Taylor Swift and the struggle to maintain pop superstardom

Taylor Swift and the struggle to maintain pop superstardom

She has been one of the 21st Century’s great pop-cultural icons, while enduring a backlash like few others. With her new album Lover, can she recapture the zeitgeist, asks Nick Levine.

Who is the world’s most successful musician? Taylor Swift is one artist who has a clear claim to that status. Since she released her eponymous debut album in 2006, the Pennsylvania-born singer-songwriter has transitioned from being an uncommonly talented country singer-songwriter inspired by Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks to a full-on pop icon who’s used her record industry heft to secure better streaming royalties for fellow artists. Along the way, she’s also garnered an enviable amount of critical respect, becoming only the fifth artist to win the prestigious album of the year Grammy Award twice (for 2009’s Fearless and 2014’s 1989).

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Last month, Swift was named the world’s highest paid celebrity by Forbes magazine, with an estimated pre-tax income of $185m (£153m) over the last year. The business publication has also reported that Swift’s new deal with Universal Music Group’s Republic Records, which she signed in November, could earn her as much as $200m (£165m). The singer-songwriter’s seventh album Lover arrives this Friday; if it doesn’t become her sixth in succession to top the Billboard 200, it would be a major music industry shock. Swift’s record in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart also remains impressive – Lover’s first two singles, Me! And You Need to Calm Down, were only kept off number one by Lil Nas X’s record-breaking Old Town Road.

Taylor Swift and the struggle to maintain pop superstardom
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But at the same time, Swift has lost the Teflon-coated confidence of her imperial phase, earlier in the decade, when 2014’s 1989 album became an enormous commercial and critical success. Two years after that, she experienced a vicious backlash following a messy and very public dispute with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West over the extent to which Swift knew she was going to be name-checked on West’s song Famous. The track saw West reference, in crude sexual terms, a notorious incident at the 2009 VMAs in which he crashed the stage during Swift’s acceptance speech to tell the audience Beyoncé should have won instead.

When Famous came out, Swift publicly flinched, saying: “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be part of.” But then Kardashian posted Snapchat videos that seemed to show Swift giving permission for West to mention her, and some pop fans hurriedly declared Swift ‘cancelled’. It’s a deeply embarrassing episode that still clings to her today. “A mass public shaming, with millions of people saying you are quote-unquote cancelled, is a very isolating experience,” Swift told Vogue earlier this month. “I don’t think there are that many people who can actually understand what it’s like to have millions of people hate you very loudly.”

From edgy to engaged

In the wake of this “takedown”, as it was frequently called in the media, 2017’s Reputation album introduced an edgier version of the singer than fans had seen before – who seemingly relished her status as pop’s new villain. After Kim Kardashian called Swift a “snake” on social media, Swift cleverly commissioned a giant cobra as the centrepiece of her Reputation World Tour. But while she claimed ownership of her own negative publicity, the album still became her lowest-selling to date. 

The overriding theme with this campaign is positivity, but with a purpose – Hugh McIntyre

Now with the campaign for Lover, Swift is attempting an even more ambitious volte-face – trying to present herself as upbeat, comfortable in her skin, and more socially engaged than in the past. Last October, she broke her increasingly conspicuous political silence by endorsing two Democratic candidates in her home state of Tennessee.

“The overriding theme with this campaign is positivity, but with a purpose,” says Hugh McIntyre, a music journalist with Forbes. He cites the lyrics of Lover’s first two singles: Me! is about self-acceptance, while You Need to Calm Down shows allegiance to the LGBT community with lyrics such as “Why are you mad when you could be GLAAD?”, referring to the LGBT activist organisation. McIntyre also thinks Swift is showing more of a “human” side in this campaign, pointing to a video that recently went viral of Swift seemingly looking drunk at a party. “Even if that was calculated,” he says, “it was a moment that she needed.”

But therein lies the rub. Unfairly or not, accusations of being “calculating” have followed Swift ever since she became a household name. Back in a 2015 interview, she balked at the expression, calling it a “highly offensive” way of describing her. But while she clearly dislikes this characterisation of her career choices and persona, it’s arguable that she’s now struggling to shake it off.

Taylor Swift and the struggle to maintain pop superstardom
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For several years, sections of the media have been strangely fascinated with trying to decipher which of her songs were written about certain ex-boyfriends, perpetuating an idea that Swift ultimately uses her personal life for commercial gain. “Frankly, I think that’s a very sexist angle to take,” Swift said in a 2014 interview. “No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars.”

Meanwhile, Swift’s affluent background as the daughter of a Merrill Lynch stockbroker probably hasn’t helped her to look like an artist whose success is entirely organic. Her family relocated from suburban Pennsylvania to Nashville when she was 14 so Swift could pursue a career in the home of country music. The move clearly paid off, but it makes for a less compelling origin story than some of her contemporaries can spin. Lady Gaga has spoken of honing her musical personality in dive bars on New York’s seductively grungy Lower East Side. Sheeran has recalled sleeping on Jamie Foxx’s sofa for six weeks before he became a star. Even when Miley Cyrus’s attempts to shake off her wholesome Disney Channel origins have felt clunky, they’ve contained an appealing hint of ‘devil may care’ punkiness.

Identity troubles

“Despite being a global phenomenon, Taylor Swift has always struggled to find her place,” says Dr Kirsty Fairclough from the School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford, “and this has often transferred as a lack of identity and an identity which feels less than authentic”.

For many pop fans, this lack of authenticity first crept to the surface in 2015 when Swift embarked on her 85-date 1989 World Tour. At her huge outdoor gig in London’s Hyde Park that July, Swift was joined on stage by supermodels Martha Hunt, Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevingne, plus tennis champion Serena Williams – members of her friendship group that the media had branded her ‘squad’. It looked a lot like a visual representation of the feminist awakening that Swift had spoken of earlier in the album campaign.

As a globally famous, attractive, thin, white, very wealthy woman, she is a profoundly unsympathetic underdog – Dr Kirsty Fairclough

But as the tour rumbled on, Swift’s roll call of special guests became increasingly random and bewildering. Both Hollywood icon Julia Roberts and counterculture icon Joan Baez joined Swift at her gig in Santa Clara, California in August. Beloved British actor Ian McKellen later revealed that he’d turned down his own opportunity to appear on stage with Swift. These unannounced special guests must have felt like an added bonus for fans who’d paid to see her show. But to others, it also looked like a canny way for Swift to keep herself in the daily showbiz news cycle and underline her superstar pulling power.

“Her shifting aesthetic and allegiances appear confusing in an overall narrative that presents Taylor Swift as the centre of the cultural universe,” says Fairclough. Swift isn’t afraid of criticising fellow performers she feels wronged by – as well as claiming West attempted to commandeer her “narrative”, she blasted Tina Fey and Amy Poehler for aiming supposedly unsisterly jokes at her – but her public airing of such grievances has been interpreted by some as similarly self-serving, with critics accusing her of “playing the victim”. 

Taylor Swift and the struggle to maintain pop superstardom
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Fairclough adds: “She has often presented an underdog status, but for all of the qualities that make audiences root for her, there are others that make them question her – and these are ones that she can’t easily shift away from. As a globally famous, attractive, thin, white, very wealthy woman, she is a profoundly unsympathetic underdog.”

The pitfalls of pop-star activism

When Swift failed to endorse a candidate during the 2016 US Presidential election, she appeared to her critics as either unable or unwilling to look beyond her personal dramas and grapple with significantly bigger issues. She recently explained her decision to remain silent by saying she thought it would have been counter-productive. “Unfortunately in the 2016 election you had a political opponent who was weaponising the idea of the celebrity endorsement,” she told Vogue. “He was going around saying, ‘I’m a man of the people. I’m for you. I care about you.’ I just knew I wasn’t going to help.” 

I think that to equate homophobia with an argument you’ve had online with another pop star is not just insulting, but actually quite dangerous – Paul Flynn

But her recent attempt to become more socially conscious has been criticised, too, highlighting the fine line that modern pop stars must walk when they try to present themselves as activists. For June’s video for You Need to Calm Down, timed to coincide with Pride Month, Swift surrounded herself with high-profile LGBT people including talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, YouTube star Todrick Hall, figure skater Adam Rippon, singer Hayley Kiyoko and actress Laverne Cox. The video takes place in a queasily colourful trailer park flanked by protestors holding anti-gay placards. At the end, Katy Perry makes an appearance, and the two pop stars embrace, seemingly to end their long-rumoured and well documented feud. “I asked her if she’d be interested in this and Katy said, ‘I’d love for us to be a symbol of redemption and forgiveness’,” Swift said when the video premiered. “I feel the same way about it.”

But though Swift backed up her very public display of LGBT solidarity with what LGBT charity GLAAD called a “very generous” donation, her attempt to become an advocate for queer rights hasn’t proven universally popular.

Taylor Swift and the struggle to maintain pop superstardom
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“The You Need to Calm Down video is so culturally tone-deaf, it’s just ridiculous,” says Paul Flynn, a prominent pop-culture journalist and author of Good As You: 30 Years of Gay Britain. “As someone who cares about young LGBT people growing up and the messages they’re given, I think that to equate homophobia with an argument you’ve had online with another pop star is not just insulting, but actually quite dangerous.”

Flynn also says that “allyship in the 21st Century has to be about understanding queer people and not just about collecting them. But this is what Taylor Swift does. When she was an ‘uncool’ artist, she surrounded herself with cool people like Lena Dunham, the Hadid sisters and [fashion blogger] Tavi Gevinson. Now she’s got a problem with her political profile, and needs to accentuate that in an era where there’s an expectation for pop stars to be political. It’s so cynical and it’s part of her PR strategy: if there’s a problem, you get other people to fill in the deficit rather than attempt to do it yourself.”

‘Deeply uncool’?

But whatever you think of Swift’s PR strategy, it’s arguable that the very idea of having such a carefully constructed campaign is starting to look a little old-fashioned. Recent breakout stars such as Cardi B and Billie Eilish are more unfiltered and willing to show their flaws; fellow pop A-lister Ariana Grande rejected the traditional, thoroughly planned major label release cycle by dropping two albums in seven months. Dr Kirsty Fairclough says Swift’s very obvious strategising “appears to be deeply uncool in a contemporary moment where unguarded, often politically aware and active pop stars are those connecting with audiences”.

She needs a song that nobody can argue with to control the conversation – Hugh McIntyre

Still, music journalist Hugh McIntyre believes Swift could bypass her current image problems if Lover contains evidence that she’s rediscovered her songwriting mojo. “So far, the songs just aren’t as strong,” he says. “During the 1989 album campaign, nobody could argue with songs like Shake It Off and Blank Space. Even if there were some problems, the tracks were so catchy that the music won. But that’s definitely not the case with Me! and especially You Need to Calm Down. I think she can turn it around if the music is good enough. You can get away with anything in pop music as long as you’re delivering the goods. She needs a song that nobody can argue with to control the conversation.” The album’s third single and title track, Lover, is a lovely, dusky throwback to Swift’s country roots, but it doesn’t really sound like that song either.

This uncertainty makes Lover potentially the most fascinating album of Swift’s career. After it’s released on Friday, the ultimate question won’t be: ‘Is it any good?’, but ‘is it good enough to paper over the cracks in her public persona?’ And, if it does fail to capture the zeitgeist, that may say something worrying for pop stars, both budding and established, about the shifting power dynamics of today’s industry. After all, if someone like Swift can’t successfully control her image in today’s super-savvy, hyper-critical and politically engaged pop landscape, who can?

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