Shanti Mathias attends a seminar about Taylor Swift’s new album Midnights and finds that poetry and pop music aren’t so far apart after all.
The poet’s new collection was received well. It’s already a bestseller. Many critics love it. Other poets and academics do, too: at a seminar hosted by Te Herenga Waka’s English and Creative Communication department yesterday, poets Chris Tse and Ronia Ibrahim and UCLA professor Summer Kim Lee discussed how this new collection fits into the canon – the literary canon, and the mythology the poet herself is building.
The poet was Taylor Swift; the collection was Midnights, her latest album. And the seminar was a reminder that it can be fruitful – and also just plain fun – to fit pop music into the language of academia.
“There’s a blurring of eras: the past mixes with the present and the future,” said Tse, Aotearoa’s poet laureate and fashion icon. It was an earlier collection – that is, an album – that had caught his attention, years before: the intricacies of Taylor Swift’s Red singing into his storm of a breakup. Tse had bought the new album, liner notes and flickering flame cover, at a JB Hi-Fi, the retail worker there already tired from restocking shelves with all the different editions.
He read a poem from his second collection, He’s So MASC, titled “Notes for Taylor Swift, should she ever write a song about me”. “Make me a hit song for the ages,” goes the last line. “The last great crossover ballad.” Tse meditated on Midnights as a song cycle, linked by the theme of restless, sleepless nights. He read a new poem he’d written in response to Midnights, reflecting on the loneliness and possibility of darkness – like going to a cinema alone, and watching the credits roll, free from any pressure to tell someone else what he’d thought of it.
Ronia Ibrahim, a poet, essayist, and designer who has co-created the Moon Musings zine and edited Salient’s features section, was interested in Swift’s ability to write about experiences she might not have had: loving Swift as storyteller, self-mythologising through her lyrics. Ibrahim’s poems responded to Swift with imagery of petals and diamonds. One piece, about a break-up, used a repetitive structure, echoing Swift’s album, where each song is a midnight. Another played with Swift’s vocalisations – those long aaaaas and iiiiiiis as stutters, the trap of peer pressure like a moth getting high on fluoro lighting.
Zooming in from the other side of the ocean, UCLA professor Summer Kim Lee, who studies performance, aesthetics and gender, reflected on how the release of the album itself was a kind of performance, the surprise addition of the 3AM bonus tracks – at 3am, of course – asking fans keeping vigil to stay up a little longer, to spend the whole night with Swift. “I may not have sleepless nights for the same reasons as Taylor Swift,” she said “But a sleepless night for Taylor is a sleepless night for us all.” The slipperiness of time in the album was compelling, too: in what order do the midnights occur? How do the songs each fit into the narrative of Swift’s life? Does Swift, the poems’ speaker, learn any lessons from staying up so late?
Both Ibrahim and Lee reflected on how, for many years, listening to Taylor Swift had been an “experience of shame”. Ibrahim had fallen in love with the 2008 album Fearless in primary school, but stopped after listening to peers who told her that “boys don’t like girls who listen to Taylor Swift”, until she rediscovered Swift’s discography a few years ago. Lee reminisced about living in Brooklyn and taking the subway with Swift piped into her headphones, imagining the distaste that the hipsters around her might convey if they knew what was in her ears. “Being a Swiftie is an experience of shame,” she said, but added later an idea from queer studies – that shame is also “a productive collectivising effort.”
Often, the image of a poet is dreary, pages and pens and a performance of poverty, while the music industry is supposed to be glitz and glamour and filthy lucre. As industries, poetry and music function very separately: one industry is being transformed by superstars and fan communities on Instagram and TikTok, while the other – well, actually, the other is being transformed by Instagram and TikTok too.
An audience member asked if Swift’s latest album could still be poetry without the music – another fruitful question. Ibrahim, who has been reading the lyrics to learn the words that evaporate into the music, thought that it did. To me, an audience member, this seemed a striking point: why are poetry and pop music separated? Contemporary live poetry is remarkably mainstream – whether that’s lucrative reality TV slam contests or the smash hit glitzy New Zealand Show Ponies performance (catch it next week at the Verb festival!), it can mean sold out venues and rabid fans. A few years ago, songwriter Bob Dylan accepted a Nobel Prize in literature. The mediums aren’t so very far apart.
Tse recounted the theory that the colour of the elevator buttons in the Bejeweled music video were a reference to the Speak Now album cover, a sign that the next “Taylor’s Version” album will be a re-recording of the 2010 album, spreading his arms out like Pepe Silvia. An audience member asked the panelists about the Gaylor theory – that Swift is queer, and has been signalling this to fans through an arcane system of lyrics and semiotics for years. It was this aspect of the seminar that most interested me, the dormant parts of my brain that have a literature degree activating in the synthetic grey seminar room.
When I studied literature, I was often annoyed – and also amazed – at the ability of academics to connect the personal lives of the writers they studied to the work they produced, to take any line and reference seriously, worthy of analysis. Sometimes, the connections felt tenuous; at other times, gossipy. Once, for an assignment, I had to read through some of Katherine Mansfield’s letters, and felt like I was snooping in the diary of a friend: reading the stories intended for publication was one thing, but forming theories about the internal life of this remarkable writer felt like another. (I did enjoy it, though I almost didn’t want to.)
But of course creative work and personal lives are intertwined – something that Taylor Swift’s passionate fanbase knows well. Like literature academics, the thrill is in the chase: piecing together theories from clues and fragments, treating every image as a potential symbol. Some of the theories will never be confirmed, but the pleasure is in believing that art is more than itself, that everything means something.
The seminar was fun. Pop music is great, and so is poetry – everything that is revealed, theorised and hidden as artforms build on each other. Perhaps Taylor Swift put it best: she’s only cryptic and Machiavellian because she cares.