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Ask the Expert: What can Taylor Swift teach us about women in music?

Oct 25, 2023

Taylor Swift performs onstage for the opening night of Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona... Taylor Swift performs onstage for the opening night of “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by Kevin Winter, Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

Taylor Swift has permeated the cultural zeitgeist this year, from her stadium-packing Eras Tour to movie theaters to the NFL. Her fans, known as Swifties, have followed along for 17 years as she evolved from a teenage country crooner to a pop and folk singer-songwriter.

Swift is sometimes compared to artists like Elvis Presley and the Beatles due to her enormous popularity and ever-growing fanbase, but she faces a great deal of criticism as well. Without question, Swift is a hot topic of discussion, enough to prompt “Taylor Swift: The Conference Era,” the first academic conference focused on the superstar, at Indiana University.

Christine Wisch is a musicologist and adjunct lecturer in the IU Jacobs School of Music with expertise on subjects such as identity, gender and female musicians. We asked her for insights into Swift and her impact on the world of music.

Christine Wisch. Photo courtesy of the Jacobs School of Music Christine Wisch. Photo courtesy of the Jacobs School of Music

Question: You teach the course Z204 “Women Musicians,” part of the Music in General Studies Program at IU. Could you describe the course and tell us how Taylor Swift is integrated into the curriculum?

Answer: “Women Musicians” is a one-semester historical survey of the contributions women and nonbinary musicians have made and the challenges they have faced, both in their own time and in terms of reception and academic study. We cover artists from the medieval era through the present day, and we explore how gender and sexuality have shaped musical culture over time. This ranges from discussions of unequal access to music education to expectations or restrictions of song topics because of one’s gender.

As we address different practices and topics, I frequently use Taylor Swift as a point of comparison because she is an artist with whom most of the students are familiar. For instance, we address competing views of feminism and the criticism artists like Taylor have faced for writing music about infatuation with or reliance on men. Likewise, I highlight her when we talk about singer-songwriters and their characteristics.

Each student is asked to work on a semester-long project that addresses an artist, and every semester Taylor is first taken when I post the sign-up sheet. Just as they do with ticket sales, my classroom Swifties will literally set alarms so they can be the first to access the sign-up sheet!

Q: What aspects of Taylor Swift’s music do you believe have attracted such a huge fan following, and has a fanbase like hers been seen for a female artist before?

A: These are great questions, and I do not have a single answer for either. As the Eras Tour indicates in its name, Swift and her music have undergone a journey since the start of her career. Whereas some artists alienate fans when they change styles, Swift’s fan base has snowballed, and with every album, she has welcomed new listeners.

We are now seeing Taylor reach across generations. I have had more than one student tell me that Taylor Swift’s music brings their family together and that their earliest musical memories are singing Taylor Swift songs with at least one parent. While Swift has not been completely devoid of criticism or controversy, she has cultivated a largely wholesome image and has consistently given back to her fans and her crew, thus strengthening her fan loyalty.

That said, it is difficult, if not impossible, to compare fan bases, whether among contemporary artists or historically. Social media and forms of digital entertainment have significantly changed the way music is consumed and the way fans interact with artists and with each other.

One aspect that is unique about Swift and her Eras Tour is the practice of “Taylor-Gating,” the parking lot gatherings of ticketless Swifties near concert venues. It’s one thing to camp out for tickets or for a concert, but seeing hundreds and sometimes thousands of ticketless fans consistently gather to create their own pseudo-concert experience is unprecedented.

Q: Taylor Swift has millions of fans, but there are still many “haters” out there too. For example, some critics attribute her fame to the controversies stirred up by Kanye West in the past. Have women musicians faced similar criticisms historically where their successes were attributed to men?

A: Constantly. I could probably teach an entire course on case studies where women’s abilities and successes were attributed to men or where women were simply not given credit for their work. Historically, we see many women publishing under male names for reasons of both access and credibility. We also see women completely written out of narratives, when we know they made important contributions, or left completely uncredited in productions. The trope that a woman’s success was due to a man is, unfortunately, quite common across history and to the present day.

Recently, I mentioned in class how critics of Kay Swift attributed her success to her relationship with George Gershwin. Unfortunately, I suspect such bias will be a continual problem for a while.

A 2020 study by Janis Kaplan showed that 90% of Americans still think that geniuses tend to be men, and in music, we continue to associate musical success with notions of genius. Until we reach a dissociation of genius and gender, I suspect we will continue to see such doubt cast upon the success of women, especially when the “haters” want to fire a cheap shot.

Q: “Inclusion in the Recording Studio,” an in-depth analysis of inclusion on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Chart, examined the gender of artists, songwriters and producers across 1,100 songs from 2012 to 2022. The study found that only 22.3% of artists and 12.8% of songwriters on the chart during that time period were female. With artists like Taylor Swift and Beyonce recently raking in billions of dollars for the global economy, where do women stand in the music industry today?

A: With the recent record-breaking awards and tours by Beyoncé and Swift — and the media coverage these two artists have commanded — it is perhaps easy to assume that we are in an era of female-led music, but statistics prove otherwise.

On day one of “Women Musicians,” I show my students the most recent report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and they are always both somewhat shocked and saddened to see the gender disparity among various ranks of the music industry, which includes songwriters, producers and executives. I likewise show them some of the historical statistics for the Grammys, an institution that has come under scrutiny for having overwhelmingly male nominees and winners, even in the past decade.

Swift, Beyoncé and other celebrated women artists remain the historical exception in many cases, but they are using their positions of power to raise awareness of serious issues. Swift has spoken out about the industry and the double standard women professionals face. Although Swift has been criticized for not doing enough in terms of feminism or using it selectively, to her credit, she has called attention to the “different vocabulary” used to describe men and women in the industry and even explored different standards in works like “The Man.” Significant changes in gender representation in the industry will take some time to achieve, but change will certainly happen faster with voices like Swift calling for action.

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