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Understanding Taylor Swift

Understanding Taylor Swift

I'm not exactly a Taylor Swift fan. Before Kanye West famously interrupted her acceptance speech at the MTV Music Video Awards in 2009, I wouldn't have given her the time of day in the street. It's not that I don't like her or anything, she just blends in the background easily if I'm not paying attention. It's like low-sugar candy or Richard Marx's new album, right? That shit tends to remain unnoticed on the shelves. I first started being intrigued by Swift when beloved NBA players like Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook publicly endorsed her.  What was it about her I was not getting?

I've taken a borderline scientific interest in the cultural phenomenon that is Taylor Swift for several years now and while I still can't enjoy her music to save my life, I've stumbled upon something something fascinating: someone who beat the game of celebrity. Swift is the ultimate contemporary pop star: a self-made woman who built her own success through bold business decision, aggressive image crafting and an unparalleled media savvy. People love her because it's what she planned. It has less to do with her music that we believe.

I hope you will enjoy these observations on one of my nerdiest obsession: understanding the insane level of success of Taylor Swift

Her music

The music of Taylor Swift is somewhat unmemorable. She doesn't have a defining sound that would require skill to imitate like Florence Welch has. This is why music lovers don't really care about Swift, yet mainstream audiences absolutely adore her. She's unintimidating. Becoming her fan is easy and almost instantaneous. Only thing to do, really, is to turn on the radio and start tapping your foot and Taylor Swift's songs are easy to tap your foot to. Her music is the least important variable of her success, but it's nonetheless a core part. It's the blank canvas she paints on.

Ultimately, there is only one important Taylor Swift record: 1989. She wasn't half the superstar she is today before it was released in 2014 and contains four of her most recognizable hits: Blank Space, Out of the Wood, Shake it Off and Bad Blood. There's a direct correlation though between her rise to worldwide fame and her blossoming professional relationship to Swedish starmaking producer Max Martin, who wrote literally every song people of my age or younger ever heard on the radio. He co-wrote all her popular songs since they started working together on her album Red in 2012. Martin was generally in charge of the music as Swift wrote the lyrics and injected much needed personality into the beats. He clearly gave her a boost, yet she never gave him the keys and kept control of her product.

So, Taylor Swift went in about four years from a popular country music artist who barely cut it as a mainstream personality to a worldwide superstar and her unintimidating musical approach as well as her business relationship with Max Martin had an important part to plan into her transformation.

Her lyrics

This is where Taylor Swift becomes more interesting, artistically speaking. The lyrics to her songs are a crucial part of why people love her. Dave Grohl once said that white people dance to the lyrics and he was absolutely right. Swift brings this scorned, somewhat melancholic country music attitude to pop and that's what resonates with her fans. What does she talk about? Adversity, breakups (that one's rather universal), rivalries, rivalries over men, shitty men, big city dreams, etc. Her formula is irremediably pop, but her lyrics are a tiny bit more authentic. The young women who identify with Taylor Swift's songs are not different from the 50 year-old alcoholic burnouts who identify with Hank WIlliams. Different audience, same approach.

My favorite Taylor Swift song is Shake it Off, which is unapologetically pop and self-aware. The video has been seen close to two billion times on YouTube, by the way. How insane is that? Shake it Off is a song about her relationship to the press. She takes her critics: I stay out too late, got nothing in my brain/That's what people say, that's what people say/I go on too many dates, but I can't make them stay/At least that's what people say, that's what people say and admits IN THE SONG that she took their shitty opinions to create a monster hit song: I never miss a beat, I'm lightning on my feet/And that's what they don’t see, that's what they don’t see/I'm dancing on my own, I make the moves up as I go/And that's what they don't know, that’s what they don’t know. This is the kind of modern age country edge that makes Taylor Swift fun, beautiful people. She takes whatever garbage criticism people throw at her and she uses it to further her legacy. 

Swift is the most self-aware pop star I've ever seen and it's definitely her best quality as an artist. 

Her media personality

"For all my Southside n*ggas that know me best. I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.I made that bitch famous." - Kanye West

Perhaps where Taylor Swift leaves everyone in the dust is in her understanding that we live in an era where your character has to live up to your creative output. Swift's sneaky-antagonistic relationship to her critics extend way beyond her lyrics and that's what makes her larger than life. Take her feud with Kanye West for example. Say what you want about Kim Kardashian's character as a person, but she pretty much proved Swift and Kanye engineered the entire thing. I don't think that makes them dishonest people per se. They used the media in order to create a rather simple narrative about themselves and hijack the cultural headlines.

Both artists benefited a lot from this story because everyone took stances on it, but Taylor Swift ended up benefiting more than West because she leveraged it in order to market herself to a new, older audience. Swift is pretty much a given for teenage girls and young women, but women over thirty who actually experienced serious relationship adversity (which is P!nk territory) started paying her attention AT THAT VERY moment. Faithful to herself, Swift embrace the opportunity and played a part that was half-victim/half-resilient. And we ALL ate it like it was caviar because she fed us what we wanted: a narrative about beating the odds and using criticism as motivation. It was never about herself and Kanye, it was about fulfilling our expectations and THAT I believe is absolute genius.

Notice that Taylor Swift has went awfully quiet since he got busted on the Kanye feud. She focuses on her music and lets the social media momentum dwindle down because she knows our attention is going to shift to something else at some point, once again proving how media savvy she is. Swift is such a smart and aggressive marketer, though we're BOUND to see her bounce back and hijack the headlines AGAIN with a story that will capture our imagination. Will that story be a construction? I don't think we should care. Taylor Swift is a goddess of our creation. Do we care whether Greek mythology is real or not? Exactly.


So, this was a new format. Don't hesitate to leave comments here or on social media and tell me whether or not you've enjoyed it. If you did, I invite you to read this fascinating piece Patron Saint of Dead End Follies Chuck Klosterman wrote on Taylor Swift for GQ in 2015 and go further down the rabbit hole of Swift's complex media personality.


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