When the title of Dr Georgia Carroll’s thesis was read out at her graduation ceremony, the room laughed. A lot has changed in just a year: her subject was Taylor Swift fans – and she’s the one laughing now.
“A lot of people still automatically think, ‘Oh, Taylor Swift is a silly thing to study,’ but it’s no more niche than studying some tiny scientific aspect of something,” says Carroll, who has loved Swift’s music since she was 14. “I think academia is sometimes a bit scared of the popular. But we need more people studying these really relevant cultural moments.”
She is in good company this week. As Melbourne prepares to welcome Swift’s Eras Tour this Friday – to what could be her biggest crowd, on the first tour to pass the US$1bn mark – RMIT University is warming the city up with the first Swiftposium: a two-day academic conference studying all things Swift. And how could you not want to study a person who can drive rushes on – of all things – beads; or is so popular that fans’ cheers can generate seismic activity equivalent to a 2.3 magnitude earthquake?
About 400 academic papers from 78 universities and research institutes around the world were submitted to be discussed; 130 were accepted, from fields as diverse as musicology, gender studies and economics to law, urban planning and even medicine (some creative sparks will speak on how Swift songs can be used in CPR).
“People may think we are just going be praising Taylor but, no, we engage in really legitimate critique of both her and the power structures,” Carroll adds. “It’s going to be really fun – especially because online, you’re not allowed to critique her at all.”
As one of the few bona fide Swift experts in the world, Carroll is giving a keynote address. She never expected to see anything like a Swiftposium happen. “I once got a lot of judgment in my own field,” she says. “A lot of people who study celebrities are in media studies but I’m in sociology, where that is less prevalent. But sociology has been studying sport fans for 60 or 70 years – so how can someone who studies soccer fans tell me I shouldn’t be studying a pop star’s fans? They’re the exact same theories, the exact same behaviour. It is their biases against female interests.”
On Sunday, a day before the academics-only Swiftposium, fans have gathered in Melbourne’s Capitol theatre to take part in a “Fanposium”: essentially a conference-lite, presentations and panels as well as a session on how to make the friendship bracelets that have become ubiquitous among her fans. In attendance are country Taylor fans (her early days) and “Swemos” (Swift-loving emos), very small children and some unabashedly enthusiastic dads. And Ashley, who is 27, dressed head to toe in sequins, and has loved Swift “since I was an angsty preteen”.
“The community is amazing,” she says. “I love these things, I go to Swift club nights, trivia nights. Being a Swiftie is a great icebreaker – I always go up to people I spot wearing merch and say, ‘I love her too, I love that album.’ And they freak out, in a nice way.”
Ashley was unable to get a ticket to the Eras tour so she did the next best thing: landed a job at a merch stand at the MCG, where Swift is playing on Friday. “I was so determined to be there. I was like, I’ve got to be there to compliment people on their outfits and trade friendship bracelets,” she says. “And if a six-year-old girl got the ticket that I was supposed to get, I’m just glad that another generation are becoming Swifties.”
Few fandoms are as devout as Swifties – though she is not the only reason that a bunch of twentysomethings willingly attend an event billed as academic on a bright summer day. Perhaps the most useful analogy is religion: where some people attend church for God, others go for the chat and cuppa afterwards.
“A lot of people confuse this with, like, worshipping Taylor Swift,” says Azalea, 22 and founder of the University of Melbourne’s Swifties Society. “It’s more about a sense of community.”
Rachel, 29, who is threading a bead on to a string nearby, says: “I feel like Taylor’s music and everything about her can really make you feel much more positive. It is so beautiful when you find friends that love her as much as you do, it’s just the best. She’s brought together people who wouldn’t otherwise be.”
Swift’s music is popular for a reason that Greta Gerwig films or Sally Rooney books can be: for people conditioned to believe that their interior lives don’t matter, it’s powerful to be told that they actually really, really do. It also helps that you cannot escape her – since just 2020, Swift has released 10 records, including re-releases and live albums.
“You cant go anywhere without seeing something to do with her,” says Alex, 20 and also part of the Swiftie Society. “It is great as a fan but I’m sure a lot of people are confused and intimidated.
“It’s nice to finally be able to talk about being a fan – I no longer feel like if I speak about what I like everyone is going to bully me. Now we’re all in!”
Given their idol’s popularity now, it is striking how many Swifties describe being made to feel ashamed about their love for her. Some express gratitude for becoming part of the mainstream.
“The people who hated me for liking Taylor have got tickets to the Eras tour,” says Sanna, 21. “I feel like whenever I used to mention Taylor, it was like, ‘Ew.’ But people are past the stereotype that she just does breakup songs and nothing serious.”
Ashley says: “When I was in high school, I used to get picked on for liking Taylor Swift. Now my bullies love her. And honestly, I think that’s awesome. Now we have something in common.”