The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Taylor Swift school of spirituality

Students think critically about pop culture, theology in new FYS
Chaplain Alex Hendrickson’s course focuses on celebrity impact on American culture. (Photo courtesy of William Gutierrez ’27)

One of Lafayette’s newest First-Year Seminar courses is straight out of your “Wildest Dreams.” This year, the college followed in the footsteps of Stanford University and New York University by introducing a class about superstar Taylor Swift — but with a unique twist.

“When you hear of Taylor Swift you don’t necessarily think [of] God [or] religion, but it’s the way that she speaks and the lyrics of her songs that kind of influence you in ways that you might not even think of at first,” Abby Cook ‘27, a student in the class, said.

“From Fred Rogers to Taylor Swift: The Influence of America’s Public Theologians” combines religion and spirituality with pop culture. Chaplain Alex Hendrickson was inspired to create the class after witnessing how her students dissected “Midnights” by Taylor Swift last year.

We know that public figures influence society; we don’t often imagine how public figures contribute directly to the common good,” Hendrickson wrote in an email. “In this class we are assessing popular media and how the inputs and efforts of public theologians shape public life.”

The First-Year Seminar pushes first-years to think about how public figures act as “public theologians” by engaging with spirituality, meaning-making and ethical understandings.

“When they say something, people are going to listen … it does have such important and huge ramifications, not just for their fans, but the general American public as well,” William Gutierrez ‘27, who is in the First-Year Seminar, said. “Language is powerful … especially just choosing certain words over others has a massive impact in the way in which people perceive things.”

One way to examine the intersection of theology and celebrities is through an analysis of their art.

“[Swift] writes from her own experiences and she writes very emotionally,” Miley Hamilton ‘27, another student in the course, said. “She very much has this rhetoric of like, it’s okay to feel how you’re feeling. It doesn’t make you any less of a person.”

“A song that comes to mind is like, ‘You Need to Calm Down’ … how she supported LGBTQ+ rights and the way she preached about acceptance and love,” Chris Murphy ‘27, a student in the course, said.

Additionally, the students look at concrete examples of how celebrities have influenced the United States, such as the large spike of people registering to vote after Swift broke her political silence ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“You might analyze Taylor Swift lyrics as like, ‘oh my goodness, this is so beautifully written,’ right? But [the general public is] not going to go out and see [that] Taylor Swift telling people to vote in Nashville saw a significant uptick in the people that voted against Marsha Blackburn,” Gutierrez said. 

The class also studies how the time period impacts the role of celebrities in the United States by examining historical figures such as television personality Fred Rogers.

“The media and how word can spread has changed so much over the past 30 years,” Cook said. “Fred Rogers has influenced just the people who watched his TV shows and pay specific attention to him … with the media and just how fast word travels these days, it’s easier for a message to be spread. What Taylor Swift says reaches so many people compared to [audiences] in Fred Rogers’ time.”

Hendrickson believes that her students will be able to apply what they have learned throughout their time at Lafayette and beyond.

“First-year students will encounter people from different backgrounds and worldviews throughout their college careers (and in their personal and professional lives.) Understanding religion and spirituality as a part of an intersectional identity is part of the process of intercultural literacy and acuity,” Hendrickson wrote. 

Ultimately, the First-Year Seminar has encouraged students to think more critically about pop culture and the artists that they love.

“You walk into a college class, you don’t necessarily expect to be talking about Taylor Swift music,” Hamilton said. “If it’s something that you really connected to, you’re still welcome to talk about it and discuss it and explain why no matter what it is, no matter how specific or random it might be, it can still add more to the conversation and it’s always really welcomed.”

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Isabella Gaglione, Editor-in-Chief

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    Alex HendricksonSep 22, 2023 at 11:58 am

    Thanks for this nice article, Isabella!