovative problem solver. 

“Most of us in the class are not music majors,” Randall said. “There are students from all fields of study, which makes our discussions even more rich.” 

Mad Woman

While the students love the course, there also are critics of Swift's music. And they can often be found in collegiate music programs. This was not going to stop Texas Tech's School of Music from trying something new, though. 

“There are certainly some critics wondering why a serious music school would study Taylor Swift, but I wonder what serious school would not,” said Andy J. Stetson, director of the School of Music. “Swift is a true artist, a true creator. The content of her songs, musically and lyrically, are not that different than music throughout many of the eras more typical to musical study. It's modern-day art song and I applaud Brinker for creating a course that makes those connections.” 

Brinker knew the class would touch on many issues surrounding Swift's career, but the heart of the class would be the actual music. Brinker acknowledges that some musicians may not see the merit of studying Swift's music, but she disagrees. 

Brinker teaches other courses including a graduate-level music history survey. Recently, the class was studying German Lieder – the popular music of its time. 

“One of the ideas we discussed was how romantic composers used the piano to emphasize what the singer is saying,” Brinker said. “So, if the song is talking about tears, you might have a descending line of notes.” 

And that's when Brinker realized she was essentially teaching the same concepts in both graduate music history and her first-year Taylor Swift course. 

“When it comes to manipulating sound to enhance meaning, that's something Swift is amazing at,” she said.

But there are other reasons people dislike the popstar. 

“I think some of that criticism is sexist, too,” Brinker said. “I wonder if a man were winning this many Grammys or having this much impact on the music industry, if we'd be debating whether that was worth studying.” 

There also is the fact that most Swift fans are women. 

“I think the criticism her music faces is due to the societal idea that music that appeals to women, especially young women, is not serious music or music worth studying.”

But this is nothing new. 

Brinker holds a bachelor's in music, a bachelor's in natural history and humanities, a master's in liberal arts and a doctoral degree in fine arts. 

“Through all of that study, I can only think of a few female composers I learned about,” Brinker said. 

She reaches across her desk and holds up an anthology of music written from the 1500s through modern time. As she flips through the pages, she counts 187 male composers but only seven female composers.

“This does not mean there were only seven female composers in those 500 years; it just means history decided to only record a few.” 

Brinker sees Swift's music, as playful and colorful as it can be, as a serious moment in music history. 

“What Swift is doing is so unusual for women in this industry, that I think it's worthy of study, and not just study hundreds of years from now,” Brinker said. 

Dixon, who played the trumpet in high school, enjoys classical composers such as Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, but could never wrap her mind around that very thing.

“Why do we only give credit to dead people?” she asked.

Dixon lists off artists such as Vincent Van Gough, Johann Sebastian Bach and Emily Dickinson.

“It seems a shame that you have to die for your work to be meaningful,” Dixon said. “I think universities offering more courses in the work of modern artists will help challenge this trend.”

The Last Great American Dynasty 

In March of 2024, Brinker and Dixon will travel to Chicago for the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference. 

Brinker submitted a paper that was accepted, and after reading Dixon's midterm this semester, Brinker encouraged her to submit her work, too. 

Dixon will be presenting “Taylor Swift: A voice for the youth” in the undergraduate sessions while Brinker will present “Mad Woman: An examination of societal expectations of female emotion and associated implications” as part of the larger conference. 

The conference actively recruits new areas of scholarly exploration and looks for innovative ideas. 

The class at Texas Tech caught their eye.

While many universities are beginning to embrace Swift in the classroom, Texas Tech remains the only university offering a music course. 

“My friends showed me a New York Times article recently about Harvard offering a Taylor Swift class next spring,” Brinker said. 

The article says Harvard will teach an English course called, “Taylor Swift and Her World.” This follows trends set by universities such as the University of Texas, New York University (NYU), and of course, Texas Tech. 

Other universities such as Stanford, Arizona State University, University of California, Berkley, University of Florida and Harvard will join the lineup next year. 

Other courses examine Swift's career from an entrepreneurial, sociological and biographical lens. And while Brinker is glad Swift is studied through many lenses, she is firm in her conviction that Swift's music alone is worth studying.

“I want students to know that it's valid to love the music of Taylor Swift,” Brinker said. “The music you love is meaningful and it's worthy of consideration.

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