Sunday 21 April 2024

Back to Black: New Biopic only Bolsters the Amy Winehouse ‘trainwreck’ Narrative

Focus Features

By Nathalie Weidhase, University of Surrey

When Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27 in 2011, many felt the world had been robbed of one its greatest stars who had barely shown us the extent of her talent. The new biopic Back to Black – directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and named after Winehouse’s seminal second album – attempts to make sense of her tumultuous life and musical output.

The film follows Winehouse – played by Marisa Abela – from the early days of her career in early-2000s London, through to global stardom. In the process, it reveals the ways in which female celebrities are objectified in contemporary media and celebrity culture, even after their death.

At the height of Winehouse’s fame, gossip tabloids still ruled the media. They created what became known as “trainwreck celebrities” – predominantly female stars who were portrayed as publicly promiscuous and frequently intoxicated. The most famous from this period include Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Lily Allen. These female celebrities were regularly shamed in the tabloid and gossip press on both sides of the Atlantic.

Winehouse shot to fame with her first album, Frank, in 2003, and was quickly considered one of these “trainwrecks” for being outspoken, performing intoxicated, and stumbling out of north London bars with her on-off lover and future husband, Blake Fielder-Civil.

Throughout her life, Winehouse tried to resist this form of control and commodification. She was seen fighting with paparazzi and resisting rehab when her record company tried to get her help (she even wrote a song about it).

Abela’s ability to imitate Winehouse’s voice and mannerisms is often impressive. However, while in the early stages Back to Black tries to counteract Winehouse’s tabloid image, it ultimately fails to shift this widely accepted narrative surrounding her chaotic lifestyle.

Amy’s distinct style

The beginning of the film centres on Winehouse’s songwriting talent and musical performance, which is swiftly followed by the offer of a record contract.

Abela’s Winehouse doesn’t tire of reminding her family and the viewer that she’s not in this for the fame or money. Indeed, the film both begins and ends with her telling us that all she wants is to make music that helps people forget their troubles, and only wants to be remembered for being a singer and for being herself.

Winehouse’s distinctive personal style is central to the visual storytelling of the film. The singer became known for her trademark beehive and eyeliner, as well as a signature Fred Perry polo and skinny jeans combination. She was also known for wearing pink satin ballet flats, which gained notoriety in paparazzi photos that showed them bloodied in the public aftermath of a fight with her husband in August 2007.

The film uses Winehouse’s distinctive style to communicate changes in her health. Instead of showing the unglamorous and often visually disturbing realities of bulimia and drug abuse, the progressively more torn clothes and dishevelled hair come to signify Winehouse’s physical and mental decline.

Many of these style moments used in the film were not inspired by looks she wore in her performances, but instead were captured through paparazzi footage. While the use of these visuals amid the dramatised scenes serve as a reminder of the relentless media chase Winehouse had to endure, the film ultimately reinforces this sense of media exploitation.

Rather than offering a complex visual portrayal that goes beyond the “trainwreck” images the viewer may be familiar with, Back to Black almost banks on how recognisable they are. It relies on the tabloid media’s damaging visual narrative instead of venturing to create its own.

Victim narratives

As a biopic, the film attempts to reclaim Winehouse from the victimhood often ascribed to her. However, the story it tells reduces Winehouse’s complex character and her life to a series of episodes of suffering.

Take a scene set in the wake of her beloved grandmother’s illness and death. Winehouse’s husband is presented as the villain who exploits her trauma as a moment of weakness, to introduce her to the same hard drugs she rejected early on in the film. This sets Back to Black’s story on a familiar trajectory.

In the film, her bulimia happens in the background, with scenes briefly showing Winehouse in front of the toilet. The only somewhat explicit discussion of it appears when her flatmate complains about the flushing noises that wake her up.

These brief moments serve as markers of unhappiness, but offer no exploration of where this unhappiness may come from. They eschew the complexity of Winehouse and her mental health, and don’t offer more than the shallow broken artist shaped by tragedy and the love of a bad man – a narrative we already know.

When Back to Black does look for causes of unhappiness, it settles on odd territory. At one point, it seems to suggest that her suffering stems from an unfulfilled desire to be a mother – a take that has garnered deserved criticism.

Ultimately, Back to Black is unable to capture what made Winehouse so special: the grain of her voice, and her ability to craft stories of female experience that reject simplistic narratives of suffering.

Nathalie Weidhase, Lecturer in Media and Communication, University of Surrey

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Wednesday 17 April 2024

West Africa’s Designers are World Leaders When it Comes to Producing Sustainable Fashion

West African fabrics and design offer a more sustainable way to produce fashion 

By Adwoa Owusuaa Bobie, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST)

Every few weeks global fast fashion brands mass produce their latest clothing, pumping out garments to be sold around the world. There is growing criticism that it’s socially irresponsible to produce such large volumes of clothes so often. It leads to surplus and waste that takes a toll on the environment. And by requiring new styles so often it also stifles designers’ creativity in an industry that thrives on it.

Sustainable fashion means clothes being produced and consumed in ways that are socially responsible. But the conversation about sustainable fashion has centered mainly on the western and Asian fashion industries. Africa is discussed only as the dumping ground for the tonnes of disposable and secondhand clothes produced by fast fashion brands. My study bridges this gap by showing how fashion designers in west Africa produce their work.

Prèt-a-porter (ready-to-wear) clothing is mass produced by fashion houses – as opposed to couture that is made to measure. West African fashion designers produce what I have termed customised prèt-a-porter – a limited-edition ready-to-wear model that creates the latest fashions in measured volumes.

This is a model for sustainable fashion that allows more space for creativity and innovation and also uses environmentally friendly laundry measures to ensure the long lifespan of clothes.

Customised ready-to-wear fashion

Fashion from Africa has attained global recognition thanks to the creativity of today’s designers. However, very little is known about how the production strategy they use contributes to sustainable fashion.

Designers in Africa are likely to face economic, social, and political challenges that limit production and efficiency in the industry. However, many of the designers in my west African study turned these challenges on their head: while the market limits the possibilities of scaling up production, it in effect endorses innovative sustainable fashion practices.

But west Africa’s contribution to sustainable fashion is not just shaped by what the market won’t allow. As I find in my study, designers are also guided by the socio-cultural milieu of the fashion consumption in the cities where they live. Designers tap into this culture and grow it.

I found that the factors that shape fashion consumption in west Africa include the need to produce clothes that assert social and economic status (exclusivity), the ability to make designs that are not easily replicated (uniqueness), and the creativity to project the personality of each client in the clothes (individuality). While these needs can easily be met through bespoke production, applying them to the kind of ready-to-wear mass production done by fast fashion brands in the west is challenging. Not so with west Africa’s customised prèt-a-porter fashion model.

West African designers offer a much wider variety of creative designs compared to the homogenised designs of fast fashion brands. Most release collections only twice a year – summer and winter – instead of every two weeks like western fast fashion brands. By producing collections less often, west African designers can invest time in creating innovative designs.

Exclusivity, uniqueness and individuality

To achieve exclusivity yet remain affordable, many west African designers use cheaper machine-produced African wax print fabrics but design them flamboyantly to attain a high-end fashion standard. Or some might combine socially valued cloths with less socially valued ones. For example, wax print is combined with exclusive fabrics like the handwoven cloths aso oke and kente or with lace and other imported fabrics.

Making unique designs often requires a little tweaking of popular styles – like offering different sleeve styles and necklines, or using appliques and accessories. Laurie, a participant of the study explains that in stocking different shops across the world with her collection, “I give you at least three sizes … and then maybe two [styles] each”. Thus, in one store, she might stock two pieces of one design across the four sizes she produces, producing eight variations of one design. Of the 40 or 50 pieces she offers a store she’s featuring five or six unique designs.

Most designers emphasised the need to project personality through their pieces. Some do this by catering to a particular target market – like corporate women, businessmen and religious leaders. A Ghanaian designer like Naa projects her personality through her clothes by making something “Naa would like to wear”. Before she produces a collection, she makes a few pieces for herself within the prevailing trend in order to test the market. The styles that receive the most compliments become her collection.

Longer lasting and sustainable

By considering the consumer’s socio-cultural needs in the production process, designers produce more personalised pieces. These create an emotional bond between the clothes and the wearers. Clothes become difficult to part with and are kept for longer, extending the shelf life of west African fashion.

Long periods for the sale of each collection also prevents the pile-up of unsold clothes.

And the traditional methods of maintaining and laundering clothes doesn’t just protect the clothes, it also protects the environment. Hand washing is a longstanding method of caring for locally produced clothes and designers insist that this old method is the best. They instruct their customers on how to maintain the clothes through aeration and hand washing. This reduces the frequency of washing, protecting the environment from high emissions of carbon dioxide and pollution from dyes.

The longevity and exclusivity of the clothes offers a great alternative to the imported second-hand clothing that often ends up in landfills. (That said, the clothing market in west Africa lacks a well-structured second-hand clothing trade system for locally-produced fashion. This would ensure the even distribution of quality clothes among people with different socio-economic backgrounds.)

Ultimately, however, recycling or upcycling are reactive solutions to problems created by fast fashion. Customised prèt-a-porter production, on the other hand, is a proactive way of addressing unsustainable fashion practices.The Conversation

Adwoa Owusuaa Bobie, Research Fellow, Center for Cultural and African Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Thursday 11 April 2024

Iconic Prints, Modern Flair: Pucci's Spring/Summer 2024 Collection in Rome

Eva Herzigová and Mariacarla Boscono at a historic palace in Rome for Pucci's SS24 collection
Set against the backdrop of a 16th century Roman palazzo, Pucci's new Spring/Summer 2024 collection, added a touch of brilliant colour and pattern to the historic building. Artistic director, Camille Miceli, brought along Nineties supermodels Christy Turlington and Eva Herzigová to wear her new designs. Isabella Rosselini closed the runway show in a vividly hued confection that exuded a bold, modern style capturing the designer’s skillful fusion of heritage and innovation, writes Antonio Visconti 

Designer Camille Miceli with models from 
her show, including Christy Turlington, 
Eva Herzigová and Mariacarla Boscono.

In the world of Italian fashion, Emilio Pucci signifies audacious pattern and a certain louche midcentury aesthetic that is particularly in mode now.

The latest collection, shown in Rome, called Very Vivara, not only paid homage to the brand's iconic Vivara print but also marked a significant milestone with Camille Miceli's second runway show as the house's artistic director.

The setting at Rome's historic Palazzo Altemps, added a note of grandeur and history to the occasion. Christy Turlington opened the show and brought a dash of natural glamour wearing little make-up except a dark, burgundy lipstick and sporting a long, black caftan embellished with Pucci motifs. Overall, the eclectic fusion of heritage designs with contemporary interpretations set the tone for a collection that exuded both chutzpa and an urbane modernity. 

Isabella Rossellini's return to the runway in another historic Pucci print was a moment of nostalgia and celebration. Her connection to the brand, dating back to a photo shoot in 1990, resonates with the Italian label's enduring legacy as a favorite among celebrities and fashionistas.

At the finale of the show, 
Isabella Rosselllini with 
Pucci's artistic director 

As the rippling waters of the Mediterranean inspired the Vivara print, the collection echoed the organic and geometric beauty of nature, intertwined with Pucci's signature vivacity.

The print is a symbol of Emilio Pucci's connection to the sea and the picturesque island of Vivara, near Capri. Miceli's reinterpretation of the design breathes new life into the motif, infusing it with an allure to captivate a new audience.

From designs that would work in the city to beachwear, the collection demonstrated a masterful remix of classic motifs, accentuated by three defining prints of this season: Cigni, Bersaglio, and Chiave. These prints, along with the enduring presence of Pesci and Iride, painted a vibrant spectrum of colors and patterns, from aquatic blues to floral hues.

The silhouettes presented a harmonious blend of sophistication and playfulness. Foulard-style silk dresses, ensembles in gabardine with print inlays, and asymmetric tops and skirts reflect a novel spirit.

Embellishments such as all-over paillette embroidery, leather accents, and chain details add a touch of luxury. The accessories complemented the collection's themes such as the sandals outlined with leaves and elegant bags, featuring Pucci scarf detailing and chain straps. 

Camille Miceli's long design experience plus her fresh creative vision ensured this Pucci collection was a successful blend of reinvigorated historic prints and a cosmopolitan, contemporary aesthetic. 

Scroll down to see the full SS24 Pucci collection in Rome

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Monday 8 April 2024

Australian Writers have been Envisioning AI for a Century. Here are Five Stories to Read as We Grapple with Rapid Change


By Leah Henrickson, The University of Queensland; Catriona Mills, The University of Queensland; David Tang, The University of Queensland, and Maggie Nolan, The University of Queensland

Australians are nervous about AI. Efforts are underway to put their minds at ease: advisory committees, consultations and regulations. But these actions have tended to be reactive instead of proactive. We need to imagine potential scenarios before they happen.

Of course, we already do this – in literature.

There is, in fact, more than 100 years’ worth of Australian literature about AI and robotics. Nearly 2,000 such works are listed in the AustLit database, a bibliography of Australian literature that includes novels, screenplays, poetry and other kinds of literature.

These titles are often overlooked in policy-driven conversations. This is a missed opportunity. Literature both reflects and influences thinking about its subjects. It is a rich source of insights into social attitudes, imagined scenarios and what “responsible” technology looks like.

As part of an ongoing project, we are creating a comprehensive list of Australian literature about AI and robots. Here are five Australian literary works of particular relevance to national conversations about AI.

The Automatic Barmaid

The Automatic Barmaid is a short story by Ernest O’Ferrall, who wrote under the pen name “Kodak”. Like his contemporaries Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, Kodak was best known as a writer of comedic bush stories.

Ernest O Ferrall (1881-1925). Robin M. Cale/National Library of Australia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This particular story was published in The Bulletin in 1917 and is available for online reading through Trove.

The story concerns an automaton named Gwennie, who at first seems too good to be true, as she is cheaper and more efficient than a human barmaid. But Gwennie soon causes trouble by getting stuck on problems that humans could easily solve, like not realising a bottle is empty.

The Automatic Barmaid is a humorous depiction of robots as tempting and cheap but not always suitable replacements for human labour. It is no coincidence the story was published in 1917, just before the Great Strike: the culmination of waves of strikes that occurred during the first World War.

One of the triggers for the Great Strike was the use of time and motion studies, especially by rails and tram companies, in which workers’ activities were timed to evaluate performance. Gwennie would have performed perfectly in these studies.

Today, most Australians do not trust AI in the workplace, particularly when it comes to HR tasks like monitoring, evaluation, and recruitment. The Automatic Barmaid shows how persistently sceptical we have been about our technologies over the last century, and how much we value human workers’ adaptability and resilience.

Most Australians do not trust AI in the workplace. Shutterstock

The Successors

A. Bertram Chandler was a sailor turned science-fiction writer, who published prolifically from the mid-1940s, particularly in his Rim Worlds series.

His 1957 short story The Successors begins with a general and a professor meeting while their planet – presumably Earth – is under attack from an unknown race of invaders. These two characters initially seem to be humans at some point in the future, but they are later revealed to be part of a race of robots that overthrew humanity.

The robots have enslaved the humans who once enslaved them. The professor muses that, in the end, the humans and the robots are not so different after all.

A. Bertram Chandler (1912-1984). Hachette Australia.

The Successors explores an as yet unachieved scenario. It imagines Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Most current AI systems are what we call “narrow”, and can only complete a limited number of tasks in specific areas. For example, a chess-playing AI could not be expected to make investment recommendations.

We are, however, moving towards AGI: AI systems that can complete a wide range of tasks across various areas. A robot that can walk around, speak and overthrow humanity would be an example of AGI.

Australian MP Julian Hill has spoken openly about the risks and benefits of AGI, arguing that “action by governments to grapple with the impact of AGI is now urgent”.

Although many people believe that AGI is still a long way into the future, thinking about extreme future scenarios, like the one in The Successors, can help us identify where we might need to mitigate risk. These scenarios can also give us insight into our present concerns about technology, inviting us to consider what we are afraid of and why.

Moon in the Ground

Keith Antill’s novel Moon in the Ground was published by pioneering Australian science fiction press Norstrilia in 1979. It is about an extraterrestrial AI that can adapt its physical form to its environment.

This AI is discovered near Alice Springs by American FBI agents, who try to train it for militaristic use on a nearby base. A struggle between the Americans and the Australians ensues, with both trying to harness the power of the AI for their own political aims.

The novel is a response to the political climate of the time. When it was published, the Cold War was ongoing. In the story, the US is depicted as paranoid about communism and desperate for global power.

Moon in the Ground speaks to the longstanding connections between defence and robotics, autonomous systems and AI – connections that Australia is now looking to strengthen.

It also illustrates the connection between technology and political power: a connection that Antill, formerly of the Royal Australian Navy and later a public servant, would have seen firsthand. Access to the newest, most advanced technologies can help a country gain power over others. However, as Moon in the Ground shows, chasing that power too keenly can be destructive.

The Tic-Toc Boy of Constantinople

The Tic-Toc Boy of Constantinople, a short story by Anthony Panegyres, was published in 2014 as part of the steampunk collection Kisses by Clockwork.

The story centres on Phyte, a robot who looks and acts like a human boy, apart from having a metal plate on his chest and occasionally producing steam. He is feared by everyone except his human creator, who intended him to be a test site for the creation of artificial organs that could be transplanted into humans.

It turns out people are right to be afraid, as the human-clockwork hybrids (of which Phyte is one) have a primal urge to kill the humans that help them.

The Tic-Toc Boy of Constantinople encourages us to think about how bodies are central to our experiences of the world. Like many steampunk works, it emphasises the long history of biomechanical enhancements and adjustments to human bodies.

As Australia works towards integrating AI in healthcare, we need to think about how technologies interact with our bodies, and ensure that commercial interests do not overshadow public benefit.

AI technologies can help us better care for our bodies by complementing the work of medical professionals. However, as wearable and implantable technologies become more common, reflecting on the ways we are augmenting our bodies will ensure that we are more than just test sites for other people’s plans.


James Bradley’s 2015 cli-fi novel Clade follows a family from the near future living in an increasingly precarious and unpredictable world faced with ecological collapse. AI plays a relatively minor part in the narrative, but when it does appear, it is represented ambivalently.

Dylan works for a company called Semblance that builds AI simulations, also called sims or echoes. These are virtual recreations of the dead assembled from as much data as available.

The sims can read and mimic the responses of people who interact with them. “They’re not conscious, or not quite,” the narrator explains. “They’re complex emulations fully focused on convincing their owners they are who they seem to be.”

Initially something of a gimmick, the sim business becomes very lucrative as more people die in the book. Over time, though, customers want to tweak their sims. The customers start making the dead less like they were and more as they would have preferred them to be.

Dylan’s dad thinks his son’s work is exploitative, profiting as it does from vulnerable people. Dylan faces his own ethical dilemma when he comes across a request to build a sim of an ex-girlfriend’s brother.

As the Australian Government works towards policies related to AI, and generative AI more particularly, attention to ethical development is becoming more prominent.

Clade encourages us to think about where our boundaries might be and why. The technology Dylan works to develop already partially exists. Does this technology best serve Australians? If not, how can we make it so?

Making sense of the world

Humans tell stories to make sense of the world. Literary representations have much to tell us about how we understand and respond to the rapidly advancing and seemingly unpredictable technology of AI.

To develop AI and robots that best respond to the needs of Australians, we can learn a lot from reading our own literature.The Conversation

Leah Henrickson, Lecturer in Digital Media and Cultures, The University of Queensland; Catriona Mills, Content Manager, AustLit, The University of Queensland; David Tang, Research assistant, AustLit, The University of Queensland, and Maggie Nolan, Director of AustLit, Associate Professor in Digital Cultural Heritage, The University of Queensland

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Wednesday 3 April 2024

Should Taylor Swift be Taught Alongside Shakespeare? A Professor of Literature Says Yes

American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift on the Eras Tour concert at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, CA, Aug 9 2023

By Liam E Semler, University of Sydney

Does Taylor Swift’s music belong in the English classroom? No, obviously. We should teach the classics, like Shakespeare’s Sonnets. After all, they have stood the test of time. It’s 2024 and he was born in 1564, and she’s only 34. What’s more, she is a pop singer, not a poet. Sliding her into the classroom would be yet another example of a dumbed-down curriculum. It’s ridiculous. It makes everyone look bad.

I’ve heard all that. And plenty more like it. But none of it is right. Well, the dates might be, but not the assumptions – about Shakespeare, about English, about teaching, and about Swift.

Swift is, by the way, a poet. She sees herself this way and her songs bear her out. In Sweet Nothing, on the Midnights album, she sings:

On the way home
I wrote a poem
You say “What a mind”
This happens all the time.

I’m sure it does. Swift is relentlessly productive as a songwriter. With Midnights, she picked up her fourth Grammy for Album of the Year. And here we are, on the brink of another studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, somehow written and produced amid the gargantuan success of Midnights and the Eras World Tour.

An ally of literature

Regardless of what The Tortured Poets Department ends up being about, Swift is already a firm ally of literature and reading. She is a donor of thousands of books to public libraries in the United States, an advocate to schoolchildren of the importance of reading and songwriting, and a lover of the process of crafting lyrics.

In a 2016 Vogue interview, Swift declared with glee that, if she were a teacher, she would teach English. The literary references in her songs are endlessly noted. “I love Shakespeare as much as the next girl,” she wrote in a 2019 article for Elle.

Her interview Read Every Day gives a good sense of this. Swift speaks about her writing process in ways that make it accessible. She explains how songs come to her anywhere and everywhere, like an idea randomly appearing “on a cloud” that becomes the first piece in a “puzzle” that will be assembled into a song. She furtively whisper-sings song ideas into her phone when out with friends.

In her acceptance speech for the Nashville Songwriter-Artist of the Decade Award in 2022, Swift explained how she writes in three broad styles, imagining she is holding either a “quill”, a “fountain pen”, or a “glitter gel pen”. Songcraft is a joyous challenge for her.

If, as teachers of literature, we are too proud to credit Swift’s plainly expressed love of English (regardless of whether we like her songs or not), we are likely missing something. To bluntly rule her out of the English classroom feels more absurd than allowing her in.

Clio Doyle, a lecturer in early modern literature, has summarised Swift’s suitability for English in a recent article which concludes:

The important thing isn’t whether or not Swift might be the new Shakespeare. It’s that the discipline of English literature is flexible, capacious and open-minded. A class on reading Swift’s work as literature is just another English class, because every English class requires grappling with the idea of reading anything as literature. Even Shakespeare.

Doyle reminds us Swift’s work has been taught at universities for a while now and, inevitably, the singer’s name keeps cropping up in relation to Shakespeare. This isn’t just a case of fandom gone wild or Shakespeare professors, like Jonathan Bate, gone rogue.

The global interest in the world-first academic Swiftposium is a good measure of how things are trending. Moreover, it is wrong to think Swift’s songs are included in units of study purely to be adored. Her wide appeal is part of her appeal to educators, but that doesn’t mean her art is uncritically included.

The reverse is true. Claire Hansen taught Swift in one of her literature units at the Australian National University last year precisely because this influential singer-songwriter prompts students to explore the boundaries of the canon.

I will be teaching Midnights and Shakespeare’s Sonnets together in a literature unit at the University of Sydney this semester. Why? Not because I think Swift is as good as Shakespeare, or because I think she is not as good as Shakespeare. These statements are fine as personal opinions, but unhelpful as blanket declarations without context. The nature of English as a discipline is far more complex, interesting and valuable than a labelling and ranking exercise.

Teaching Midnights and Shakespeare’s Sonnets

I teach Shakespeare’s sonnets as exquisite poems, reflective of their time and culture. I also teach three modern artworks that shed contemporary light on the sonnets.

The first is Jen Bervin’s 2004 book Nets. Bervin prints a selection of the sonnets, one per page, in grey text. In each of these grey sonnets, some of Shakespeare’s words and phrases are printed in black and thus stand out boldly.

The result is a palimpsest. The Shakespearean sonnet appears lying, like fertile soil, beneath the briefer poem that emerges from it. Bervin describes this technique as a stripping down of the sonnets to “nets” in order “to make the space of the poems open, porous, possible – a divergent elsewhere”. The creative relationship between the Shakespearean base and Bervin’s proverb-like poems proves that, as Bervin says, “when we write poems, the history of poetry is with us”.

The second text is Luke Kennard’s prizewinning 2021 collection Notes on the Sonnets. Kennard recasts the sonnets as a series of entertaining prose poems. Each poem responds to a specific Shakespearean sonnet, recasting it as the freewheeling thought bubble of a fictional attendee at an unappealing house party. In an interview with C.D. Rose, Kennard explains how his house party design puts the reader

in between a public and private space, you’re at home and you’re out, you’re free, you’re enclosed. And that’s similar in the sonnets.

The third text is Swift’s Midnights. Unlike Bervin’s and Kennard’s collections, in which individual pieces relate to specific sonnets, there is no explicit adaptation. Instead, Midnights raises broader themes.

Deep connection

In her Elle article, Swift describes songwriting as akin to photography. She strives to capture moments of lived experience:

The fun challenge of writing a pop song is squeezing those evocative details into the catchiest melody you can possibly think of. I thrive on the challenge of sprinkling personal mementos and shreds of reality into a genre of music that is universally known for being, well, universal.

Her point is that the pop songs that “cut through the most are actually the most detailed” in their snippets of reality and biography. She says “people are reaching out for connection and comfort” and “music lovers want some biographical glimpse into the world of our narrator, a hole in the emotional walls people put up around themselves to survive”.

Midnights exemplifies this. It is a concept album built on the idea that midnight is a time for pursuit of and confrontation with the self – or better, the selves. Swift says the songs form “the full picture of the intensities of that mystifying, mad hour”.

The album, she says, is “a journey through terrors and sweet dreams” for those “who have tossed and turned and decided to keep the lanterns lit and go searching – hoping that just maybe, when the clock strikes twelve […] we’ll meet ourselves”.
Swift claims that Midnights lets listeners in through her protective walls to enable deep connection:

I really don’t think I’ve delved this far into my insecurities in this detail before. I struggle with the idea that my life has become unmanageably sized and […] I just struggle with the idea of not feeling like a person.

Midnights is not a sonnet collection, but it has fascinating parallels. There is no firm narrative through-line. Nor is there a through-line in early modern sonnet collections such as Shakespeare’s. Instead, both gather songs and poems that let us see aspects of the singing or speaking persona’s thoughts, emotions and experiences. Shakespeare’s speaker is also troubled through the night in sonnets 27, 43 and 61.

The sonnets come in thematic clusters, pairs and mini-sequences. It can be interesting to ask students if they can see something similar in the order of songs on the Midnights album – or the “3am” edition with its seven extra tracks, or the “Til Dawn” edition with another three songs.

Portrait of William Shakespeare – John Taylor (1610). Public domain.

Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, in their edition of All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, say Shakespeare’s collection is “the most idiosyncratic gathering of sonnets in the period” because he “uses the sonnet form to work out his intimate thoughts and feelings”.

This connects very well with the agenda of Midnights. Both collections are piecemeal psychic landscapes. The singing or speaking voice sometimes feels autobiographical – compare, for example, sonnets 23, 129, 135-6 and 145 to Swift’s songs Anti-hero, You’re On Your Own, Kid, Sweet Nothing, and Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve. At other times the voices feel less autobiographical. Often there is no way to distinguish one from the other.

Swift’s songs and Shakespeare’s Sonnets are meditations on deeply personal aspects of their narrators’ experiences. They present us with encounters, memories, relationships, values and claims. Swift’s persona is that of a self-reflective singer, just as Shakespeare’s is that of a self-reflective sonneteer. Both focus on love in all its shades. Both present themselves as vulnerable to industry rivals and pressures. Both dwell on issues of power.

Close reading

Shakespeare’s sonnets are rewarding texts for close reading because of their poetic intricacy. Students can look at end rhymes and internal rhymes, the way the argument progresses through quatrains, the positioning of the “turn”, which is often in line 9 or 13, and the way the final couplet wraps things up (or doesn’t).

Title page of the first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609). Public domain

The songs on Midnights are also rewarding because Swift has a great vocabulary, a love of metaphor, terrific turns of phrase, and a strong sense of symmetry and balance in wording. More complex songs like Maroon and Question…? are great for detailed analysis.

Karma and Mastermind are simpler, yet contain plenty of metaphoric language to be unpacked for meaning and aesthetic effectiveness. Shakespeare’s controlled use of metaphor in Sonnet 73 makes for a telling contrast.

The Great War, Glitch and Snow on the Beach are good for exploring how well a single extended metaphor can function to carry the meaning of a song. Sonnets 8, 18, 143 and 147 can be explored in similar terms.

Just as students can analyse the “turn” or concluding couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet to see how it reshapes the poem, they can do the same with songs on Midnights. Swift is known for writing effective bridges that contribute fresh, important content towards the end of a song: Sweet Nothing, Mastermind and Dear Reader are excellent examples.

Such unexpected pairings are valuable because they require close attention and careful articulation of what is similar and what is not. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, for example (the famous one on lust), and Swift’s Bigger than the Whole Sky (a powerful expression of loss) make for a gripping comparison of how intense feeling can be expressed poetically.

Or consider Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”) and Sweet Nothing: both celebrate intimacy as a defence against the pressures of the public world. How about High Infidelity and Sonnet 138 (where love and self-deception coexist), considered in terms of truth in relationships?

There is nothing to lose and plenty to gain in teaching Swift’s Midnights and Shakespeare’s Sonnets together. There’s no dumbing-down involved. And there’s no need for reductive assertions about who is “better”.The Conversation

Liam E Semler, Professor of Early Modern Literature, University of Sydney 

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