Swifties and academics debate Taylor Swift, from misogyny to millipedes

<span>Jessica Lamb speaking to delegates at the Tay Day academic conference at the University of Liverpool.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Jessica Lamb speaking to delegates at the Tay Day academic conference at the University of Liverpool.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

It was mid-afternoon in the 600-seat lecture theatre in the Yoko Ono Lennon Centre at the University of Liverpool and the audience was deep into an analysis of sexual racism in Taylor Swift’s music videos.

At the front of the room, blown up on a giant screen, were several screenshots of the singer kissing white men in a variety of music videos, held in contrast with three images of her conspicuously not kissing her black love interests. How much of this is a product of a fundamentally racist society? What is her responsibility as a pop star to fight against society’s evils?

Those were questions the sequined, lyric-emblazoned attenders were gathered to discuss at the inaugural Tay Day, an academic conference devoted to Swift, held before three consecutive gigs at Anfield stadium beginning on 13 June.

There were no signs of a post-lunch slump on Wednesday when attenders heard what Swift’s carbon budget should be, a discussion on the notion of celebrity criticism as a Trojan horse for misogyny, and the musical parodies used in her songs – and that was just one speaker presenting his paper, titled She’s Also a Billionaire: The Infinite Horizon of Sociopolitical Criticism on Taylor Swift. Another academic delivered a lecture about nannaria swiftae, the millipede named after the star.

Related: Liverpool to transform into Taylor Town to welcome Taylor Swift

“There’s genuine academic research, people who are doing this as kind of an additional interest to their research and then also undergraduate students who just talk about their passion. So, it’s a really rich combination,” said Sam Murray, from the University of Leeds’s department of music, who organised Tay Day with Amy Skjerseth, from the University of Liverpool. “And it’s really just an excuse to bring people together to talk about a subject people are passionate about.”

This intersection of academia and fandom is easily derided by those who think the public’s obsession with the Shake It Off singer has gone too far. After all, when the star played Edinburgh at the beginning of her UK tour, fans danced so hard they set off earthquake monitors, according to the British Geological Survey (BGS). But Murray pointed out that even the most cynical observer would struggle to argue with the estimated £18m to £35m that Swift and her legions of fans were bringing to Liverpool’s local economy.

He said: “When you have a big artist from time to time, you’ve got to understand, how do you maximise it? How do you push that towards the higher bracket? And part of that is trying to understand, what do the fans want? What do they like? What can you offer them in terms of your business and your services as well?”

But no one in the lecture hall seemed to care what people outside the room thought. Beth Thomas, a PhD researcher in video-game psychology, travelled to the conference from Manchester with her friend and fellow researcher, Ava Burcham, who studies fangirls. Thomas said she had become a “Swiftie” – as the star’s followers style themselves – after finally rejecting “cool” music in favour of what she actually liked.

“If you grew up in a certain time, it was the internalised misogyny of not liking pop,” said Thomas. “I was very much folk, indie, especially learning about music from my parents. And then [Swift] was the introduction. I was like, no, I love girly pop, this is amazing.”

One of the Swifties who had travelled farthest was Abdallah Alzzam, who came from Jordan to see the star perform in Liverpool. He made the trip alone, as he has no friends who are fans of Swift.

“In Jordan, guys listen to guys, girls listen to girls. But for me, her music is for everybody,” he said.

Alzzam came to the conference to meet likeminded fans. “Liverpool is great,” he said. “They’re all very nice and very proud of their city. They don’t judge, they don’t make fun of me for being a Swiftie.”