How ‘critical karaoke’ is helping researchers to explore the music of Taylor Swift

How ‘critical karaoke’ is helping researchers to explore the music of Taylor Swift


In honour of Taylor Swift’s three concerts at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium this summer, the University of Liverpool hosted Tay Day (Liverpool’s Version), an academic conference on Taylor Swift and her music on June 12.

Each presentation explored Swift from a different critical perspective. While it was an academic event, there were fun pop aspects such as friendship bracelets, attendees in sparkles – and even a round of “critical karaoke”.

Critical karaoke originated at the Experience Music Project’s annual Pop Conference in 2004, where “participants were asked to tell their story in the span of time it took to listen to the song they had chosen – with the song playing behind them”.

Usually, critical karaoke is performed over a recorded track, but Liverpool’s version used a live band, English Rain. The essays were typed out and projected behind the presenters while they delivered them, making it easy to follow along. These performances had not been rehearsed with the band, making it all feel very spontaneous and granting a bit of grace to any fumbles along the way.

The first presenter, Amy Skjerseth (co-organiser of the conference), performed to Lavender Haze from Midnights (2022). She focused on a misheard lyric, known as a mondegreen. In the chorus to Swift’s Lavender Haze, she hears “I feel 11 turkeys creepin’ up on me” instead of “I feel the lavender haze creepin’ up on me”. This mondegreen was used as an entry point into the discussion of Swift’s fan culture more broadly, referencing TikToks and viral videos that echo her misinterpretation.

They simultaneously proved that she’s not the only one who hears the mondegreen, while also examining the cultish nature of Swift’s fandom and their ability to make memes out of practically anything.

The second presenter, Poppy Hunt, took an autoethnographic approach to Never Grow Up (Taylor’s Version), originally from Speak Now (2010). Autoethnography allows the researcher to connect their personal life experiences with the subject at hand. Reflecting on her “14-year-old tenure as a Swiftie”, Hunt sketched vignettes of her life in relation to Swift; from listening in the car with her dad, to learning guitar and participating in musical tourism by visiting “Swiftie” spots in New York.

The most moving portion of this critical karaoke session was when she shifted the sentiments of Never Grow Up to apply to her younger sister. The rumination on her life, her family and the ways Taylor Swift has helped shape her life added an emotional layer to this academic event.

Blonde woman reading while a band accompanies.
Poppy Hunt performing critical karaoke to Never Grow Up.
Changbo Duan, Author provided (no reuse)

Samuel Murray (co-organiser of the conference) donned a fringed jacket to deliver his essay on Only the Young (2020). Taking a political approach, he discussed the function of protest songs and aligned Only The Young with Green Day’s American Idiot.

A benefit of critical karaoke is that, when timed perfectly, the performer can analyse the song in real-time. Murray timed it so that he could emphasise that the “big bad man” was a reference to Swift’s denunciation of Trump. Overall, this piece served as a call to action, reminding the people in the room to use their votes wisely in the upcoming elections.

Emily Abdy referenced canonical social theorist and musicologist, Theodor Adorno, and other critics to make a case for Taylor’s lyricism in Blank Space as the ultimate expression of authenticity.

In a departure from the standard critical karaoke format, Eswyn Chen rewrote the lyrics to Cardigan to reflect her PhD research in climate and atmospheric science. Making her own “Easter eggs” through reference to climate physicist Tim Palmer, contourf functions (used to draw and fill contour lines on a graph) and the eddy feedback parameter (“the measurement of eddy feedback within a seasonal-forecast system”), she contributed her unique perspective to the tune of Taylor Swift.

In the critical karaoke session alone, the audience heard analysis from the perspectives of language, fandom, autoethnography, politics, culture and atmospheric science. This proves that there are many points of entry into the study of Taylor Swift that reach far beyond the music industry or musicology.

Critical karaoke may sound like a frivolous idea, but it is an accessible way to deliver criticism and analysis that does not require the audience to have much prior knowledge. The event concluded with a singalong of All Too Well, confirming that the interdisciplinary exploration of Swift is rooted in the enjoyment of her music. This academic conference indicates that the state of the field of Taylor Swift studies is ever-expanding – as nearly every discipline has the potential to weigh in on the subject in their own way.

Post Comment