Blank Space: Bridging the Gap between Jane Austen and Taylor Swift by Marketing Literature through New Literacies.
By Emma V. Eddy
Today, a faltering desire for reading for pleasure and for procuring information is an alarming and concerning issue in schools, raising the critical question: How do we, as teachers, inspire and motivate young women (and all students) to participate as consumers and producers in the present literary marketplace?
One of the greatest and most exciting challenges is igniting that spark within students and helping them connect to the literature, or providing sources of provocation and evocation that help them relate to the literature, empathize with the characters, and invest in the story.
With an argument rooted in the merging of theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, Gee, and Tomlinson, with the expansion of the “cultural commodity” and “contemporary cultural imagination” arguments of John Wiltshire in his Recreating Jane Austen, I suggest that an engagement with and investment in particular popular music can help provoke an interest in literary texts. Connection invites recreation and invention. In defending this argument, I present how both Jane Austen and Taylor Swift not only “own” their products but how they have “marked” the literary market, as well.
As a teacher at an all-women’s high school, I aim to present how the use of differentiated instruction and the contemporary works by musical artist, lyricist, and writer, Taylor Swift, can be incorporated in today’s classroom to study narrative voice, examine the images and roles of women, and offer an avenue to provoke an interest in canonical texts, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. By considering both the formal shared qualities of these two literary women’s works and techniques used by both to market “the product,” students can begin to contemplate their own identity, acquaint themselves with their own literary voice, and invest in their own education. After all, Jane Austen presents us with heroines who are readers and who want to be readers; they seek to inform themselves and form their own opinions (Weinberg). By the conclusion of each novel, each heroine knows her own mind. Within the plot of a song of Taylor Swift’s, particularly a ballad, by its end, her heroine has reached new understanding, as well. What better place to start, then, than with Jane Austen?
Both Jane Austen and Taylor Swift have created a “brand” of themselves, one unconsciously and the other consciously, strategically, and purposefully. In doing so, each has fashioned a literary currency, which is valuable in today’s literary and global marketplaces. As John Wiltshire might suggest in his reference to a poster offering Shakespeare and Austen as a Janus coin of sorts for English culture, I suggest that Austen and Swift might offer the same for a female presence on the spectrum of the literary marketplace (58). With each looking in opposite directions, it can be left to those of us in the present to inquire, in which direction does each look- to the past or to the future? I think it is both. If you “google” “Taylor Swift and Jane Austen,” you will find that the connections made between the two are not wholly new, but I would like to make it clear that until my own epiphany, I had not engaged in an investigation, and therefore was not inspired first by another’s idea. You will find that the connection is not particularly groundbreaking, however tenacious some fervent fans of Austen have been to embrace the prospect. What I do seek to suggest and prove though is that the literary connections between these two figures and their works offer an invaluable resource to teachers and to anyone looking to inspire interest and spark in students’ reading, both for academic purposes and for pleasure. As in the best lessons that teachers prepare, they usually are inspired by or inevitably result in a lesson learned by that teacher. It should be noted that I do not seek to compare the two writers’ characters, only to present the formal literary and professional connections between each, as well as how the one can help recreate the other within a specific age group. In doing so, in true Austen fashion, “truths universally acknowledged” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice 1) have arisen.
One evening, I was sitting at the Lamb and Flag in Oxford with a group. A new friend and I through my initiation arrived on the subject of music and bands, each having been in one, once upon a time. When I shared that I performed country music, he asked, “Like Taylor Swift?” I immediately replied, “No, not like Taylor Swift.” I could not account for my hurry to deny that I performed music that was similar to Taylor Swift’s but there it was. I liked (and still do like) Taylor Swift’s music for entertainment, and I had often used it in my classroom for the same purposes introduced in this paper. To be honest though, unfairly, I had wanted to be taken seriously, and I felt that the question asked of me had been asked with a mocking tone. Little did I know at the time, how wrong I was. No mockery had been intended. Fast forward nine months later, and this same friend and I sat on a sofa listening to music and eventually left it on Taylor Swift. Given this context and the opportunity to really, truly listen to Taylor Swift, it “hit [me] with the speed of an arrow,” how wrong I had been in dismissing her as a serious writer (Austen, Emma 377). Indeed, she is. I had valued her as a musical artist and recognized her as a very successful business woman, but had not considered her a literary artist. “It was badly done, indeed!” (346). I think it safe to say that Jane Austen and her works are often viewed through a similar lens and often are viewed through the assuming lens that they are nothing more than mannered fairy tales. Indeed they are not. People who do not know Jane Austen’s works believe them to be filled with the stereotypical ingredients of fairy tales. Fairy tale heroines certainly walk through the figurative inferno themselves before reaching a nirvana. I suggest that Jane Austen’s heroines go through agonizing ordeals before they reach their happy ending, and to suggest that they are out of touch with reality or are superficial and light is just not true. They ought to be taken more seriously.
The meaning and significance behind these episodes did not fully come to light for me until most recently while sitting at Ted’s Hot Dogs with my Dad for lunch. I beg you to bear with me for one more anecdote. My Dad is an incredible wealth of knowledge on many subjects, but especially music, particularly that of country music. Over our cheeseburgers, we were discussing Tom Hiddleson in the recent Hank Williams “bio pic,” I Saw the Light, discussing the impression that Hank, respectfully known as, “the Hillbilly Shakespeare,” made on his audience. Referring back to a presentation my Dad had given on the similarities between the works and lives of Hank Williams and William Shakespeare, and now preparing for the year of Austen, it hit me: what if the same could be done for Taylor Swift and Jane Austen? Not only could the connection be made, but it could hold the key for inspiring students to connect with the text. Educational theory will tell us that the key to expanding knowledge is to know the student and know where she or he is (in readiness and schema) and reach him or her on that level on his or her terms and then help him or her rise to the expectations. In my experience as a teacher, while my expectations are always high and demanding, the students will always exceed them. We, as teachers, just need to know how to knock on the door. In some respects, you will find that the secret knock changes rapidly. However, it should also be noted that while technology and students’ interests might change rapidly, they are still children. They are human. As lovers of literature, we can determine that the human experience and condition stand the test of time and change very little if we look at the inward journeys of characters and conflicts. In much the same way, students change very little where they hold the greatest power for connection and meaning. Students still desire to connect with each other and to the literature. They are empathetic and crave stories. This is good news, and its gives us a clue as to how to approach the door.
In his discussion of “new literacies,” James Paul Gee states that “learning to read is about learning to read different types of texts with real understanding . . . you can’t read a book if the content is meaningless to you” and that “humans understand content, whether in a comic book or a physics text, much better when their understanding is embodied: that is, when they can relate that content to possible activities, decisions, talk, and dialogue” (39). Therefore, if we approach students where they can “make” the most meaning, we might have the greatest success of helping to nurture life-long learners and readers. While the term might hold several definitions and explanations to its credit, in this paper, I will use “new literacies” as an open understanding that a “text” is anything that can be “read” with the use of literary elements and devices. These texts can include traditional texts such as poems, novels, articles, etc. However, “new literacies” implies that paintings, music videos, song lyrics, video games, films, and more, can be read in the same way, examining the same formal qualities, as well.
In defining a text and “new literacies,” it is also helpful to define reading further. Reading in a literate sense is not an innate skill; however, seeking understanding, curiosity, reading the world, while they are skills that can be honed, are gifts that are naturally found within the human condition. Gee relates, “traditionalists treat learning to read as if “read” was an intransitive verb. People just “read . . . But no one just reads; rather they read something . . . Read is a transitive verb; it requires an object, a thing being read . . . When people read, they are always reading a specific type of text . . .” (39). The world can be a text, arguably the ultimate text, and essentially, we are teaching students to read so that they can read their world. Reading the world then helps them read the word. According to Freire, “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world . . .[T]his movement from the word to the world is always present” (Beach et al 183). Ultimately, “we are not just teaching books. We are teaching ideas” (167). In order to help students read their world, understand it, navigate it, connect with it, engage within it, and affect it positively, we as teachers are an integral part of helping them make meaning to do so. The meaning is created by the connections with and between ideas, and consequently through the construction of knowledge through discovery. Because each student is an individual, this meaningful learning occurs in varied ways.
Carol Ann Tomlinson says that “in a differentiated classroom, the teacher unconditionally accepts students as they are, and she [or he] expects them to become all they can be” (10). Essentially, we are meeting students “where they are” and using this as our entrance to growth. This idea merges Piaget’s Schema Theory and Vygotsky’s Constructivist Theory in the sense that if we seek to find the readiness and prior knowledge of a student, use that prior knowledge to build a bridge to new material, and then allow the student to discover this connection and construct new knowledge for him or herself, the learning is all the more meaningful and all the more lasting (Driscoll). To help this construction and building, as teachers, we must seek to build pockets of stories, not pockets of information. Students remember stories because they can find something within them that speaks to them at their cores. However, when a different social context and more formal language are a part of these stories, the openness to the stories can be narrower; there is discomfort in the unknown. This discomfort and the unknown can be conquered by connection. It is not that students cannot relate to the stories. No. Instead, it is that at first, some might believe that they cannot. By reaching and meeting students in their zones of proximal development, we can expect the most effective learning. By reaching students through their own meaningful schema and meaningful construction of knowledge, we can expect the most meaningful learning. Both approaches are necessary.
This argument of capitalizing on the popularity of Taylor Swift to bring Jane Austen to a new generation and future generations is a relatively new one, and it should be made clear that my research is just as new. Furthermore, my application and colleagues’ application of this in the classroom regarding Austen is in its infancy; however, the argument is rooted deeply in theory, immense success with the same pedagogy and application while teaching Shakespeare, and use of other musical artists and music videos to teach Jane Austen. Furthermore, while initiating surveys and studies for data, it came to my attention that Austen is not as prolific in the literature curricula as I had assumed. This suggestion of pedagogy might also help to turn that tide, as well. Finally, it is important to note that I am an educator, not an academic, so my approach and lens are more pedagogical than anthropological. However, I like to think that they contain elements of both. Essentially, I believe that if we can help foster fans of characters and fans of literature, we can help nurture life-long readers. By helping to spark emotional attachment to characters or stories within students, attention is captured, and the door is opened to more academic and formal study of the texts, and life-long reading and life-long learning have brilliant prospects.
When contemporary texts or more modern texts are used to teach canonical texts, we are in a sense recreating them. In his book, Recreating Jane Austen, John Wiltshire draws upon the ideas of Donald Winnicott, a paediatrician as well as psychoanalyst, related to the ideas of initiation and origin of creativity (6). Wiltshire employs these ideas as he argues his own points of the recreation of Jane Austen in popular culture, particularly in film. It is not necessarily the focus to relate the
intimations or recreations of Jane Austen, as the process of intimation or recreation itself, and [his argument’s] central task is to transfer concepts formulated in the psychoanalyticencounter into literary or cultural criticism, to transform descriptions of human psyches in their interaction into useful ways of thinking about relationships between texts, even when these texts belong to different genres or media. (7)
Through film adaptations, fandom, fanfiction, and academic study, for many, Jane Austen has become a cultural commodity and has become in a way a brand (7-8). Depending upon the marketer and consumer of this brand, the brand may take on a different face, a different logo. Individuals, because of their own experiences and lens, will, in a sense, create their own brand of “Jane.” However, any number of these images and brands of Jane Austen can be a difficult sell, especially the authentic brand, because it is a time-period seemingly so far removed from young people today. Wiltshire “underscore[s] the belief that to possess the past it is necessary to remake it” (12). This argument for the “recreation” of Jane Austen can be employed in my argument as well in that in order for students to connect with the past, a relationship and emotional attachment must be created and maintained if they are to understand it and use it in their further growth and study. As teachers, we must meet students where they are, tap into their schema, and start there to guide them in constructing their own knowledge.
What we can do then, in a way, is recreate Jane Austen for our students by marketing her differently. Taylor Swift to the stage, please! Taylor Swift already provides sparks of literary allusions in her own songs, in a similar way that Jane Austen includes useful and respectful bits of Shakespeare for her own purposes, for example “Queen Mab” in Sense and Sensibility and theatre in Mansfield Park (Wiltshire 64). In her own use of Romeo and Juliet, Taylor Swift’s speaker sings,
Romeo save me, I’ve been feeling so alone,
I’ve been waiting for you, but you never come . . .
and alludes to Nathanial Hawthorne,
“I was a “scarlet letter,”’ (“Love Story”)
and uses the apple allusion in the video, “Blank Space” (“Taylor Swift- Blank Space”).
These canonical references maintain the vitality of these works and allow them to find a niche in a new generation, allowing for these texts to belong not only to one time period, not to only one group, but to a larger culture. Like a language, when a literary commodity stops growing, stops being recreated, it in itself runs the risk of stagnation. As language continues to change and grow, we must then expect that the texts, which use that language to communicate, will continue to grow and be experienced in different ways as well. John Wiltshire suggests, “Every age of course adapts, modifies and remakes, as the history of Shakespeare’s reception indicates obviously enough. Every cultural creation, even a cathedral, has an afterlife, unpredictable, uncontrolled by its original architect, when another era, another cultural configuration, turns it, adapts it to its own uses” (3). Often times, the consumer will dictate the market. Other times, the market, through suggestion and marketing, can influence the consumer.
For today’s students, the consumers, what can be a challenging sell for Austen is the past time period and its social context, which on the surface may seem to have little to do with current youth. It might seem as though it is without value, without worth, because at “first impressions,” a connection cannot be seen. When a connection cannot be made, neither can emotional attachment; therefore, there is neither meaningful nor lasting learning. John Wiltshire suggests, “nostalgic or traditionalist attitudes towards “Jane Austen” are certainly a feature of her cultural reception, and perhaps grow more tenacious as the “world” she is supposed to inhabit recedes ever rapidly away” (37). This world is one that students have difficulty picturing because it is a world so seemingly far away from them. While discussing Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, Wiltshire remarks, “Aware of the difference between our time and Austen’s, it switches and changes and finds different ways to meet similar ends- which might be defined, roughly speaking, as exploring the pressures on young women to conform to the expectations of their culture” (2). This is obviously speaking of another work, but again, the argument that Wiltshire makes for Fielding is in essence at the heart of my argument for Taylor Swift. Swift’s songs offer an instrument (please excuse the pun) to help the building of a bridge between the Regency and contemporary periods because they address and present similar psyches. Austen can be “recreated” for a new generation through Taylor Swift. While Austen’s novels are considered comedies of manners, and many of their conflicts at times center on the social context of the time, what Jane Austen, arguably, does best is shed light on the human condition and characters. While the mirror may have a different frame, her novels continue to hold the looking glass to society, and the reflection has changed little in its most vulnerable and sensitive areas, what Bridget Jones might call its “wobbly bits” (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason). These beautiful wobbly bits though remind us of what it means to be human, after all.
Consider what you think about when you think of Taylor Swift. Now, consider what you think about when you think of Jane Austen. With room for correction and error, I would imagine for each artist, while perhaps some of the ponderings offer a picture or representation of each, that neither Taylor Swift nor Jane Austen has been depicted in a perfectly accurate light, nor perhaps have their works. In true Austen-esque fashion, there is some misrepresentation in the portrait of each (Sabor). Each would seem to have a stigma to shake, perhaps not entirely of either’s own creation, but stigmas nevertheless that need to be acknowledged and addressed if the artists are to be seen in their true lights in the literary marketplace. By using the texts in several integral ways in the classroom, the stigmas (literary) can be removed, and essentially, both writers, Austen and Swift, can benefit. Obviously, the goal of using the texts in the classroom is not necessarily in removing this stigma, but allowing for the painting of a more accurate portrait of each is helpful. It is certainly important, as truth and authenticity always are. However, what addressing these stigmas really does is twofold: students can relate to Austen’s works and consequently understand them better. Additionally, by walking along side students on this journey, it can help them ask the questions that will prevent them from attaching stigmas in the first place in the future and be open to revising “first impressions.” This is essential in promoting female consumers and producers in the literary marketplace. We must be informed consumers and help our students become so, as well.
At first glance, there may be little similarity seen in the formal qualities and social contexts of Jane Austen and Taylor Swift. However, as with so many things, if we allow ourselves to dig deeper, and ask the same of our students, the “blank space” between the two becomes less so. By allowing and inviting this search for connection, the benefit is long-lasting and profoundly meaningful. It should be noted that these activities and questions are posed after extensive prior study of new literacies and literary elements and devices in the class.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion is unique in that it begins after an initial love story, and the plot is not centered on introducing characters and uniting them for the first time. Instead, its focus is on re-introduction, self-discovery, and reunion (Kerr). At the novel’s commencement, Anne Elliot is seven-and-twenty, and more than seven years previous to this, Anne fell in love with Captain Fredrick Wentworth as he did with her. The two were engaged, but then through the persuasion of others, and consultation of Captain Wentworth’s “good,” Anne reluctantly severed the engagement (29). As a testament to Anne’s heart, she does so more for Captain Wentworth than herself. It is at the impending “eve” of the return of Captain Wentworth where the story begins, and the novel mimics that of a dance in its silences, looks, blushes, glances, and wonderings (Mullan). It is through self-reflection, growth, and strength that both Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot reunite. Two songs of Taylor Swift’s are applicable in this case, and while the endings in both are rather ambiguous, they nevertheless offer a contemporary telling of the story of Captain Fredrick Wentworth and Miss Anne Elliot: “Back to December” and “The Story of Us.”
“Back to December” reflects the silent struggle, the angst, and the reflection so potently present in Persuasion. The speaker in the song can very easily be compared to Anne Elliot as she grapples with the return of Captain Wentworth to her world:
You’ve been good, busier than ever
We small talk, work and the weather
Your guard is up and I know why
Because the last time you saw me
Is still burned in the back of your mind . . .
This can allow students to make the connection and better understand Wentworth’s recent success in the Navy and his state of mind upon his return. The song in itself can also offer a cathartic soliloquy for Anne’s psyche. In Recreating Jane Austen, John Wiltshire allows us to see a possible connection between Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy and Jane Austen’s free indirect discourse. It is important to note that Wiltshire makes it quite clear that it is not his intention to prove or state that Jane Austen recreates Shakespeare in her use of free indirect discourse, soliloquy in a sense. However, he does allow the reader to examine how both writers use an interiority to know characters from the inside out (79). Austen’s free indirect discourse shares the interior of Captain Wentworth, “He said it, she knew, to be contradicted. His bright, proud eye spoke the happy conviction that he was nice; and Anne Elliot was not out of his thoughts, when he more seriously described the woman he should wish to meet with. “A strong mind, with sweetness of manner,” made the first and last of the description” (Austen, Persuasion 63). It is clear that Captain Wentworth still has Anne within his mind; we will come to find later that she has never left his heart either. The strong mind to which he alludes is an intended dig at Anne who was once persuaded to reject him. Swift’s speaker says,
So this is me swallowing my pride
Standing in front of you saying I'm sorry for that night
And I go back to December all the time
It turns out freedom ain't nothing but missing you
Wishing I'd realized what I had when you were mine
I'd go back to December turn around and change my own mind
I go back to December all the time
(“Back to December”)
The directness of Taylor Swift’s speaker would allow students to have a clearer understanding of the subtlety of Anne Elliot’s voice. Even the imagery in the music video can be a point of discussion in the classroom, as Taylor Swift’s character pens a letter throughout the video, and this can be connected to the ultimate letter of persuasion and declaration penned by Captain Wentworth, insisting and proving metaphysically once again that “more than kisses, letters mingle souls” (John Donne). It would seem that Taylor Swift is not a stranger to the art of letter writing herself. Vanessa Grigoriadis’s article in Rolling Stone shares that Taylor Swift rifled around in her armoire during their interview and “careful not to show its contents, which she considers too messy for guests—and pull[ed] out a cardboard box of color wax, which she uses to seal envelopes” (352). The male protagonist in the music video of “Back to December” leaves us with the image of him contemplating the letter. The falling snow and snow-covered landscape in the music video also suggest that while it is winter, the presence of the water archetype proposes hope, renewal, and rebirth. All that is absent are the “healing waters” of Bath to complete the connection. This desire for healing, for reconnection, for renewal is also presented in Swift’s, “The Story of Us.”
Within “The Story of Us,” students might find another soliloquy from Anne Elliot in the speaker of the song. From the very beginning, the imagery of the video itself is filled with literary images: a university, volume-filled shelves (notably with most of them with the title of “Women” on their bound spines,) and the general activity of reading and “the story” throughout. It is most beneficial if student responses are elicited regarding the imagery and that they have the opportunity to respond with these and other observations. Regarding general connections in the novel, students can make the connection that Anne Elliot herself is a great reader and is able to discuss her reading and ideas, for example with Captain Benwick. It also opens the path of discussion to consider the idea of silence in the novel. Persuasion has the least amount of dialogue of all of Austen’s novels (Austen, Persuasion ed. D. Shapard Intro.). The tension and desire between Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot is heartbreakingly deafening in the novel, and this same emotion is evident in “The Story of Us.”
I’d tell you I miss you but I don’t know how
I’ve never heard silence quite this loud . . .
Swift’s song allows students an opportunity to imagine the shouting of the inner voice that occurs beneath the surface. As restrained as Anne Elliot is, it does not mean that she is without feeling. It is quite the opposite. Austen writes, “They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other! Now, nothing! There had been a time, when all of the large party now filling the drawing room at Uppercross, they would have found it most difficult to cease to speak to one another” (Austen Persuasion, 64). Anne Elliot continues to ponder on the past that Captain Wentworth and she shared, thinking, “there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was perpetual estrangement” (65). In “The Story of Us,” Taylor Swift’s speaker relates her own inner shouts:
I used to think one day we'd tell the story of us
How we met and the sparks flew instantly
People would say, "they're the lucky ones
I used to know my place was a spot next to you
Now I'm searching the room for an empty seat
'Cause lately I don't even know what page you're on
Oh, a simple complication
Miscommunications lead to fall out
So many things that I wish you knew
So many walls up I can't break through
Now I'm standing alone in a crowded room
And we're not speaking and I'm dying to know
Is it killing you like it's killing me yeah
I don't know what to say since the twist of fate
When it all broke down and the story of us
Looks a lot like a tragedy now
Next chapter . . .
A misconception of Austen’s novels and characters is that they are cold, banal, superficial, and safe. Instead, this Swift-ian lens and voice allow students to see characters inside and out, therefore making it easier to relate to the characters as people, as humans facing the same difficulties as we do today.
One of the most poignant songs of Taylor Swift’s to which my students relate is “Fifteen.” I teach freshmen, and this song many times had become as an anthem for them, not because of every word ringing true but because it was a song that understood them and they it. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia Bennet and Georgiana Darcy might feel the same way. From two very different families, different personalities, they find themselves under a similar spell. Both at their respective ages of fifteen find themselves under the spell of Mr. George Wickham.
’Cause when you’re fifteen,
And somebody tells you they love you,
You’re gonna believe them . . .
(“Taylor Swift- Fifteen”)
Both might be “dancing ‘round [their] room[s]” at the thought of George Wickham. Because of her brother’s quick and keen attention, Georgiana is saved from potential ruin, unhappiness, and most likely further heartbreak. It would be foolish though for us to think that Georgiana’s heart heals as quickly as her brother acts-- but indeed it will, and she might “realize some bigger dreams” of hers (“Taylor Swift- Fifteen”). Lydia Bennet, on the other hand, is not so fortunate to escape the clutches of George Wickham (not that she necessarily desires to do so.) However, it is the very same Fitzwilliam Darcy that again intervenes and holds Wickham accountable. Taylor Swift brings to center stage the idea that “I didn’t know who I was supposed to be at fifteen.” This is an important point to remember for Austen fans as well as any educator. Lydia is often criticized for her impulsive nature; however, because of the time period in which she lives, we expect more than her fifteen years (and her parents for that matter) have taught and allowed her. As teachers, it is important for us to remember that we were once fifteen and have learned a great deal since then, but our students are still fifteen. They are allowed to falter, to learn through discovery, and to do so with support, patience, and empathy.
These proposed connections between Jane Austen and Taylor Swift are by no means an exhaustive list. We might also consider “White Horse” as Marianne Dashwood’s anthem, “You Belong with Me” as Fanny Price’s soliloquy- even the music video captures the spirit of the selfless nature of Fanny, wishing for Edmund’s happiness rather than her own (Duquette), “Mean” for Lady Catherine and Elizabeth, and “I Knew You Were Trouble” for Elizabeth’s challenges with Wickham, and perhaps the umbrella anthem of “Two is Better than One.” With this said, I do not think that a song of Swift’s has yet captured and connected to the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but I would love to see that change or to stand corrected.
Another useful activity to employ with students is to ask what songs might be on a particular character’s “playlist.” This extension and suspension of reality, essentially removing the ceiling for possibilities, is helpful to students when making connections and making meaning. I would like to suggest that if Austen’s characters had iPods and such devices, I believe that most heroines and heroes, including Mr. Darcy, would possess at least one Taylor Swift song on a playlist. (Shocking?)
Through these activities, students can see both artists, whether it be Austen and Swift in this case or another pairing, (Adele and Charlotte Brontë perhaps? Lady Gaga and Mary Shelley?) in a new light, particularly the classic author. Taylor Swift presents her audience with numerous characters and portrays herself as those characters. In doing so, her audience members can see themselves in her. It is in this way that Jane Austen presents heroines to her readers, her audience, as well. Instead of seeing themselves in Jane Austen, though, they see themselves in a particular character, or two, or three depending upon a circumstance. Given these different techniques, which is the more lasting? Jane Austen’s characters are already immortalized on the page. Can their authors do the same for themselves on the pages of the literary marketplace?
If this approach is taken, then what “brand” is being marketed to students in each artist? Another question is, does a brand exist from and within an artist, or does it exist in the creations of that artist? Both Jane Austen and Taylor Swift are “no one but [themselves]” 1 in the sense that they are fully in control of their writing and have carved out an identity (377). Peter Cooper explains in his Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music that “what Swift was going to be was not what the country music industry wanted her to be. She accepted no prescriptions, and the result has been a career that is fascinating to millions and frustrating for some in country music” (158). Jane Austen did make some money from her writing, but given the technology of the time, I would suggest that she did not anticipate herself becoming an adjective and “a brand” per say. While she knew the power of the pen and the wonder of the word in politics, “a woman’s world” at the time, and in connection with the reader, her marketing and even known identify was extremely different than the formidable, overt force of Taylor Swift. As the highest paid female entertainer of 2016, who attempts to lay claim to even words, it is clear that Jane Austen has obviously posthumously and unwittingly become an author with one of the greatest celebrity values (Greenburg). This is because Jane Austen’s unwitting marketing of her brand comes through her enduring characters and not necessarily from the author herself. Jane Austen does not tell her readers what to think. Instead, she entrusts them with the responsibility to think for themselves, as her heroines learn to do or have always done (Weinberg). Taylor Swift, in contrast, strategically plans for her success and to maintain her identify. Both females offer themselves though as marketers of “the voice.” In any one of her novels, the Austen heroine finds her voice, but she only finds it through the pursuit of knowledge and understanding and self-reflection. Taylor Swift’s heroines, as well, are human. They are prone to faltering but rising again after reflection. The difference in the brands that are marketed by each artist is that Austen markets through her work. Taylor Swift markets through her work, as well, but she also creates a brand of herself and her image. In The Country Music Reader, Travis D. Stimeling shares that in her 2009 feature article in Rolling Stone, Vanessa Grigoriadis indicates that Swift has skillfully used the media to her advantage as she has worked to articulate an artistic and personal identity to her fans and potential audiences (346). Jane Austen, due to the anonymity of the published works of the author during her lifetime, did not attempt to create or market an image of herself. Therefore, there is no image to maintain; she is “very much what [she] ever was” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice 171). As a performer, Taylor Swift, among her other positions, in essence markets herself, as well, and therefore, this would leave a public image to cultivate and to maintain and to protect. This can be a more precarious position in which to find one’s self. Jane Austen’s works are timeless and lasting because of her incredible gift for understanding and presenting the human condition in a way to which we can relate. We might empathetically speculate how much of herself is within her pages. How much of her heart is on the page and how much has she kept for herself. We can see ourselves in Jane Austen’s characters, and in essence, we can see ourselves in her. Taylor Swift is known for her inclusion of her own life, while still respectfully keeping the anonymity of the people in her life (McFadden). Her fans empathize with her and the self that she includes in her songs. Peter Cooper writes that “it was through her voicing of feelings that she was heard, and appreciated, and hated, and beloved” (159). Both of these women, Taylor Swift and Jane Austen, give a soulful product of themselves.
Literacy is a currency, which never loses its value. If meaningful literacy and life-long reading are going to survive various markets, inflation, and shiny, new products, then as teachers, we must guide students to invest in their learning and their reading. This investment is most successful and is only sustainable if students engage in meaningful learning. Only then can there be growth in the market. What is to be done then? We must create fans of reading and guide students to become informed consumers and producers in the literary marketplace. Juliette Wells in Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, shares that
Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington have pointed out—in terms very close to those used by reader-response critics like Berggren—fans engage with “texts not in a rationally detached but in an emotionally involved and invested way.” Fandom, claims Sandvoss, is essentially “a mode of reading,” one that seeks “familiarity and the fulfillment of expectations.” Matt Hills reminds us, crucially that fans can be scholars and scholars fans: “The literary scholar,” he reminds us, “is an ordinary readers as well as a scholar.”’ (Wells 23)
How is this done then? We must help our students to connect to the literature that they read, particularly canonical texts, which may not be as relatable for students. We must reach students where they are, in their zones of proximal development, and appreciate individual schemas. We must differentiate instruction so that every student has the opportunity and the call to reach his or her own potential. This is a right that all students have. We must help students know and understand themselves and discover their own voices. In order to this, we must invite students to invest in their learning. Why do we do this? By finding their own voices, students can connect with the voices of others. Connecting with and attempting to understand the voices of those around us helps us to resist “pride and prejudice” and embrace “sense and sensibility.”2 This is essential in any society. If we wish students to lean into a conversation and engage themselves, then we, as teachers, must be the first to lean in3. It is not about what product is shiny and new (with the understanding and acknowledgment that new products and technologies can be very useful and meaningful.) Instead, it is what makes students feel. It is not what will hold their attention for a forty-minute period or for a unit or for a year. No. The question is: What will hold their hearts for a lifetime? The examination and discussion of Jane Austen and Taylor Swift is not the answer. It is not an end, nor for many is it a beginning. I am continually amazed by the incredible work of my colleagues and teachers around the world and how they are able to inspire their students, to ignite that spark of an eternal flame. Indeed, I ride on their coat tails. However, I hope what this discussion helps to do is to continue the conversation and makes a contribution to decrease the debt, the “blank space,” between Taylor Swift and Jane Austen. One of my favorite adaptation, recreations, of Jane Austen is Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, staring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. After Joe Fox (Hanks) has forced Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) out of business, he pays her a visit. Trying to make amends, he explains that “it wasn’t personal.” Nettled, affronted, and confused, Kathleen Kelly replies, “Ugh, what is that supposed to mean? I’m so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you, but it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. What is so wrong with being personal anyway?” Joe Fox’s replies, “Ah, nothing.” Kathleen Kelly affirms, “Because whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal” (You’ve Got Mail).
If we are going to guide our students as they begin to write the future story of our society, we must help them discover the personal connections with and within texts, both new literacies and canonical texts. Canonical texts reflect our foundation as a society, as a civilization, in its various forms with its heroic triumphs and its dark failings. They hold the mirror to society and ask us to reflect on where we have been. Until we face and reflect on what we see in the mirror, we will not know how to go forward. Only through connection and meaning will students see literature, both contemporary and canonical, as a worthwhile investment.
“Next chapter . . .” (“The Story of Us”).
While this line’s origin is from Jane Austen’s Emma, I first saw this use/connotation on a fellow conference attendee’stote from a JASNA conference: “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.”
Phrasing and idea inspired by Facebook post (picture of a standing sign from Cocoa Puro Chocolates) shared with me by a colleague in June, 2016 after Brexit vote. Photo shared gives 28 June 2016 as a date of post.
“Lean in” in this case does not refer to the philosophy or organization or book, Lean In/Lean In. However, from reviewing the philosophy of the organization, it is fair to say that the idea of student engagement would also be applicable to the philosophy and culture of “Lean In.” (Website: https://leanin.org/)
Austen, Jane. The Annotated Persuasion. Edited by David M. Shapard. Anchor Books,
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“Back to December.” Google. 23 Apr. 2017, https://www.google.com/#q=taylor+swift+back+to+december+lyrics .
Songwriters: Taylor Swift. Back to December lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.
Beach et al. Teaching Literature to Adolescents. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2006. pp. 167; 183.
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Directed by Beeban Kidron, performances by Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant,
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https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2016/11/02/the-worlds-highest-paid-women-in-music-2016/#84c5c83752ea. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.
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“Love Story.” Google, 23 Apr. 2017, https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=taylor+swift+love+story+lyrics. (Songwriters, Carl Sigman/Francis Lai.
Love Story lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)
McFadden, Cynthia. “Taylor’s Ticket to Ride.” Glamour, Nov. 2012, pp. 170-177.
Mullan, John. What Matters in Jane Austen? : Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved. Bloomsbury Press, 2014.
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Arts: A Bicentenary Conference, 23-25 Mar. 2017, SUNY Plattsburgh, NY. Keynote Address.
Stimeling, Travis D. The Country Music Reader. Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 345-352.
“The Story of Us.” Google. 23 Apr. 2017, https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-
Songwriters: Taylor Swift. The Story Of Us lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
“Taylor Swift- Back to December.” YouTube, uploaded by TaylorSwift VEVO, 1 Feb. 2011,
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“Taylor Swift-Fifteen.” YouTube, uploaded by TaylorSwiftVEVO, 23 Nov 2009,
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