Research Ruminations

Kayleigh Morrissey: Research in Pop Culture Topics

Interviewer and Editor: Selena Perez

In this article, Selena Perez interviews Kayleigh Morrissey. Morrissey is a fourth-year English student at UCLA currently conducting a senior thesis. In this interview, she delves into the unique topic of Morrissey’s research, covering everything from the research process to the social implication of producing an analysis of parasocial relationships.

Selena: Could you tell me about the subject of your senior thesis, and what initially drew you to this topic?

Kayleigh: Yes! I’m writing about the complexity and the neutrality of Taylor Swift’s star image. Normally, complexity and neutrality wouldn’t be seen as interrelated, but I’m arguing that they are, in the case of Taylor Swift’s text. I’m going to focus on the alt-right appropriation of her persona, which began around the early 2010s and continued through the late 2010s. I’m also focusing on the queer appropriation of her persona, which isn’t a super new development but it did become more popular during the early 2020s with the release of Folklore and Evermore. Many fans find a lot of queer subtext in these two albums. As for the alt-right appropriation of her star image, she’d been very silent about her political stance up until 2018, when she expressed support for the Democrats. Of course, she’s a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, thin, white woman and she has been appropriated as being some Aryan goddess for that and was silent when “nazis” started appropriating her image. That aside, what initially drew me to this topic— the obvious answer is I have been a huge Taylor Swift fan for a very long time, since the original Fearless era. I kind of thought of this randomly and was originally going to just focus on Folklore and Evermore and the queer subtext within those albums. It’s something I’ve caught on to since those albums came out in 2020. It’s a very huge phenomenon in the fandom and it’s interesting that this has developed, considering the way the media upholds Taylor Swift as being a paragon of heterosexuality due to her writing breakup songs, publicly dating guys, etc. So, I just thought that would be cool to integrate into a thesis.

Selena: How would you say the process for academic research within pop culture topics differs from the process for more traditional academic research topics? 

Kayleigh: I would say the main difference is that for pop culture topics (specifically for Taylor Swift but this applies to all pop culture topics), is that there is a constant flow of new information, and there is information overload. I often feel like I’m going through a rabbit hole when I am doing my research. I first thought of my topic idea around March or April of 2022 and ever since, there have been so many things that have happened involving Taylor Swift that I would’ve had no idea about at the beginning of my research because they hadn’t happened at that time. For one, she had not even announced, let alone released Midnights, her 10th studio album yet. There wasn’t public knowledge of her controversy surrounding private jet emissions, and the Ticketmaster fiasco had not happened yet when I originally thought of this topic. So, it’s just hard to keep track of everything that’s new while also meeting deadlines and trying to maintain structure in your writing.

Selena: Because pop culture has been so undervalued as an area of study, I thought it important to ask, why do you believe this topic is worthy of research and necessary for our understanding of society?

Kayleigh: I believe this topic is worthy of research and necessary for our understanding of society because pop culture is generally highly informed by shifts in our political and cultural climate. Now more than ever, celebrities speaking out on social justice and political issues has become such a priority among fans, that expressing support for artists is being treated as taking part in a political playground. I’m focusing on Taylor Swift’s star text and the ways in which her silence has enabled alt-right and queer appropriations of her image. This topic, for instance, reveals how silence has become increasingly more meaningful in our society, as silence in the face of oppression can easily be interpreted as acceptance or complacency amidst the increasing urgency for artists to use their platforms.

Selena: How would you say the nature of this topic has affected the mediums/platforms you turn to for your research?

Kayleigh: My research is very interdisciplinary, not to say that other topics aren’t of course. As a result, I’m consulting many things— looking at Taylor Swift’s songwriting, interviews, her documentary titled Miss Americana, and of course, scholarly articles. There’s definitely a good amount of content out there, both more recent and a little earlier in her career. I think another main difference is that I’m looking at music videos and looking at works of journalism like music reviews, articles about Taylor Swift, and fan forums. So, I’m definitely consulting many different types of resources for my research.  

Selena: If you had any and all resources at your disposal, what elements (interviews, polls, studies) do you think would best supplement your research?

Kayleigh: I think what’s been the most helpful is looking at scholarly fan studies. These are articles where they study messages in fan forums about Taylor Swift showcasing why certain fans really resonate and connect with her, what they believe makes her different in comparison to other stars, what kind of values they feel she represents, and just what she means to them overall. 

Selena: How have professors and students responded to you informing them of your topic? Do they tend to respond similarly? Would you say it has been received well or deemed frivolous?

Kayleigh: Overall, I would say it has been received well! It seems that most people find it cool that I’m doing a thesis on Taylor Swift because people wouldn’t really expect a student to write a thesis on a pop star in the English department. People would probably expect me to write about a novel or poems or something else, but I think a lot of people really do find it refreshing! My advisor of course is very supportive and so was my professor for the 191H seminar where I was developing my topic. However, I have also heard some skepticism. When I’ve mentioned that I’m writing a thesis on Taylor Swift’s star image, some have responded with, “wait, really?”. They couldn’t process that it was even approved. There’s this reaction of surprise sometimes.

Selena: What do you think we as a holistic society can learn from the fact that members of subcultures interpret lyrics through vastly different lenses?

Kayleigh: I think something that we as a society can learn is that the meaning of text isn’t solely rooted in what the author’s intentions are. There are many different sources to look at and combine with our personal experiences that lead us to derive unique meaning in not only the lyrics, but also the persona of the artists themselves. I think another thing we can learn is that silence is a very powerful tool for understanding something. I was talking earlier about Swift being politically silent— her being silent in regards to politics for a long time has been attributed to her being complacent and to her acceptance of Nazism and alt-right wing ideology. I guess this applies to her lyrics too because her song, “Look What You Made Me Do”, was suspected to be an alt-right anthem by that type of group. Then again it kind of goes both ways, as there is also a queer interpretation of her music. She does have these suggestions of queerness but of course, doesn’t say who it’s about, she just kind of leaves it up to the reader to assume. She never confirms or denies her sexuality. Her being silent does enable the understanding of her music as being queer, just as silence in her political stance enabled the alt-right appropriation of her celebrity image and some of her music. 

Selena: What are you hoping that artists can take away from the analysis in your paper and what are you hoping that fans can take away from the analysis in your paper?

Kayleigh: Something I think artists can take away from the analysis in my paper— it all goes back to the polarizing political climate that we live in— everything an artist does is political and it’s not necessarily something that they can avoid as much as they might want to. Even being silent or refraining from politics is political in a way, because you are choosing to ignore the lives that are at stake and the issues that are at hand. As for what I hope the fans can take away from the analysis in my paper— I hope they learn that while we may enjoy a particular artist’s music and go to their concerts, read about them, and watch their interviews, at the end of the day, we don’t truly know who they are. We only know them through the context of the media, which can always influence the way we perceive a person.