Since Playing ‘Fearless’ at 14, Georgia Carroll Has Been Captivated by Taylor Swift’s Music.
Fifteen years later, she stands as the sole individual globally holding a PhD centered on the superstar. Her conclusion? “It wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest Taylor Swift is currently one of the most influential figures worldwide.”
This assertion propels Dr. Carroll into a cohort of numerous experts who have convened in Melbourne this week for a pioneering international academic symposium aimed at unraveling Swift’s remarkable influence.
This groundbreaking event, a prelude to the Eras Tour in Australia, has garnered over 400 submissions from numerous academic disciplines and institutions globally, generating a wave of enthusiasm and international media coverage.
‘Started as a joke’
The concept of the ‘Swiftposium’ sprouted from a half-joking tweet last July, gathering only a handful of likes initially. However, when organizers officially announced the event months later, it swiftly catapulted into international virality overnight.
The organizers awoke to find their event covered by prominent media outlets like the BBC, Rolling Stone Magazine, and CNN.
“I immediately had to email my boss,” Dr. Eloise Faichney recalls with a grin. “Our modest conference suddenly transformed into this unstoppable force.”
Fans eagerly clamored to participate, and on Sunday, hundreds of individuals—dressed in rhinestones, cowboy boots, and Swift’s iconic red lipstick—converged at Melbourne’s historic Capitol Theatre to attend lectures about the global superstar.
Before the sold-out event, attendees also engaged in a friendship bracelet-making workshop, where 19-year-old Soumil expressed how the event, hosted by RMIT University, is helping to mend the wounds from last year’s tumultuous ticketing experience.
‘Taylor Mania’ has undeniably swept across the globe this past year—she was crowned Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2023—and it remains uncertain when this phenomenon might wane.
On Monday, the 34-year-old once again commanded the headlines with images of her and footballer boyfriend Travis Kelce celebrating victory at the Super Bowl. Just last week, she achieved remarkable success at the Grammys, clinching her fourth Album of the Year award.
Even her cats, her publicist, and childhood friends boast name recognition and a devoted following.
“[Swift] has somehow ascended to become the most influential superstar on the planet, surpassing what I believed was even feasible,” remarked keynote speaker Brittany Spanos—a Rolling Stone reporter who, in 2020, led the inaugural university course on the icon—at the conference.
However, Swift has consistently found herself at the epicenter of significant cultural moments and discussions, ever since catapulting to fame as a teenager.
She has risen to become one of the highest-earning and most celebrated artists in history, sparking discussions on topics ranging from streaming royalties and music ownership to misogyny and cancel culture.
The summit features a dedicated panel on “Swiftonomics,” a term coined to elucidate her enormous impact on economies, prompting world leaders to vie for her presence in their countries.
Moreover, experts are delving into how her music is being utilized to teach CPR to young individuals, and there is lively discourse on how her relationship with Kelce is fostering a sense of belonging for girls in traditionally male-dominated sports fandoms.
Even a lyrical analysis of her views on public transport made its way into the discussions (ironically, as her use of private jets has increased, her songs have started referencing trains and buses more often, according to Harrison Croft).
When the audience grew weary of speeches, they were treated to a duet between a musician-turned-academic and an eerily accurate AI clone mimicking a younger Swift’s voice—to showcase how her musical style has evolved over the past 17 years.
For literature enthusiasts, a mother-daughter duo presented spoken-word poetry highlighting society’s disregard for the interests of young women—an item that garnered an adoring reaction from the audience. And for political buffs, an academic discussed how Australian MPs use Swift to appear relatable.
Madeline Pentland, 27, counted over 30 speeches citing Swift’s most iconic lyrics—among them, a shameless performance by the treasurer of New South Wales, who managed to drop 20 references in a single speech.
She found that men were more inclined to quote the singer, often using the lyrics for political jabs or satire, whereas women tended to employ them in support of various topics of discussion.
However, Ms. Pentland was particularly amused to witness them invoked during one of Australian politics’ favorite pastimes—the ousting of leaders.
She expresses a sense of disappointment, noting what she perceives as missed opportunities: “I expected there might be a bit of Bad Blood here and there, but I didn’t come across any references!”
Another duo has delved into how Swift has become a focal point for conspiracy theories—ranging from fervent fans deciphering her strategic hints to individuals on the right finding significance in almost anything.
In recent days alone, US President Joe Biden has brushed off speculation suggesting that Swift’s romantic life is part of a scheme to influence the Super Bowl outcome and secure his re-election, while her fans have been persuading anyone with internet access that a re-recording of the Reputation album is imminent.
Clare Southerton is intrigued by what this phenomenon can teach us about the proliferation of conspiracy communities.
“There’s a vast difference between interpreting something like, ‘Oh, the blue dress signifies 1989 is next’… and being a domestic terrorist, but it’s valuable for us to comprehend why people are drawn to this,” the 35-year-old shared with the BBC.
Uncomfortable debates have also arisen regarding the unwaveringly passionate nature of Swift’s fanbase, how her music may reflect colonialism, and her contentious portrayal as a contributor to transportation emissions.
Aimee-Sophia Lim, a Singaporean academic studying how the artist is fueling political activism in Southeast Asia, admits to being a staunch fan but often finds Swift’s “US-centric, white brand of feminism” disappointing.
“Perhaps people of color and those from the Global South should be the ones advocating for themselves and their communities… but Taylor’s impact is undeniable,” the 23-year-old reflects to the BBC from Singapore.
“It would be wonderful if she could broaden her activism to provide a platform for others who are empowered to speak on behalf of themselves.”
How did she become so powerful?
However, not everyone is swept up in the excitement. Sabrina, who is leaving the city the weekend of the Eras Tour, expresses her inability to comprehend the staggering levels of Swift’s appeal or influence. “I just don’t get all the fuss… I don’t understand what’s going on here,” she shares with the BBC.
Dr. Carroll, however, attributes it to the universally relatable image Swift has cultivated and the “deep connection” she has forged with her fan base—many of whom feel like they’ve grown up alongside her. “Taylor has spent her entire career making her fans believe they could be her friend,” she explains to the BBC.
“And she’s taken actions that encourage fans to behave in a way that would make her like them back,” she adds, acknowledging that this sometimes results in concerning behavior—such as crashing her friend’s wedding, spending exorbitant amounts on merchandise and tickets, and obsessively monitoring her every move.
Throughout the symposium, hosted by the University of Melbourne, attendees have been drawing comparisons between Swift and icons like Elvis, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Beyoncé.
“It’s challenging to equate her with those artists from different eras,” keynote speaker Ms. Spanos shares with the BBC, “but she’s undoubtedly the reigning sensation of our time.”
“She’ll be regarded as the preeminent songwriter of her generation… and among the greatest songwriters of all time.” Dr. Carroll contends that Swift has indeed transcended fame to a new echelon, thanks to her expansive and highly dedicated fan base. “For other artists, their influence tends to be contained within their fan base. But that’s no longer the case for Taylor.”
“It’s gratifying—and long overdue—that people are showing interest in that,” she remarks. A year ago, when she received her doctorate, people scoffed at the subject of her studies. Now, she’s delivering a keynote address at one of the most widely publicized academic conferences globally.
“It’s like, oh my God, everyone finally understands!” she exclaims. “It’s that sense of being acknowledged, and recognition that my research holds significance.
“We won’t just be sitting around at this conference fangirling—though that will happen—but there’s so much that studying her can unveil about the world.”