MARSCHALL: Before Taylor Swift college courses existed, there was Lady Gaga and Man at NYU

Prior to the Woke Turn, students did not try to bully their peers into ideological conformity and radical professors did not use Lady Gaga as a tool for indoctrination.

Taylor Swift has inspired a host of college courses. As of spring 2024, there are Taylor Swift courses at Harvard University, the University of South Carolina, Northeastern University, the University of Texas at Austin, Rice University, and New York University.

Some classes take a serious look at the economics of the Eras Tour. But too many others indulge in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) grievances to make the curriculum an ideological tirade against white people. 

In 2022, Campus Reform reported that a New York University (NYU) music course used Swift “to teach students about Whiteness and ‘American nationalism,’ and emphasized “whiteness and power as it relates to her image and the images of those who have both preceded and succeeded her.”

I graduated from NYU in 2011, and I can say definitively – as an alum of its Tisch School of the Arts – that the university, and higher education in general, did not always behave like this. 

During the mid-2000s, Lady Gaga attended Tisch’s theater department but then dropped out – about a year before I enrolled in 2007 – to pursue her music career. We did not overlap on campus, but we were both at Tisch during the same “cultural moment” in American society and higher education. 

Higher education and the American left were at an inflection around 2006, still operating within the status quo of the 1990s Culture Wars (between Christian family values and secular, sexualized social norms) that had yet to be disrupted by the rise of gay rights and equity, and the breakdown of global liberalism after the Great Recession.   

Lady Gaga launched her debut album The Fame in 2008, and it made her an instant icon among young Americans who participated in popular culture from the margins of mainstream society. Her earliest fans were the predecessors of today’s self-identifying “oppressed” classes who broadcast their frenzies on TikTok. But in 2008 these forebearers venerated the singer’s sound and appearance as tributes to being different. 

The veneration was productive; it built on her music and celebrated the newness. By contrast, there is nothing productive about today’s classes that use Taylor Swift to tear down America and reduce her achievements to white supremacy tropes.

That contrast is not arbitrary. It is the product of an historical process. 

To invoke the insufferable Malcolm Gladwell, both American higher education and popular culture rested on a tipping point in the late 2000s. And I argue that it is possible to see how our society reached our present moment on campus and in society by studying that point in recent history. In 2024, DEI is in retreat and our society is moving beyond “wokeness.” To make sense of these changes, we must understand that 2000s tipping point. 

As a student, I saw NYU undergraduates boo a classmate who said in a seminar that American soldiers were “not heroes,” I met peers who spoke openly about their Christian faith and support for John McCain in 2008, and I spoke civilly with Arab students who disagreed with me politely on Israel. 

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NYU was very liberal in the late 2000s but it wasn’t yet overrun by leftist ideology. Lady Gaga’s popularity at the university was symptomatic of that culture, which would later rush leftward in a reactionary Woke Turn after Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Students responded to her music by deifying her outlandishly kitsch costumes and persona.

Significantly, that adoration, like pockets of leftist activity on campus, was self-contained. Leftist students who adored Lady Gaga’s transgressive aesthetic also engaged with fringe politics in overlapping campus subcultures. 

Subcultures are fully formed webs of creative activity, expression, practices, and familiarity that operate beneath and apart from mainstream society. They are not mutually exclusive, however. Individuals can participate in both multiple subcultures (i.e. Trekkies) and mainstream society. 

That is the difference between the late 2000s and early 2020s in campus life. Prior to the Woke Turn, students did not try to bully their peers into ideological conformity and radical professors did not use Lady Gaga as a tool for indoctrination. My film professor flippantly called guy-girl prom dates an “exemplar” of “heteronormative coupling” but she did not denigrate traditional marriage. The left was dominant, and its fringe was trying to win arguments both on and off campuses. But leftists were not attempting to control behavior and speech.  

It is now clear that Donald Trump’s victory unleashed the radical left’s subliminal desire to live-action-role-play being the “Resistance.” Not insignificantly, the latter seized on the “it’s the resistance” line from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, released during the 2016 presidential election cycle. The far-left romanticized World War II-era anti-fascism resistance and responded to Trump with a totalitarian cultural campaign to Make America Woke. 

It will likely take a generation for Americans to appreciate the cultural inflection point that The Force Awakens abetted. The movie sensationally resurrected the tired trope of eternal conflict between “the dark side and the light” in popular culture, and in doing so gave leftist activists an existential aesthetic for their fight against Trump. 

This collision between populist politics and popular culture metaphorically ‘flipped a switch’ for the far-left that made its radicals discontent with their ideological subculture. That turning point was eight years in the making. 

When The Fame debuted in August 2008, Barack Obama was less than three months from its landslide victory, and his campaign was going strong on the promise of hope and political transformation. The left bought his naïve promise and when Obama did win in November, hundreds of NYU students gathered in Washington Square Park and Union Square to celebrate.

I was a sophomore that semester and I remember seeing the wave of people rushing through Greenwich Village to the parks. For the American left, so encapsulated by the New Yorkers that night, social and political transformation felt ordained. 

But that moment was fleeting. 

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In 2016, Obama was on his way out leaving a country divided between the haves and the left-behinds. Historic laws such as Obamacare and Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level, did not arise from cultural renewal. They came into existence from extreme polarization and contributed to growing social divides. 

In another collision between the political and cultural, Obergefell set the conditions for the current transgender crusade in schools and on sports teams. 

In the late 2010s, Trump made the far left’s percolating frustration at Obama’s unrealized utopia boil over. In the progressive tradition to keep championing one social justice crusade at a time, leftists moved on from homosexuals and decided to campaign for transgenderism. 

Consequently, Lady Gaga was re-presented as queer, which the far-left interpreted as the new ordained future of a post-Obergefell America. Queering spaces, ideas, and gender became an objective of anti-Trump resistance both on and off campus.  

My 2021 Campus Reform article, “Campuses are never gay enough for the queer left,” charts the divide between pre-Obergefell gay culture and post-2016 queer and transgender activism.

I wrote: 

In 2008, the gay rights movement aimed to achieve inclusion in the private social and cultural practices of the nuclear family. In 2024, the objective of the queer and transgender agendas is to uproot the fabric of American society by bringing individual expressions and practices to the forefront and reshape them to reflect an alternative to reality. 

In less than one generation, leftist Americans took their queer cultural politics from their iPods to the streets. Concurrently, the blonde, white, and heterosexual Taylor Swift emerged as an unprecedented force in the music industry. 

Swift’s image and song lyrics deftly channel an un-queered America that anticipates the mid-21st century context for her vision of female empowerment and sexuality. Swift’s stardom, business acumen, and talent are greater than the sum of their parts, and that gestalt is what makes her new and different in 2024. 

The 2022 NYU course places Swift on the far-left’s sacrificial altar for popular culture. That imaginary structure used to be the pedestal from which the campus left practically worshipped Lady Gaga in private spaces. But in the early 2020s, so much of what was marginal, new, or different has been pushed to the center of mainstream society and ridiculed when it fails conform to the far-left’s homogenous litmus tests. 

We should not wish to return to 2006 America. Nostalgia is a fool’s errand because it would only return us to the time and conditions that led to our present perilous moment. Instead, higher education needs to reform and depoliticize itself. Its leftists need to control their impulses to make everyone else think and act like them. 

The impulse to force conformity is exactly what Lady Gaga learned to rail against when making her debut album.  

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.