Exploring the impact of Taylor Swift: NUS FASS Teaching Assistant presents academic paper on pop icon’s influence at Swiftposium

Taylor-mania will sweep Singapore’s shores when American superstar Taylor Swift’s six concerts kick off on 2 March 2024. But in Australia, which hosted the Grammy-winning musician’s shows for seven nights ahead of her arrival here, it was not just her record-breaking Eras Tour that made headlines. There was also an event known as Swiftposium 2024 – an international academic conference bringing together scholars who know the musician all too well to study the singer’s outsized impact on music, culture and society.

Hosted by the University of Melbourne from 11 to 13 February 2024, the three-day conference was a collaboration between scholars from six universities across Australia and New Zealand. A paper authored by Ms Aimee-Sophia Lim, a full-time teaching assistant at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Department of Sociology and Anthropology was among the 130 papers presented by academics analysing Swift’s influence across diverse disciplines including economics, business, media studies, health, as well as the societal and cultural spheres.

When it was first announced last September, the conference received more than 400 academic papers for discussion, spanning 60 academic disciplines, from nearly 80 institutions worldwide.

“Being a Swiftie since the age of eight, I was really thrilled when I received the email informing me that I had been accepted to present at Swiftposium, especially after realising that the competition was steep due to the media coverage it had received,” said Ms Lim, an FASS alumna and a former Global Studies major from the Class of 2023, referring to the term used to describe Swift’s devoted fanbase. As the conference was a hybrid event, Ms Lim presented her paper virtually so that she can continue her teaching duties at NUS. 

The enthusiastic response from the academic community to the conference was not unlike the reception to her wildly successful Eras Tour that pays homage to the 10 albums across her 17-year career.

Since the world tour began in March 2023, her fans have been pulling out all the stops to snap up concert tickets, flying across countries to see the singer in action and booking hotel rooms.  In December, Swift’s Eras Tour became the first music tour to surpass US$1 billion dollars in revenue, making it the highest-grossing tour ever, according to data from Pollstar, a trade publication for the concert industry. Meanwhile, online research firm QuestionPro in August projected that in the US alone, the tour could have generated close to US$5 billion in consumer spending from expenses for tickets, travel, clothing, food and merchandise.

Ms Lim noted that with 281 million followers on Instagram and 151 concert dates for her Eras Tour – some drawing up to 96,000 spectators – Swift has an undeniably large influence and platform both online and offline.

There is evidence of her influence on sociopolitical advocacy too, observed Ms Lim. “One of Swift’s defining moments was when she broke her political silence on the Tennessee 2018 midterm elections where she spoke out against US senator Marsha Blackburn via an Instagram post and sparked a 65,000 increase in vote registration according to Vote.org.”

All of this made for rich material for academics at the conference to study Swift’s wide-ranging impact through the lens of their various disciplines.

Examining the pop icon’s impact on economics, psychology, sociology and even neuroscience

“Most people would assume that the study of Swift and popular culture would be explored from the perspective of Media and Communications Studies or Literature, but at Swiftposium, there were presentations from fields such as Economics, Psychology, Neuroscience and of course, Sociology, making it a truly interdisciplinary experience,” Ms Lim recounted.

Notable presentations included one that examined Swiftonomics, a term used to describe the economic benefits she brings to cities by boosting consumer spending and stimulating local businesses. Another presentation explored Swift’s contribution to the body image discourse by studying how she infuses her personal experiences into her music and applying perspectives from Economics and Psychology.

Many presenters drew upon their experiences within their societies to determine the scope and topics of their research. For example, one presentation centred on how her songs are received by an international audience, investigating how Chinese listeners interpret her lyrics and what is lost or gained in translation.

Others discussed feminism and why Swift’s advocacy for gender equality should go beyond meeting the ‘alpha-male’ standard, whether Swifties would feel the same connection if the lyrics to her songs were written by artificial intelligence, and how Swift’s redefinition of fan engagement in the digital age could necessitate calling out instances of unacceptable behaviour among the fandom.  

“It was truly heartening and inspiring to witness how we had all come together from different fields to critically analyse the impact of the artist we all adore,” said Ms Lim.

Titled “Miss Americana’s Influence on Southeast Asian Swifties’ Socio-Political Activism”, Ms Lim’s paper was one of two that discussed Swift’s influence on the sociopolitical activism of her fans in Southeast Asia.

Combining her research interests in global social movements, decolonisation, feminism, and visual culture, she studied how Swift is inspiring political activism in the region, citing examples such as her influence on the campaign efforts by Filipino Swifties in the 2022 Philippine presidential election, while acknowledging the critiques of Swift’s “US-centric, white brand of feminism”.

These preliminary findings link closely to the study of social movements, examining what brings people together to rally for a common cause, and the many ways in which to connect with social issues and get involved in advocacy.

Ms Lim’s research stems from her own adoration for Swift’s music, her representation of female empowerment and how she encourages her fans to stay authentic to their own identities in spite of any negativity they may encounter along the way. 

Through her work, she hopes that these findings can also be applied to understanding the potential and pitfalls of celebrity and pop culture advocacy as a whole, a subject that has often been criticised for being overly reductive and commercialised.

“After my presentation, I received messages from fellow attendees and presenters with feedback regarding my research, which even led to further discussions on the subject matter. Overall, this experience has inspired me to continue researching and to submit other proposals to academic conferences due to the enriching takeaways,” said Ms Lim.