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Can’t ‘Shake It Off’? University of Kansas class will explore Taylor Swift’s popularity

Taylor Swift attends an in conversation with Taylor Swift event at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9, 2022.
Evan Agostini
Invision/AP, File
Taylor Swift attends an in conversation with Taylor Swift event at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9, 2022.

Like many “Swifties,” University of Kansas sociology professor Brian Donovan first became a Taylor Swift fan in 2013, upon the release of her album “1989.”

His love of Swift eventually inspired his research. This month, Donovan posted a TikTok video asking to interview Swift fans about how fandom influences identity, social dynamics and happiness. He thought he would get maybe a dozen responses. Instead, he got 1,500 in the first 24 hours.

That shows how large and diverse the Swift community is, Donovan said.

“It's immense,” he said. “It is on a scale that I think is much larger than, say, Beatlemania.”

Donovan will turn his research into a new class at KU this fall, an undergraduate seminar called “The Sociology of Taylor Swift.” It’s not the first college class focused on Swift – others have looked at her song lyrics through a literary lens. Donovan’s course will instead explore Swift’s fandom and celebrity status, as well as the nature of celebrity in American culture.

The class size is limited to just 10 students, but there is already a “sizable” waiting list, Donovan said.

A March poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults showed that 16% of respondents considered themselves “avid” Swift fans.

“What attracts people to Taylor,” Donovan said, “is that she is able to write in a way that seems like it's speaking to their own personal autobiography.”

Her fandom isn’t without controversy. When Swift recently started dating British musician Matty Healy, many of her fans criticized The 1975 frontman for appearing on a podcast where the hosts made racist jokes and mocked rapper Ice Spice. And fans have expressed disappointment in Swift herself.

That raises questions about how and whether fans can separate art from an artist’s personal life, Donovan said.

“Some say that we should just trust Taylor, that we shouldn't really weigh in about her dating life. Others have argued that her association with this guy makes the community less safe and less inclusive,” Donovan said. “ I think those discussions actually are very healthy to have in any kind of community like this that's based around a celebrity.”

Of course, Donovan will be at Arrowhead Stadium in July for the Kansas City stop of Swift’s sold-out “Eras” tour, right after he listens to the highly anticipated rerelease of her third album, “Speak Now.”

“The timing couldn’t be more perfect,” he said.

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