Pulling into a grocery store parking lot 17 years ago, a song came on the radio with a banjo twang that didn’t sound like anything else Ryan Davis had heard on country music radio at the time. With a crisp young voice, the artist was singing about falling for someone who is in love with someone else.
When Davis, a philosophy professor, first heard “Teardrops On My Guitar” by then-17-year-old, up-and-coming country star Taylor Swift on that evening in 2006, he immediately recognized the singer’s dilemma about how to treat people. It resonated with him enough to make him linger in the car.
“Whatever this is, I’m here for it,” Davis recalled thinking. “Since then, I’ve been on the train.”
Davis is a Swiftie at heart. He is also an associate professor in the political science department at BYU. Davis, who received a doctorate in political philosophy from Princeton University, teaches introductory philosophy courses and researches personal autonomy and the moral significance of respecting others.
Filled with philosophy books from Plato to Immanuel Kant, Davis’ office feels like a shrine to deep thinkers and their ideas about the meaning of life. In the corner opposite the bookshelves, there is a square red frame popping out from the wall with the caption: “Casually cruel in the name of being honest,” a line from Taylor Swift’s song “All Too Well.”
The attribution of the framed quote gifted to Davis by one of his TAs reads, “Taylor Swift, PhD in life.” One may wonder whether this gift is a joke or it should be taken seriously. For Davis, this framed quote is serious.
Davis, who’s been working on a syllabus for the past year about what he calls “Philoswiftie” (the philosophy of Taylor Swift), will be teaching the first class on Taylor Swift ever taught at BYU in winter 2024. The class code is POLI 360 and will be called “Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, Ethics, and Political Society.”
There are no more seats available for the class this winter, but those interested should stay tuned for future semesters.
According to Davis, many of Swift’s songs are autobiographical and, when a listener listens closely to the lyrics, they realize she cares about relationships because she has been thinking about what the right ways and wrong ways to treat others are.
“All these questions are questions about ethics, and she’s just interested in the ethics of all of those things … And so even though it’s pop music, it’s pop music that’s about the moral structure of relationships,” Davis said.
The messages about relationships in Taylor Swift’s music have transcended to relationships in Davis’ own life, particularly his relationship with his youngest sister, Breanne Lindner, who is also a Swiftie.
“We got closer once Taylor Swift entered our lives,” Lindner said. They would listen to Taylor Swift in the car every time they drove together, she said.
According to Lindner, although part of Davis’ interest in Taylor Swift stems from the philosophical value in her music, the way he feels about her is at the core of who he is as a person and how he lives his life.
This past summer, Davis attended three concerts from the Eras Tour, one of them with his sister in Minneapolis. The other two concerts were in Philadelphia and Kansas City.
After months of back-and-forth, Davis and Lindner decided to dress up as Taylor Swift and her bodyguard from the “Delicate” music video for Swift’s Minneapolis concert, Lindner said. Both of them were proud when their costumes were so obscure that they didn’t see other people wearing something similar.
In the video, Taylor is accompanied by bodyguards that can’t see her when she suddenly becomes invisible. Lindner dressed up as Taylor Swift and Davis was a bodyguard, wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie with an earpiece.
“Other people asked me for directions around the stadium,” Davis said.
Davis admitted their costumes were a “deep cut” that only a very select few people were able to recognize. To commemorate their look, Lindner and Davis replicated with surgical precision a scene from the music video.
According to Lindner, Davis is the most unconventional concertgoer that you can imagine because he just stands there with a very thoughtful, contemplative look on his face — and not for a lack of knowing the lyrics, because he does know them, but because it’s his way to be present.
“There’s literally no one else on the planet who I would want, or anyone (I) would rather have a post-game (conversation) about a Taylor Swift concert with,” Lindner said.
According to Lindner, there is more to her brother than what people first think. He’ll incorporate Taylor Swift lyrics in any situation or conversation he can.
“At the end of the day, Ryan is just this guy who just wants to talk about Taylor Swift,” Lindner said.
Lindner recalled one instance when Davis was quoting Taylor Swift to a fishing guide who had no idea who Taylor Swift was. Sometimes, she said, his efforts backfire.
But other times it works, even though people might not be aware. Davis has the ability to connect Taylor Swift lyrics to any kind of life circumstance that someone is going through, Lindner said.
“Honestly, I feel like my brother understands Taylor Swift better than Taylor Swift understands Taylor Swift,” Lindner said.
Quinn Mechan, Davis’ colleague from the political science department, knew of Davis’ interest in Taylor Swift. He said he was a little surprised, however, about “how obsessed” Davis was.
“It was just … surprising at first … to realize that somebody who is such a systematic thinker — he’s an extremely rational, systematic thinker — has such an affection for somebody who sings about things that are so emotionally based,” Mecham said.
Mecham got his first Taylor Swift lecture from Davis on a drive to southern Utah for a hiking trip they did together. Mecham, who wasn’t even sure if he had heard a song from her, asked Davis to introduce each album in order.
Since they had taken Davis’ truck on their trip, Davis, who had all the CDs, played a song from each album and explained why it was important, Mecham said.
As a result of this initial introduction to Taylor Swift, Mecham, who does curated playlists on Spotify for different artists, went on to make a curated playlist for Taylor Swift.
“I had always assumed that Taylor Swift would not be of interest to me because it was for teenage girls, but I’m an open-minded guy,” Mecham said.
Mecham submitted his curated playlist to Davis for peer review and Davis gave him some feedback. Mecham’s playlist includes songs from the albums in chronological order and can be found on Spotify.
Mecham eventually started to take Taylor Swift more seriously after he heard Davis’ argument about memory and visual detail from his lecture on the song “22” at Mecham’s daughter’s birthday party.
“This is when I first really heard his more political philosophy of Taylor Swift … he made an argument at my daughter’s birthday party that Taylor Swift’s main contribution is being able to recollect particular moments that are frozen in time and to be able to highlight how the particular details of this moment have significance beyond that moment,” Mecham said.
According to Mecham, Davis is a very credible thinker, and has become obsessed with Taylor Swift’s music because of its intellectual layering.
“He makes me believe that yes, in fact, there’s a possibility there that there are meaningful philosophical contributions, but I’m still on the quest,” Mecham said.
Mecham believes there must be something visceral about her emotive storylines that resonates deeply with Davis in a way that he can’t express in his usual philosophical language. He also thinks it goes the other way around, and believes Taylor Swift is trying to say things with philosophical consequences in her songs that Davis can express in elaborated philosophical arguments.
Mecham explained Taylor Swift is good at telling stories and Ryan Davis is good at interpreting the philosophical consequences of those stories.
“It’s like two people who speak dialects of the same language who are coming together and translating for each other,” Mecham said.