October 27, 2014 – Taylor Swift celebrates the release of her new album, 1989, with an iHeart Radio Secret Session performed from high atop a sprawling rooftop in Lower Manhattan. After opening with an aptly-titled “Welcome to New York,” the 24-year old addresses an adoring audience as follows:
“We are on a rooftop in my neighborhood in New York City. Essentially the Empire State Building is behind us and it was lighting up to the beat of that song. I have no ability to be calm right now because my album, 1989, just came out today. I have, like, no chill; no ability to relax. And I am up here with a few hundred people who I have hand-picked. The thing is – if you don’t know what a secret session is – it’s kind of a tradition that I started when I was almost finished with my new album, 1989. I knew I was so proud of it that I wanted to play it for fans as early as possible. And I wanted to do it in these secret little gatherings. And so I held these parties in my houses, in my living rooms, and I invited 89 fans to each one. I did L.A., Nashville, New York, Rhode Island, London. And I played the entire album early for people. And they kept the secrets about what these songs were about – the titles, the lyrics. And now the album is out. And the difference between this secret session and those is that I will be playing those songs for you guys for the first time on this rooftop. Now, uh, one thing I’ve really been trying to do lately … I want to meet as many of you as possible. You have been so good to me. And I realize the people on the rooftop here are people I found on the internet, or on Instagram, or on Tumblr and Twitter. But I realize I can’t cyberstalk everyone. So that’s why for the first week of 1989 being for sale, if you buy the album you get a code. If you enter that code on my website you have an opportunity to win one of a thousand tickets to the tour or 500 meet-n-greets. So that’s if you buy the album in the first week. I want to meet as many of you as possible.”
So far as platinum branding goes, Taylor’s speech is nothing short of pristine. And yet, the semantics reveal a great deal about who and what Taylor Swift is, what motivates her, and how the broad-reaching relationship she’s achieved with her audience appears betrayed by a false sense of code. Every push derives from ego – Swift referring to Tribeca as “her neighborhood”; referring to a secret session as a tradition she started. These are the claims of a person who has been propped up – justifiably or otherwise – for so long she’s mistaken billboard marketing for prose. Swift’s M.O. is based on exclusivity, the idea that if you’re a Taylor-affiliated insider (AKA a “Swiftie”), you’re also a member of some sororitorical society – a support group for upper-middle-class females that makes its bank collecting tolls. Swift has been gaming this system since 2011, parlaying celebrity into an unimaginable return. Allow us to review by way of three incidents, all of which have occurred during the past six months alone:
- In mid-December of 2014, Taylor Swift sent holiday packages to a hand-chosen selection of fans. Swift wrapped the majority of these packages herself. We believe this because the pop star personally recorded a video that calls attention to her doing so. Swift is featured wearing various outfits, creating the impression she was engaged in an all-encompassing affair. “It’s Christmas; I’m Santa Claus,” a pajama-clad Taylor Swift reminds everybody. There are boxes laid out across several rooms; a pair of cats keeps getting caught up in the mix. The uploaded video has been professionally edited, allowing for the final four minutes to depart into a montage – die-hard fans opening various packages at home. The coup de grace occurs when Swift herself arrives outside of a Connecticut fan’s front door. The result: a little under 17 million YouTube hits (and counting), along with an avalanche of media stories dedicated to the cause.
- In the middle of January, 2015, Swift made headlines again, this time for sending a personalized care package to a social-media-obsessed fan. Among several trinkets included in this package: a dim-lit Polaroid (of Swift), a personal check for $1,989 (allocated for repayment of student loans), a hand-made painting which featured the number “1989” rather prominently, and a pouch which read, “NEW YORK IS MY BOYFRIEND” (all tips and nods to Swift’s current multimedia marketing campaign). The fan uploaded a seven-minute video of herself opening every item … with Swift’s personal emissary on-hand. The result: an endless cacophony of social-media shares, along with an immoderate blitz of blog posts and articles, all of which combined to render Swift a trending topic throughout that period.
- On April 9, 2015, Taylor Swift announced that her mother was suffering from cancer – a tragic development, not to be minimized, by any means. Swift made the announcement via her Tumblr account. The second and third of five short paragraphs read as follows: “For Christmas this year, I asked my mom that one of her gifts to me be her going to the doctor to get screened for any health issues, just to ease some worries of mine. She agreed, and went in to get checked. There were no red flags and she felt perfectly fine, but she did it just to get me and my brother off her case about it … The results came in, and I’m saddened to tell you that my mom has been diagnosed with cancer. I’d like to keep the details of her condition and treatment plans private, but she wanted you to know.” The statement proceeds from there, explaining that regular testing and early diagnosis are the most prevalent keys to a recovery. Yet consider, if you will, the manner in which Taylor Swift has chosen to divulge this information. She leads with a vignette about herself; about a selfless act that would ensure – subconsciously or otherwise – that the hook of this story should turn its eye upon compassion; upon how one daughter’s altruistic behavior precipitated an early diagnosis, along with the increased possibility for recovery. The story went viral within hours, resulting in a predictable, and wholly warranted, outpouring of emotion. Yet in every mainstream-media retelling, the synopsis included two very necessary bullets: 1) Taylor Swift’s mother, Andrea, had been diagnosed with cancer, and 2) Taylor Swift was responsible for the screening that led to her mother being in treatment. The fact that the younger Swift remained so deliberately scant raises the question of why she would include – nay, even open with – a statement taking personal credit for any of the positives.
But allow us to put Andrea Swift’s diagnosis aside, with sincere wishes for a commendable recovery.
The idea – transparent as it might seem – is for Taylor Swift’s team to create low-cost social media campaigns that bait and switch Swift’s generosity for viral views (i.e., “This is for you, but the point of charity is me.”). Given Swift’s image, very few have seen fit to zero in upon the level of graft. What’s the harm?, one might wonder. The answer supplants its roots in authenticity; what’s conveyed by way of acting based on false, or even Pecksniffian, motives.
At the age of 25, Taylor Swift has built herself into an industry. Swift is beautiful and talented; wholly dedicated to her craft. Everything surrounding her – from platinum records to world tours – has been engineered to appeal to the masses. We are speaking here of a CEO, a corporate entity, the bright-eyed face of Taylor, Inc. – a company whose bread and butter begins, yet no longer ends, with teenage solipsism. We are speaking here of a star who’s worked extremely hard, yet never struggled; whose lyrics represent a one-dimensional – if not entirely virginal – worldview. We are speaking here of a blue-eyed doe who’s spent 10 years attempting to convince the mainstream media that she grew up assuming the role of ugly duckling. Young girls in big houses gravitate toward Taylor Swift because she validates their theory of being. This is Cherry Valance, insisting things ain’t all that easy on the South Side. This is Julia Roberts, attempting to pass herself off as, “just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” This is every girl you knew in high school who unselfconsciously declared she’d had it just a little bit more difficult as a result of her good looks.
Objectively speaking, Taylor Swift’s only legitimate claim to being an outsider arises from her sense of ambition as a child. Pursuing the arts is a tawdry path, particularly for any girl attending elementary school in a Pennsylvania suburb. And yet it is during Swift’s formative years that she begins to rise above the pack. Throughout adolescence, there is no period of boredom, disenchantment, or dissatisfaction with the fact that everything seems to be moving along just fine. There is no drug period, no alcohol abuse, nor outward need based on sexual longing. As Swift matures (in Nashville), a gut-hungry media is left with little more than table scraps; meager food for a tabloid world.
It is for this reason – among others – that Taylor Swift represents an appropriate role model, at least as it pertains to the core audience she enthralls. Swift is safe and pedestrian, completely at home with comparing herself to Cinderella or Juliet, as opposed to, say, Nefertiti or the nymphs of lore. Radical ideas serve little need to the cotillion queen. More importantly, radicalism opens the door toward a life of self-examination, the bane of any teen who aspires to dating the quarterback while singing into her hairbrush, night after night.
During interviews, Swift maintains impeccable posture. She’s done her homework. She undrstands how to get over. Swift compensates for a lack of spontaneity by referring to anything she advocates as being “amazing” (during a 2014 Late Show appearance, Swift fell back upon this term 6X; Letterman fell back upon it once). While Swift loses points for irresponsibly touting the idea that she’s a victim – of the media, of past relationships, of unflattering perspectives – she deserves taut praise for rarely citing female gender as an issue. In an age of progressive values, Swift represents empowerment; she is millennially removed from what Camille Paglia has often referred to as the Gloria Steinem wing of feminism.
Of course, there is the occasional interview via which Swift suggests her ballads have been unfairly scrutinized as a result of her being a woman. This narrative fails to account for the fact that Taylor Swift – an unparalleled crossover phenomenon – has not only written an inordinate number of love songs, she has subsequently promoted those songs into becoming number-one hits. Each of these songs is a reflection of Swift’s image, an image that will determine the trajectory of her career throughout the next 15 years.
This past February, a Pennsylvania man who claims to have taught Taylor Swift how to play guitar received a cease-and-desist letter from TAS, LLC. This letter demanded said teacher (Ronnie Cremer) take down his not-for-profit website, ITaughtTaylorSwift.com, because it “incorporates the famous Taylor Swift trademark in its entirety and suggests TAS’s sponsorship or endorsement.” TAS’s letter went on to claim, “Use of the domain name is highly likely to dilute, and to tarnish, the famous Taylor Swift trademark.”
There could have been any number of reasons why Swift’s team made the eventual decision to get firm. Ronnie Cremer could have been a sketchy motherfucker; his website could’ve given credence to unverifiable sources. But the sticking point was that Cremer’s story emerged less than two weeks after Swift’s team had taken decisive action to legally trademark the following phrases: “This sick beat,” “Party like it’s 1989,” “[I] could show you incredible things,” “Cause we never go out of style,” and “Nice to meet you, where you been?”. Not only is Taylor Swift far from the original person to have uttered any of these expressions, she blatantly ripped off “Party like it’s 1989,” from Prince. The point being, it’s a slippery slope, allowing the rich to wield commercial control over everyday phrases they didn’t invent. As a matter of precedence, consider Donald Trump, who attempted and failed to trademark his television catchphrase “You’re fired!” back in 2004.
For the first time in her career Taylor Swift is dipping her toes into some lurid waters. Long after she’s washed clean of being a teen idol, long after she’s done dancing in the front row of every awards ceremony, long after the veneer has faded, people of substance will remember how she chose to make her mark. Given how Swift has successfully negotiated the hairpin turn from Country into Pop, it’s reasonable to assume she’s got one eye set on the future. Then again, when one is standing high atop the cosmic firmament of New York City, it’s inconceivable to grasp the depths of just how far a dazzling star can fall.