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Taylor Swift’s New Album Announcement Leads Fans To Rediscover One Of The Worst Movies Of All Time

You might remember the 1990s cult classic “Dead Poets Society” as both an endearing and entertaining coming-of-age film. It hearkens back to time before everything became so political; Americans could just enjoy the performance of a beloved figure like Robin Williams in the role of iconoclastic, young teacher John Keating inspiring his students to “seize the day.”

However, with the hindsight of knowing how our current polarization was already brewing, even back then, it’s clear the film did have some choice things to say about “the good life.” Hidden within the shallow melodrama, Keating is a precursor of exactly the social problems that ail us today. So it’s ironic that America’s current cultural melodrama — the saga of Taylor Swift — would lead a new generation back to the film.

Taylor Swift is the hottest person in the world right now — literally. Time Magazine named her Person of the Year for 2023, after her Eras Tour smashed records, made her a billionaire, and consolidated an army of loyal “Swifties.” Her relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce made her a highlight of the NFL season, as the couple became the most talked-about people in America. On the heels of her expected Grammys win, she teased even more to come: a new album “The Tortured Poets Department,” coming in April. (RELATED: NFL Reveals Audio Of Travis Kelce And Taylor Swift’s Reunion At The Super Bowl)

Given her stature, it’s unsurprising the hype over the album — with a title that’s clearly a nod to “Dead Poets Society” — would cause a massive spike in searches for the film. An analysis of Google trends showed that interest in the film increased nearly sevenfold in the week following the announcement — a whopping 588 percent. “The huge increase in Google interest for ‘Dead Poets Society’ as a result of this announcement is testament to both Taylor’s impact as an artist, but also the enduring legacy and timeless appeal of the film,” said Mason Jones of No Deposit Rewards, the firm that compiled the data.

Jones is right about Swift’s impact, but the idea of the film being “timeless” could not be more off base. In fact, the themes of the film reflect a very particular cultural moment — a complete reversal from the values considered timeless by most cultures throughout most of history.

The film was set in the late 1950s, but released in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell — two pivotal moments in America’s turn toward the toxic individualism we see today. By the late 1950s, the idea of the “liberated” individual was starting to gain traction in mainstream American culture — the idea that individuals could not truly be free until they were liberated from the shackles of arbitrary tradition, conventions and customs. This was a deviation not only from the community-oriented localism that permeated American history, but even from the classical idea of individualism, which valued the individual’s ability to master himself and his environment. On the other hand, this new individualism values only the individual’s ability to discover and express his authentic self, freed from repressive social stigmas.

By the collapse of the Soviet Union, this ideology had fully metastasized, and without a common foe, Americans had the luxury to focus solely on realizing their “authentic selves” — leading shortly to the culture of narcissism we see today in everything from the transgender movement to TikTok influencers. Far from timeless, this is the novel paradigm that the film represents — and John Keating is leading the vanguard.

The film takes place at an elite, all-boys boarding school in New England. The opening scene sets the tone, as banners bearing the school’s motto — Tradition, Honor, Discipline, Excellence — are paraded into the chapel in a grand ceremony to open the school year. The other teachers, as well as the boys’ parents, are portrayed as stuffy and backwards, clinging to the delusions of this motto. The brilliant Mr. Keating’s virtue comes from his willingness to dismantle it.

Portrayed as an exceptionally gifted English teacher, his opening lecture to the boys is the now famous “carpe diem” speech, in which he encourages them to “make your lives extraordinary.” He brings them outside and instructs them to discover their own style of strutting —a painfully trite metaphor for self-expression. When other faculty members question his methods, he explains it’s more important for the boys to become “freethinkers” than to learn “discipline.” He goes on to tell them about the Dead Poets Society, the underground club he founded when he was a student at the school, and which taught him to “suck the marrow out of life.” Inspired by their cool, transgressive teacher, the boys reinstitute the club despite knowing they’d face severe punishment from the school if caught.

The “marrow” quote, from Henry David Thoreau, is meant to evoke passion and inspire — but as the one of the most self-indulgent authors in American literature, unintentionally proves that Keating is in fact the villain of the story. Far from an enlightened intellectual, all of his exhortations really just amount to some version of “do what you want no matter what any tradition or authority says.”

An “extraordinary” life is one in which you realize your passions and desires — your true self. This all culminates in one of the boys committing suicide after his cartoonishly strict father prohibits him from pursuing acting — a passion encouraged by Keating.

The school throws Keating under the bus, but the final scene shows his noble spirit lives on in the boys. They openly defy the headmaster, standing on their desks, reciting Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” in a pledge of fealty to Keating and his philosophy. (RELATED: ‘Not Safe’: Swifties Are Demanding Taylor Swift ‘Break Up’ With Travis Kelce Over ‘Red Flag’ Behavior At Super Bowl)

The message is clear: a strange dialectic in which Keating represents progress, while the school, the parents and all their traditions cling to darkness in their attempt to destroy him. Yet it’s overly melodramatic to the point of absurdity. The boy’s suicide comes completely out of the blue, after one short fight with father about acting, a newfound (and probably fleeting) obsession. That doesn’t happen without some serious preexisting mental issues, which are never developed in the film. Should the dad be such a hard-ass? The reasonable answer is probably not. But neither is it a smug teacher’s job to interfere with the express wishes of a parent.

It’s all reminiscent of the current transgender emotional blackmail tactic medical ideologues use on parents: “Would you rather have a dead son or a living daughter?”

The idea of just “being yourself” and “following your dreams” may have been a romantic, if naïve, notion in the early 1990s. But 30 years later, we see the consequences of this ideology taken to its extreme. The answer is not a return to rigid tradition of past eras, but we would do well to remember that there are other, and indeed more important, aspects of individualism than simple self-realization.

It’s unlikely that the thousands of young Swifties discovering the film will view it critically, but given its abject absurdity, there’s a chance it will lead them back to a more “timeless” notion of individualism and the good life.

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