At the 58th Grammy Awards earlier this year, Taylor Swift became the first woman to win Album of the Year twice for a solo album.
By the numbers, this shouldn’t come as a shock. Swift — an objectively gifted singer, songwriter, and performer — has had a wildly successful career by any metric. That said, if I had to list the top 10 female performers of my lifetime I’m not sure Swift would make the cut. As culture critic Camille Paglia so delicately put it for The Hollywood Reporter, I find her music to be “mainly complaints about boyfriends, faceless louts who blur in her mind as well as ours.”
While the internet is rife with Taylor Swift listicles analyzing the lyrics of her songs, data-driven analysis is scarce (or, more likely, just private). So, in the spirit of collect and verify, I decided to do a textual analysis of TSwift’s work using Word Counter to see just how boy-centric her lyrics actually were.
True to Sands prediction from last class: 80% of my time was spent on data collection, 15% was spent sifting through said data, and I’m wrapping up the remaining 5% now. Using the database AZLyrics, I combed through the many, many songs of Taylor Swift. To date, she has released five studio albums, two live albums, two video albums, two extended plays (EPs), 37 singles, three featured singles, and eleven promotional singles To keep things simple, I decided to stick with her five studio albums, Taylor Swift (2006), Fearless (2008), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), and 1989 (2014).
Word Counter is a pretty straightforward tool: it counts the words, bigrams, and trigrams in a plain text document which you can either paste directly into the browser or upload to the site. From there, you can download the single word counts, bigrams (2 contiguous words), and trigrams (3 contiguous words) into .csv format. Between the five albums, I copied in text from 69 songs and then downloaded the data.
Then the process became a bit less straightforward. Comparing single word-counts of individual songs and albums side by side didn’t really give me a ton of useful insight — not to mention, it’s a fairly boring way to see the data. I decided to compare Swift’s two “Albums of the Year” — 1989 (in blue) and Fearless (magenta) — by plugging the songs’ text into Tagul, a very user friendly word cloud art generator.
Other than showing Ms. Swift is a thematically consistent songwriter, this didn’t give me much to go by. Perhaps, if I compared the two albums’ most frequently used trigrams?
Aha — now we were getting somewhere. Where Fearless (right) reinforces my earlier criticism, the trigrams from 1989 — namely, the song “Shake it off” -focus more intensely on Swift herself. As she explained to Rolling Stone in 2014: “When you live your life under that kind of scrutiny, you can either let it break you, or you can get really good at dodging punches. And when one lands, you know how to deal with it. And I guess the way that I deal with it is to shake it off.”
Ultimately, my textual investigation should have supplemented a broader investigation which also examined songs Swift wrote vs. co-produced and weighted the popularity of the songs. From the data I did collect, it seems Camilla Pagalia and I should maybe give Swift another chance: the pop star is shifting tone, however incrementally, from the lovestruck ballads of albums past.