For the last few years I’ve been using Taylor Swift to irritate hipsters; using her either as an example of authenticity in modern music or a singer/songwriter/musician of the sort some claim have died out. But not actually listening to her for most of it (and most of her music, and particularly her early music, is not written for me). And certainly since Kanye West invaded the stage at the VMA awards people have been looking for excuses to take potshots at her. Me, I find the whole thing interesting. Taylor at least as much as her music. She’s an outlier – someone who invented her own market (teenage Country music).
And before the fold I’m going to mention her current row with Spotify. She claims they don’t pay enough when 60% of their revenue goes to the labels. The problem here is a step deeper. Spotify gives consumers a level of access that people who’ve bought the albums have, but charge as if they were radio. The record labels make their money out of back catalogue – but it doesn’t help new artists (or even minor labels like hers).
Haters gonna hate and fakers gonna fake, and most of the criticisms levelled at her (especially her writing about her relationships) wouldn’t be aimed at a man. And the people objecting to her having six boyfriends in eight years? Can go take a hike.
Haters gonna hate and fakers gonna fake. And both miss real things worth pointing out.
- She is the 1%, born with a silver spoon in her mouth
- She has the ambition of a buzz-saw
- Her live performances, both singing and dancing leave a lot to be desired.
She is part of the 1%, and has possibly the most supportive parents ever. Parents who she convinced to move to Nashville because she wanted to become a music star. She signed her first recording contract at 14 – and broke it the next year because she wanted to do more than they would allow. Getting your dream, finding it falls slightly short, and throwing it over? That’s ambition. She was signed by the brand new Big Machine Records – the fact her parents invested heavily into Big Machine is probably not a coincidence. It is incredibly unlikely Taylor would be where she is without parents who were both amazingly supportive and very rich.
And yes, her live performances, both singing and dancing are below par. She herself says of her voice “I write songs, and my voice is just a way to get those lyrics across.” She’s a poet and songwriter not a singer – and what other poet gets packed stadium tours? For that matter how many other singers do? She could fix things (see ambition). But I’ll get back to why if she could sing like Idina Menzel she’d be a worse Taylor Swift.
The dancing is, I believe, a mix of two things. Exaggerated because she’s pitching to the back of a stadium, not to a camera that’s going to go to youtube – you need to go much larger for that. And clumsiness is the textbook romantic heroine “flaw”; immediately relatable as a problem without being a character flaw. Most of the audience will consider themselves clumsy and awkward dancers (however good they are – see Impostor Syndrome; you see your backstage and everyone else’s front of house) and this makes the romantic heroine, or Taylor Swift, more relatable. If she wanted to be a good dancer she could. But that would make her less relatable – and that’s the core of her appeal. So too with singing. She can sing well enough to entertain her audience but not leave it in awe. Which is perfect for her songs. And her stage performances (as opposed to singles on TV) I’m told are spectacular.
So what are her songs? Her songwriting is, of course, famously autobiographical – and there is no way a song like Teardrops on my Guitar was written for me. And not just that she writes about boyfriends and has feuds (coyly never naming the target – I’ll get onto why this is smart later). She takes areas of her life and makes them generic enough that they are things her audience can all relate to. Relationships. Breakups. Bullying (Mean deservedly won a lot of awards – and there’s even a comment in there about her not being able to sing). Being the outsider (yes, really – and the final section is going to scratch the surface about how). And she also does a line in angry diss-tracks, with Better than Revenge being the most notorious. In which she manages to rhyme applause with sabotage and write “She’s an actress/better known for the things she does on the mattress.” No person from Poorlock is ever going to get in the way of writing lines like that.
Which brings us back to what she does well. So we’re going for her latest chart topper, Blank Space. And the video is great fun. But it’s the lyrics we’re interested in. I did after all call her a poet rather than a singer.
“I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” “I love the players and you love the game.” “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend.” “So it’s gonna be forever or it’s gonna go down in flames.” “Boys only want love when it’s torture. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.” “Cause we’re young and we’re reckless we’ll take this way too far.” “It’ll leave you breathless or with a nasty scar.” The last time I saw something quite that quotable was watching Casablanca the first time, earlier this year.
And that’s the secret to her verse in my opinion. She takes the ordinary, condenses it, and frequently makes it quotable. She may, to borrow from Orwell, be the best bad poet since Kipling. Not creating castles in the air so much as polishing the mundane and making it quotable. Much, much rarer. And you can’t do that without understanding what the mundane is and being sincere. Insincere just turns the approach cheese; this brings me onto Taylor herself. And 1989 being effectively a self-titled album (she’s already done “Taylor Swift” so picked the year of her birth). Anyone who thinks this is easy or she isn’t sharp has misread her badly; amongst other things she was the first ever guest to write her own SNL monologue.
So. Other than being an exceptional who can pack arenas and sings and dances to back it up, and born with a silver spoon in her mouth, who else is she? Three things are obvious. The first is that her PR game is incredibly on point. Second is she’s an incredible networker. Third is that despite the obviousness of the gendered insults almost no one ever calls her a bitch or a diva.
The third is in some ways the oddest – but far the most important. In addition to being ambitious she does a line in aggressive songs about people who have done her down and doesn’t get called a bitch? In a display of excess somewhat larger than merely trashing bedrooms she flies back to sleep at home in a private jet after most of her concerts and doesn’t get called a diva? How the hell?
Simple. She always treats the fans and the staff amazingly well. The fans? She surprises fans at shows by bringing in guest performers, Jenny From The Block being the most notorious but far from the only. Her meet and greets are far from ordinary – instead of the fans paying to be there she gets the most enthusiastic fans from the audience and meets them instead. And she organised “secret sessions”, picking fans from the internet and inviting them to her house to listen to her new album. But little things matter more than big gestures. Little things like posting cookie recipes when asked. And she used to send record producers who played her songs handwritten thank you letters. In the face of such concentrated niceness it’s hard to call her a bitch. And it’s that more than anything that caused me to write this post. That she’s a very kind person, and that’s helped propel her to the top.
Good PR is notable by the absence of certain stories or indeed visible flaws, and she certainly hasn’t had the sort of meltdown other child stars have. I don’t know whether she’s always on display or has an unrecognisable look (brunette wig, soft lipstick?) – but she leaves the gym fully made up. Always on game while in public – remember what I said about ambition. But while some of her lyrics have been problematic (I wouldn’t want to defend everything I said as a teenager either), most of her PR issues have come from other people (like Kanye West) making trouble. How does her PR network work so effectively? One of the strongest examples was when she was hospitalised after a snowmobile accident – and her PR kept it out of the press. How? In her words: “You know what I’ve found works even better than an NDA? Looking someone in the eye and saying, ‘Please don’t tell anyone about this.” Once again, kindness pays off. Character matters.
She’s a networker at two levels. The first is other celebrities. She mentions them a lot in interviews – this might be calculated as her first single was called Tim McGraw – and it’s one of the tricks Paris Hilton uses. But it’s almost certainly the sort of calculation (and being kind) that’s worked bone-deep; if her motivation is to look morally good so she keeps behaving that way what does it matter? Her public friends tend to be celebrities – and ones who get more influential after meeting her (Lorde, who is not afraid to speak her mind even about Taylor, says “Taylor is like this force of protective energy,She looks after everyone she knows.” – of course they met after Taylor sent her flowers to celebrate Lorde’s success). Of course when you’ve Taylor Swift helping you you’re going to get more famous. But once again kindness pays off.
On the other hand she targets people who’ve ever upset her and refuses to name them. It’s a paper-thin pretense (calling a song “Style” when an ex is Harry Styles?) But it both looks a whole lot classier, and gets discussions going about who she means. Which must niggle her targets a whole lot more.
And she also networks with her fans. A twitter with 48 million followers. A tumblr that ranges from the apparently narcissistic to the goofy – with most of both being things produced by other people. But she uses instagram and tumblr to, in her own words, cyber-stalk her fans (and when invited to a wedding and she couldn’t make it she crashed the bridal shower to the delight of the fan). And sent others christmas presents (including some delivered in person). This can keep her grounded – she has an insight into what worries her fans that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. And a level of communication and understanding of the day to day lives of her fans that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. (It also takes the edge off her being born to the 1% and working up, and ridiculous lifestyle she could live).
So there you have it. The appeal of Taylor Swift? A way with words. Sincerity and authenticity. A love of delighting others. And above all kindness in most of her actions. Probably the most underrated of all virtues.
And the best thing about writing this post? About focussing on something good (unlike my previous post with this many links) Looking at good things and focussing on them, especially where I didn’t expect to find them, genuinely makes me happy. It’s good to be reminded that such people exist, and can succeed. And to find out that one of them is a hugely influential role model is a good thing.