Why Teach Taylor Swift?

| Written by Cherish Aileen Brillon

Prof. Brillon explains her controversial new media course

 

Taylor Swift performing at The Eras Tour concert in Los Angeles, USA. Photo from | .

 

This coming semester, I will be teaching 鈥淐elebrity Studies: Taylor Swift in Focus鈥 at the College of Mass Communication in UP Diliman. The conversations and discourse surrounding this elective course have been very interesting and eye-opening, to say the least. It revealed a lot about how the academe and Filipino society, in general, have evolved, though it also showed that in some other aspects, it remained conservative, rigid, and hierarchical, especially on what is deemed as worth studying and worth paying attention to.

There still seems to be a bias when it comes to studying media, its culture, its processes, and its products (unless we are talking about how it is a corrupting influence). I am not new to how other people see media studies as a discipline and what is regarded as worthy subject matter for research and discussion in our field. As a graduate student, I initially gravitated towards 鈥渟erious鈥 and 鈥渟ocially relevant鈥 topics like technology and the Filipino diaspora鈥攖hose which I thought would not raise eyebrows within the academe. But while those are very, very important, they could not connect to who I was as a person.

I realized early on that if I was going to go back to school and spend effort and resources, I would want to do something that would connect with me, but which would also have a much larger implication outside of me. I know the context of the phrase 鈥渢he personal is political鈥 applies to feminism, but it holds true in other contexts too.

Broadcast Communication Associate Professor Cherish Aileen A. Brillon, PhD.

I was lucky because when I was working on my thesis, my MA and PhD advisers were both very supportive of what I wanted to do. They found merit in my decision to study Darna, even though I was initially hesitant because I thought I would not be taken seriously. This valuable space to shape the course of my own research, which I believe is the key to enabling diversity and innovation in the academe, led me and the Department of Broadcast Communication to offer a subject on celebrity studies.

This field is hardly new to the Philippine academe. Celebrity studies is part of the broader field of media and popular culture studies. A lot of local scholars such as Soledad Reyes, Roland Tolentino, Wendell Capili, Johven Velasco, Louie Jon Sanchez, and Alfonso Deza, among others, have already written academically about local celebrities. UP has also provided a space for many popular culture classes to be offered for several years now, and that includes my own Department, which offered courses on porn and KDrama as well as those offered by Biology focusing on anime such as Attack of the Titans. Other universities like La Salle also offered a teleserye subject, while Ateneo offered something on Star Wars and religion. All of these generated varying levels of conversation in mass and social media.

But as far as I know, this is the very first time that UP has offered an academic subject focusing on Taylor Swift. In fact, a researcher who interviewed me for a feature even mentioned that UP might be the first in Asia to offer a subject on her (I have not Googled the veracity of that information yet). But as you already know, top universities like Harvard, Stanford, and NYU have already offered courses on Taylor Swift, though not exactly focusing on her as a celebrity as seen through the lens of one of the countries from the Global South.

But this is Taylor Swift, right? Hence, the various reactions, opinions, and comments. I always say that before this course even got the attention of the public, she was already a polarizing figure in the global entertainment industry. But what鈥檚 always being asked of me is why should we devote time and resources to studying Taylor Swift rather than a local celebrity.

Let me be clear: I am not dismissing the need to study local celebrities. I always say they are equally important. However, I am someone whose academic interests focus on political economy, especially on the transnational nature of cultural products, gender, Philippine media studies with a special interest in postcolonial theories, and popular culture. All these interests are embodied by Taylor Swift, who is currently the biggest pop star we have today and if you are in media studies and doing celebrity studies, you cannot ignore this. I am very much aware that there are parallel, existing realities that need attention and focus in the country and elsewhere, but it doesn鈥檛 invalidate the existence of other realities and phenomena. All are important subjects worth exploring.

 

Taylor Swift performing at The Eras Tour concert in Los Angeles, USA. Photo from | .

 

Using Taylor Swift as an example situates the course in a transnational media ecology/environment that鈥檚 vastly different from what has been previously studied. Filipinos鈥 relationship with and consumption of celebrities has changed (though they remained the same in some aspects) due to the internet. We are now exposed more than ever to a vast array of media products from various parts of the globe, and Taylor Swift is one of the biggest celebrities in global popular culture, with a career spanning twenty years. This also means that she appeals to a certain demographic that is media savvy and digitally literate.

These days, we have an entirely different expectation of what a celebrity should be. For example, we now expect them to be more outspoken politically, and to use their platform to advocate for their chosen causes. This is something that wasn鈥檛 explicitly nor implicitly expected of them before, especially in our very rigid, hierarchical local entertainment industry. It is also interesting to note that the Philippines is always in the top ten countries that are the biggest streamers of Swift鈥檚 music, with Quezon City even placing in the top five cities worldwide that listen to Taylor Swift.

There is also a political dimension to the focus on Taylor Swift. As a Swiftie, I know that in 2020, when there were so few local celebrities who raised their voices against the Anti-Terror Bill in the Philippines, she amplified this specific issue in her social media accounts (don鈥檛 worry, I am not blind to her less-than-ideal stances on other issues, and that will be tackled in class). This initial observation is further amplified by my involvement in the last presidential elections as it introduced me to a very different kind of political campaigning鈥攐ne that is celebrity-centric (again, this one is hardly new since it is common knowledge that celebrities were paid to endorse politicians, but there were a lot of celebrities who voluntarily lent their star power in the last campaign) and fan-driven.

 

Taylor Swift performing to fans in the Eras Tour concert in Minneapolis, USA. Photo from | .

 

While there were a lot of fandoms who actively participated in the last national elections, two fandoms stood out to me because of how active they were: the K-Pop stans and the Swifties. While it was a given to me that local fandoms such as Kathniels, Bubblies, and Angels, among others, participated strongly in the elections because it directly involves us as Filipinos, the subject of fandom by K-Pop stans and Swifties are transnational celebrities who, if you think about it, can 鈥渃hoose鈥 not to blur that line separating entertainment and politics. Still, they did. This kind of political participation hinged on celebrity fandom is not just happening here in the Philippines. Swifties continue to make online noise to help keep the focus on the genocide happening in Palestine and they also campaigned hard against right-wing populist president Javier Milei in Argentina. Whatever we think about Taylor Swift鈥檚 politics or lack of it, it is interesting how politics have figured so much in her fandom.

So, to the question of 鈥淲hy Taylor?鈥 I always answer, why not? A lot of foreign scholars study us, our cultural products, and our discourses, so why can鈥檛 we study theirs and put forth knowledge claims and pathways that come from us being Filipinos existing and participating in a global stage? And isn鈥檛 this a core part of UP鈥檚 raison d’锚tre? To provide a space that will generate conversations. To lead in the conduct of scholarly and enriching discourse that puts value on the importance of humanities and social sciences. To recognize that what may seem trivial to others may be worth a closer, deeper examination, toward greater understanding of the Filipino experience in contemporary society.


Cherish Aileen A. Brillon is a faculty member of the Department of Broadcast Communication in the College of Mass Communication, UP Diliman, and the current Director of the UP Padayon Public Service Office under the Office of the Vice-President for Public Affairs.