I’m a communication professor who co-authors a communication theory textbook and a website full of pop culture connections to comm theory. I’m also a Swiftie who has ranked every one of Taylor Swift’s songs. I figured, why not combine those things together?
And so it goes… this is me trying to use communication theory as an invisible string that runs throughout the Swiftverse.
Specifically, here’s a list that provides one connection between Taylor Swift and each of the 33 theories in A First Look at Communication Theory (11th edition). Of course there are more theories than this in the communication world… and of course there are many more possible connections to Taylor’s music. If you have a good example, feel free to leave it in a comment below.
Interpersonal Communication Theories
- Symbolic interactionism (Mead): “Begin Again,” Red. This song begins with Taylor Swift looking in the mirror, but not just the physical mirror in front of her—she’s gazing at her looking-glass self, remembering how her ex criticized her.
- Expectancy violations theory (Burgoon): “Betty,” Folklore. Betty’s ex-boyfriend James wonders what will happen if he appears unannounced at Betty’s party. Will she receive him warmly or reject him? Based on EVT’s twin concepts of violation valence and communicator reward valence, what would the theory predict?
- Family communication patterns theory (Koerner & Fitzpatrick): “The Best Day,” Fearless. In this ode to her family, and specifically her mother, Taylor celebrates her ability to talk openly with them. Note particularly the second verse where her mother serves as a source of emotional support, as well as how throughout the song the open talk translates into communication that builds children up. It’s an effective picture of positive outcomes arising from conversation orientation.
- Social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor): “Delicate,” Reputation. In the chorus of this song, Taylor wonders aloud if she has shared too much, too soon. Social penetration theory would suggest that she’s wondering whether the knife has cut too deeply into the onion.
- Uncertainty reduction theory (Berger): “Paper Rings,” Lover. Immediately after meeting her boyfriend (presumably, Joe Alwyn), she looks him up online… the extractive uncertainty reduction theory. Why, according to the theory, might she be particularly motivated to reduce uncertainty in this situation (including, apparently, reading all of his books)?
- Social information processing theory (Walther): The infamous 27-second phone call when Joe Jonas broke up with Taylor, The Ellen Show. She seems hurt as she shares about this with Ellen DeGeneres. The theory might suggest that’s because the cue-limited medium didn’t enable the then-teenagers to clarify what happened, especially during such a short call.
- Relational dialectics theory (Baxter & Bakhtin): “Our Song,” Taylor Swift. Here, Taylor expresses frustration to her boyfriend that they don’t have a song for their relationship. RDT scholars might say that she wants to find an already-spoken cultural discourse that shapes their bond. In the end, Taylor creates her own; but, according to RDT, is it really a new discourse, or just echoing relational discourses in country music that have come before?
- Communication privacy management theory (Petronio): “All Too Well,” Red. In the bridge of this epic song, Taylor reports that her (ex-)boyfriend’s sharing of private information had devastating consequences on her well-being. As Petronio contends, self-disclosure does not necessarily lead to intimacy.
- Media multiplexity theory (Haythornthwaite): “Girl at Home,” Red. When flirtation verges on infidelity, what’s Taylor’s advice to the guy hitting on her? Delete her telephone number. According to the theory, that’s a good way to reduce the strength of their tie.
- Social judgment theory (Sherif & Sherif): Kanye West’s shocking choice to grab the microphone from Taylor at the 2009 VMAs. Clearly, Beyoncé fell in Kanye’s latitude of acceptance for the award, and Taylor fell in his latitude of rejection—which is right where Kanye’s rude behavior landed for most viewers.
- Elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo): “Enchanted,” Speak Now. This song finds Taylor full of insomnia, awake in the middle of the night thinking deeply about the man that she just met. She is clearly motivated to process the relationship centrally, so much so that her need for cognition exceeds her need for sleep.
- Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger): “Sparks Fly,” Speak Now. As Taylor notices her new romantic interest, she knows dating him isn’t a good decision, but she chooses to ignore this fact.
- The Rhetoric (Aristotle): Taylor Swift’s commencement address to NYU’s Class of 2022. According to Aristotle, what kind of speech is this: deliberative, epideictic, or forensic? How does she establish her ethos? Do you see any other modes of proof in the speech?
- Dramatism (Burke): “Mean,” Speak Now. Taylor wrote this song in response to a music critic who criticized her, and Taylor’s response is Burkean victimage. If you apply the pentad to this song, which elements does Taylor emphasize?
- Narrative Paradigm (Fisher): “The Story of Us,” Speak Now. Taylor Swift’s music often uses the metaphor of story to describe love—but according to Fisher, perhaps story is more than a metaphor. In this song, Swift seems to use narrative rationality to evaluate her romantic relationship. Because the story of their love (and specifically, the story of her boyfriend’s behavior) lacks both narrative fidelity and coherence, she is dissatisfied. If you want to take this idea farther with Swift’s music, you might examine “Love Story” (Fearless), where she likens a romance beset by family drama to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Group and Organizational Communication Theories
- Functional perspective on group decision making (Hirokawa & Gouran): “You Belong With Me,” Fearless. Did you realize this hit song is about decision making? The girl in the song has analyzed the problem: her male friend is in an unsatisfying romantic relationship. And she’s identified two alternatives: he can stay with his current girlfriend, or ditch her for a relationship with the singing girl. As for goal setting, the singer lists several criteria, from music tastes to dress to sense of humor. If only he’d follow the four functions, she thinks he’d realize his best and most reasonable choice.
- Symbolic convergence theory (Bormann): “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince”, Lover. Taylor Swift wrote this song as an allegory about the election and presidency of Donald Trump, using the imagery of a high school football game to imagine American politics in a creative and memorable way.
- Cultural approach to organizations (Geertz and Pacanowksy): “Epiphany,” Folklore. Taylor imagines what life was like for her grandfather in the military during World War II, and for doctors during the COVID pandemic. For both groups, the emotion conveyed in the song rests in the tension between the corporate (leadership) and collegial (“how things really work”) narratives in those organizations.
- Communicative constitution of organizations (McPhee): Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (19:14-22:10). CCO addresses how organization is constituted through communication, a process that occurs when closure is achieved through back-and-forth interaction. This entire show focuses on how this was accomplished by Taylor and her collaborators, creating a Grammy-award winning album during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. This clip focuses on the song “Exile,” addressing how the song grew from a piano riff by Taylor’s boyfriend Joe Alwyn, to collaboration with Aaron Dessner, to including Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). Which of the four flows occur in this very organic example of organizing? If you watch the entire show, do you see all four flows present in the creation of the Folklore album?
- Critical theory of communication in organizations (Deetz): “My Tears Ricochet,” Folklore. This song might sound like it is describing the funeral of an ex-lover, but the deeper layer of meaning is this: Taylor is critiquing music industry practices that favor management and disempower artists. She’s particularly concerned about practices like the contract she signed as a young artist, a contract that seems to be in her favor but wasn’t. Deetz might label that “consent,” and instead, Taylor seems to want something more akin to stakeholder democracy (participation).
Cultural Context Theories
- Communication accommodation theory (Giles): “I Bet You Think About Me,” Red (Taylor’s Version). Taylor draws a stark contrast between her own socioeconomic background and that of her ex-boyfriend. His constant divergence is a key cause of their breakup.
- Face-negotiation theory (Ting-Toomey): “Tolerate It,” Evermore. See how the distressed wife’s conflict strategies and face-concern change over the course of the song, moving from other-face toward her husband at the beginning, then to self-face by the end.
- Co-cultural theory (Orbe): “You Need to Calm Down,” Lover. Orbe’s research has investigated the LGBTQ community, an audience Taylor addresses in this song. How would dominant group theory describe the lyrics of the second verse?
- Afrocentricity (Asante): “What Wildest Dreams Gets Wrong About Africa,” MTV News. Taylor’s video for “Wildest Dreams” takes place in Africa. This clip critiques that choice because, for example, it portrays Africa as a single country and culture rather than a multitude of countries and cultures.
- Feminist standpoint theory (Harding & Wood): “Mad Woman,” Folklore. The thesis of this song resonates deeply with feminist standpoint theory: Women (and others on the margins of society) have insights into society that members of more powerful groups don’t possess.
- Muted group theory (Kramarae): “The Man,” Lover. Here, Taylor considers what her life would be life if she were a man—how would she be perceived? What power and influence would she have? This reflection reveals the bias and muting enacted against her within the music industry because she is a woman.
- Media ecology (McLuhan): “Coney Island,” Evermore. There’s one line in this song that reflects on how the Internet has changed shopping in America, and with it people’s social lives… and beyond the lyrics, something about the wistful reflective mood of this song fits with media ecology’s concern that perhaps communication technology has led us to lose more than we realize.
- Context collapse (boyd & Marwick): “The Lakes,” Folklore. In this song, Taylor yearns for a world without context collapse, where she doesn’t have to worry about the pressures brought by constant exposure on social media.
- Semiotics (Barthes): “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, Reputation. Early in the video, Taylor sits in a bathtub filled with diamonds… and a single dollar bill. As a denotative sign, it clearly refers to wealth. But Taylor includes it here as a connotative, second-order semiotic system: The single dollar bill represents the amount she claimed against her sexual harasser in a high-profile lawsuit. And so the sign signifies all women who experience sexual abuse and the courage it takes to confront it.
- Cultural studies (Hall): “Nothing New,” Red (Taylor’s Version). By highlighting how the music industry features young women for awhile and then rejects them as they age, Taylor articulates oppression that not all music listeners consider.
- Uses and gratifications theory (Katz): “Taylor Swift Meets Her Biggest Fan,” The Ellen Show. When superfan Mary Kate meets Taylor Swift, her emotions are uncontainable. From the video shown before the meeting and her interaction with Swift, it’s clear she has a parasocial relationship with the singer.
- Cultivation theory (Gerbner): “If This Was a Movie,” Speak Now. Taylor wants her ex to come back to her, thinking about how he would if they were film characters. The song highlights how the television/movie world differs from the real world, and suggests how the media world can shape how we think and react.
- Agenda-setting theory (McCombs & Shaw): “Blank Space,” 1989. The whole song is a tongue-and-cheek critique of the second level of agenda-setting, and in this case, the subject of the media’s framing is Taylor Swift. At the time, the media framed her as a young woman who dated a series of men and, after the relationship was over, turned the story of the romance into songs (and profit). Here, Taylor rejects this boy-crazy image by embracing it, pretending it’s true to argue that it’s not.
If you want more pop culture connections to communication theory, visit www.afirstlook.com, and if you want to read more about my thoughts on Taylor Swift, check out my rankings of her songs!