August 2020

Taylor Swift, Public Historian

Taylor Swift is doing important historical work by examining her relationship to the past and inviting fans and followers to do the same.

By Holly Genovese

By the start of this summer, Taylor Swift had been making waves with her political statements in support of Democrats, even crafting a narrative of her politicization in the documentary Miss Americana (named after a Lover single). Her support of LGBTQ rights were immortalized on her 2019 album Lover. Haunted (like many women in the Country Music industry) by the experience of the Dixie Chicks, Swift had long been cautioned to stay out of the fray by her advisors. But in recent years, she’s tried to shed her nice girl image and use her platform for activism—and much of this activism has hinged on history. Although Swift doesn’t have the higher education, training, or experience to be formally considered a “public historian”—one who works directly with the public—I argue that her broad reach and engagement with history position her as an activist public historian. 

Taylor Swift visiting her childhood home in Reading, PA in 2018. Photo via CBS Philly.

Taylor Swift recently intervened in the debate over public monuments, one that has been a mainstay for public historians, state governments, and supporters of the “lost cause” for years. Specifically, she criticized the monuments to Nathan Bedford Forest and Edward Carmack in her adopted home state of Tennessee. In her June 12th series of Tweets, Swift argued that we need to portray Forest, Carmack, and other men like them, as villains rather than heroes. Swift went on to explain that Nathan Bedford Forest was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, a slave trader, and the leader of a brutal massacre against Black Union soldiers, citing a Daily Beast article on the subject. While she received both support and criticism for these comments, many opponents of her statements demanded that these men be judged by “the standards of their own time” or told her to shut up (reminiscent of the letters and hate received by the Dixie Chicks stating that they should shut up and sing).

Swift’s newfound engagement with history is not limited to monuments, but also influences her most recent album, Folklore. The album, referred to as a short story collection by Booker-nominated author Brandon Taylor, constitutes a return to Swift’s storytelling roots. In “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, who once lived in Swift’s Rhode Island mansion, Holiday House. Harkness, often dismissed as “new money,” was married to a Standard Oil heir, referred to her friend group as the Bitch Pack, and had her ashes placed in an urn created by Salvador Dali. “The Last Great American Dynasty” reflects a desire to resuscitate the memory of those women rendered mad. On her song “Mad Woman,” she continues “no one likes a mad woman, you made her like that,” both intervening in the history of women and madness, as well as in her own celebrity. Even in her 2014 hit “Blank Space,” Swift sings “Got a long list of ex lovers. They’ll tell you I’m insane (insane). But I’ve got a blank space, baby. And I’ll write your name.”

Rebekah West Harkness, a prior owner of Swift’s Rhode Island mansion whose story she tells in the song “The Last Great American Dynasty.” Photo via Wikimedia.

Rather than engaging actual mental illness, Swift reckons with the ways men (and other women) portray women as mad for violating social norms. Many would say that because Holiday House is a private residence rather than a house museum, Swift is not doing work for the public. But by sharing the story of her house and it’s former owner, Swift reached an audience far beyond what even the most popular museums in the country could. And in articles like “The Great Historic House Museum Debate,” historians and preservationists consider whether the house museum is even the best way to preserve the history of historic homes. By popularizing the story of Holiday House, Swift does public historical work while also preserving her home. 

According to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen in their 1998 study The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Americans increasingly connect with history through photographs, family reunions, and movies and television rather than through museums, books, or formal education (19). Though Rosensweig and Thelen obviously could not predict the rise of either Twitter or Taylor Swift, Swift reaches 86.7 million on her Twitter alone. By engaging with the history of Holiday House or Confederate Monuments, Swift offers revisionist narratives surrounding controversial women and the often violent, racist histories of memorialized men to an unprecedented audience, an audience including tween and teen girls who are often left out of age appropriate historical toys and books. Swift’s public history work is important and shows new and laudable ways that engaged public figures can promote education and equity.

Holly Genovese is a Ph.D. student in American Studies at UT Austin. Her dissertation focuses on prison literature, and black poetics in the American South. Her writing and criticism has been published in Teen Vogue, Jacobin, The LA Review of Books, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, The Washington Post and many other places.

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