While many of us ignore commercialized pop music regularly and with ease, it’s important to understand that media coverage of Taylor Swift, “The Butterscotch Don”, stated to be one of the most powerful figures in music & culture, dominates the digital public sphere in a new way that leaves little space for debate, criticism or dissent.
To be a star today, your face and image (and to a much lesser extent, your music) must travel through many strange and shadowy portals of the internet, TV, and the print media left standing in a constant churn. The medium is the message is the nightmare after all: it’s a zero sum game of twitter & Instagram followers, Youtube views, beefs and shallow gossip; none of this pertaining to music itself, which is ancillary, merely a product placement of the star’s brand/empire.
To be a star today is to be a hustler for sure, and to dominate a world that, outside of the real one of shifting units and in the performance space, is empty and meaningless aside from crass commercialism. Fortunately, value in this dark era is assigned by one criteria only: money. If someone sells 60 million units or makes 60 million dollars, or is in a “power couple” who is the highest paid of the year according to Forbes($146 million) well then, goes the common logic, they must be the best. The winner. Worth this much money. Worth more than all the losers who’ve made no money, had no Grammys, or have only 500 or even 500K twitter followers. Just 4 years ago the biggest twitter profiles were in high single digit millions, peaking at 10 million (Ashton Kutcher was the first celeb to claim that number and was an active and early twitter adopter). Suddenly, in 2016, highly suspiciously, you are nobody unless you have 50 million followers. Unless you are Swift, who as of today has 70 million. More fans than records sold. Odd.
Taylor Swift is this year’s girl, and has, suspiciously, grown in fame and media coverage even as her last three albums have failed to best her first two albums of Country-Pop by a wide margin and despite all this promotion-by half a million to 1.5 million. None of her three recent releases have reached the sales of 2008’s Fearless. And that was only 7 million. So why do we, the indifferent non-fans who try to avoid celebrity fluff still know so much about Swift’s love life, feuds, cats, current tour, and housing purchases? Or her stated worth?
By comparison, The Killers debut album, Hot Fuss, (2004) sold the same 7 million copies, a rare rock phenomenon, and a genuine one reflecting a moment where young bands were taking up sounds of 1980’s Alternative giants and breathing new life, with reverence, into the sound. You never hear about The Killers unless there is a new album or a tour, and then, only in the music press, never as gossip. Adele’s 19, in 2008, sold 10 million and 2011’s release 21 is the fourth best selling album of all time. After that milestone was reached, Adele did the unthinkable for most pop stars, and took a couple of years off to have a normal life and a family. Admirable. Her return this fall had all the lesser talents and their teams quaking in their war rooms, as well they should. Beyonce has sold a staggering 118 million records solo, and another 60 million with Destiny’s Child- and probably half or more of these were actual, physical things you could hold in your hand. Not sold on tweets or beefs.
To be able to criticize this cultural mess, it’s essential to be able to remember life, music, video, media and advertising pre digital age 2000 or so, when Millennials like Swift were hitting their teens. One needs a few decades of adult life experience in order to care, to correctly judge and critique mass marketing and advertising that has usurped the music industry today, to be able to stand apart and express the horror that the state of things creates in those who know better. And it falls to those stalwarts who’ve not been complicit for whatever reason in the big con of today’s pop music, and of its queen of this moment.
But Millennials, bought at a steep discount as professionals were turfed en masse, now hold senior editorial positions. They, along with faux-millennials, bloggers with 10 years of experience, formerly cheeky outsiders, gossips, and casual cultural critics, have now drunk the Kool aid of Swift in their own desperation to be “relevant”, to be in the imaginary girl squad among the lithe, impossibly tall, impossibly blond cut outs. The expertise Swift shows at Instagram puts glossy mags to shame, and her power here is formidable as she creates hits out of “casual” moments of every major holiday, apparently with professional photographers in tow. It looks so damn all-American and appealing, that no one says boo.
And some bloggers have risen to become media owners or have sold their sites to corporate owners who control most of the public discourse. (We don’t even much use the words public discourse anymore. Or marketing, or advertising, any more have you noticed, it’s simply innate and accepted by Swift’s generation.) Blogs and major websites and magazines have SOLD OUT to a degree that is disheartening, tragic, and disturbing. And so, across fashion and gossip, entertainment, news, memes, social media both public and semi-private, the drums beat daily, ad nauseam for a few pop names.
Yet, the myth of Taylor Swift that supposedly intelligent adults tout in her defense is that she’s a real artist who writes her own music and lyrics. No longer do they say, as was the attitude toward pop in the past, “it’s empty pop but I like it anyway. ” or ” A good, fun summer song. ” No, the myth of Swift’s brand is that she is transcendent: both the most authentic musician out there AND one who has earned 60 million dollars at the same time just by being herself, wearing her heart on her ¾ inch sleeve. This is easily disproved by Swift’s own (10 page) Wikipedia entry, and is destroyed by the applause-worthy September Atlantic Monthly article “Hit Charade” by Nathaniel Rich:
“As I write this, at the height of summer, the No. 1 position on the Billboard pop chart is occupied by a Max Martin creation, “Bad Blood” (performed by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar)… This is not an aberration. The same would have been true at any time in the past decade. Before writing most of Taylor Swift’s newest album, Max Martin wrote No. 1 hits for Britney Spears, ’NSync, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, and Katy Perry.
Millions of Swifties and KatyCats—as well as Beliebers, Barbz, and Selenators, and the Rihanna Navy—would be stunned by the revelation that a handful of people, a crazily high percentage of them middle-aged Scandinavian men, write most of America’s pop hits. It is an open yet closely guarded secret, protected jealously by the labels and the performers themselves, whose identities are as carefully constructed as their songs and dances. The illusion of creative control is maintained by the fig leaf of a songwriting credit.”
Has the grown up media and our culture gotten this lazy, this depressed, this quickly?
Notice there’s nothing inherently artistic or notably musical about any of this. The experience of Taylor Swift as a wholly viral, cultural pest does not even factor nor require the sound of music. NO ONE’s album went platinum in 2014. There is only one Adele. Music is not a good bet for those playing the markets, because the truth is that so much that matters is decided by real, unruly and authentic communities in R&B, Hip Hop, Country, Metal and Indie, universes that spin away from this nonsense -and none of it ever takes the stage at the Grammys (a mark of their credibility is their absence from such stages). But if units aren’t selling more than the competing brand, or the last product of this brand, a major pop star better hustle that reach into every other channel she can, and the ad buy and marketing spend had better WERK. All we heard all last summer was about this mega tour of Swift’s, 1989. Day in and day out. A good benchmark of digital magazines to unlike and unfollow. Incredibly, yet, Facebook ads were purchased to remind us of the 1989 tour, maybe sales were slow at those prices. If nothing else, the determined greed and blind grasping is spectacular. And then there were the reviews:
“The reviews of the 1989 tour have been overwhelmingly positive in that cracked-smile way that makes it seem like every writer was forced to write with a gun to his or her head. They read like press releases at best and cult scripture at worse, and there is hardly a trace anywhere of any dissenting opinion specifically anything that calls out Swift’s current co-opting of capital-f Feminism as a self-promotional tool. Is it possible that we’ve really become so dumb as to not know anymore what is simply just part of the pop mechanism and what is actually worthy of the hyperbolic pandering?” – “Taylor Swift is Not Your Friend” Dayna Evans, Gawker.
Taylor Swift is famous but her fame is, for many, divorced from anything real or musical. It can only ever be bare of the moving lyrics that organically soundtracked the lives of those who came of age in the 80’s (and before) who know what life in 1989 was, the vast majority of it barely sold to kids at all but sought out, found through daily life, and built in bedrooms across the globe without digital marketing tools but through hearts and minds in magical unity. All of this hard truth is envied so transparently by music’s latecomers that they could spit. And so they do, all over recent history: co opting weird 80’s treasures like the video for Toni Basil’s “Mickey”. Summoning the less powerful and more real to the stage. Dueting hard with every legend who will play along. Earning from DListed, a rare blogger who will not be bought, the perfect mafia-esque title of Butterscotch Don.
The retro authenticity of the pre 2000 world cannot be bought, co opted or stolen. It’s something Swift’s team intuits and longs for knowing that before was better, as she calls to the stage iconic songwriters of a bygone age who her fans have no awarness of; as they mine touchstones of misunderstood film and fashion nostalgia from Tumblr and the insightful Rookie Mag. As the Twitter feuds fire on, and as they crib and riff off each other, no one has an original idea; the one thing that would legitimize all of this noise in an instant. Swift’s latest album is 1989. It’s the year of her birth (age being a common Millennial slam at all the older artists who’ve not met her success) and it’s scrawled across a polaroid in sharpie. It longs to be on a real mixtape (whatever that is) and given to a boy for his Walkman. The Polaroid as an album cover photo is a nod to a technology that was already going out of date in 1989. The “retro” ugly sweatshirt she wears is off-base too- something we would have worn maybe in the late 1970’s but really just post 2010-hipster-lite fug. Swift’s “first official pop” record sleeve’s design is an amusing misfire that reveals a lot about Taylor Swift’s brand: it only feels real to those who know no better.
Those who remember Polaroids and mixtapes, who say, came of age in 1989, were certainly not longing for 1973 in the 90’s. Instead the majority was for once enjoying the very real original music and culture of the 1990’s, before boy bands and corporate pop would aggressively crush Alternative music as a last act of the dying music industry as it existed then. Pop stars of today are nothing more than the run off of that dismal legacy, of NSync and Britney, and it shows through the cracks of perfect smiles and smug, strained, attitude. There’s no life in the life being sung about today. There’s nothing behind the curtain. No matter how good the spin. The truth that a couple of older men, most of then Scandinavian, write this shit makes sense. It’s just recycled currency and culture. Not theirs, not ours, not something new.
A concerning number of adults have stopped thinking critically in the last two years of tsunami-like acceleration of social media. Brands and marketers have been successful in a way that no one could have predicted. It seemed a reasonable assumption that there would always be a variety of voices, intellectual publications and critical thought that was independent of corruption, and a healthy population of professional media who were paid for their work (and ideas) despite outside or owner agendas- for that’s tabloid stuff. That’s advertising, not journalism.
Journalistic ethics once existed and was foregrounded. The tabloids were outliers (a joke that occasionally got it right) and gossip was not on the nightly news, ever. Music was diverse, big and balanced between independent minded and discerning fans and their spending decisions which told the truth of the matter; labels; a fairly healthy world of independent musicians; indie radio; and strong local club scenes across the US, Canada and the UK. There were zines, and blogs, and they kept the commercial entities in line, kept them honest, and major media too , usually ignored fluff or called out fraud within music, culture, and everywhere those subjects touched. Now, the man who invented post-modern Pop Culture criticism for the current century, author of 8 books, who once laid bare the utter blankness behind the doe eyes of then biggest thing Britney Spears in print, who correctly, hilariously assessed Coldplay’s annoying aspects that the world was just discovering, who even went extremely hard on The Beastie Boys maturing in a major profile, rides around in a car with Swift, his barbs lost on her fans and his interrogations fluffed with ridiculous stats and his own claim that 1989 would now dwarf Thriller if set against Thriller back in 1989. Dark days indeed.
In the 80s, 90s, and to the mid 2000’s, Pop /Top 30, highly commercialized corporate controlled music was a tolerated joke, appreciated for what it was able to do: get people dancing at a wedding or graduation. Amuse the kiddies. Make the drive less rage-y. This was all fine, well and good. Madonna in the 80’s and 90’s was essential to this milieu. So was 1980’s Michael Jackson, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, and Culture Club. Some of it was even serious music that crossed in to mainstream and vice versa- at times, in ways that felt normal. The closest thing to millions selling cheese in those days was Duran Duran, a band for girls. That’s how good music was then: Duran Duran, still active and working musicians, in hindsight has poetic depths, originality, staying power, and style for days that is still widely copied in music videos these 30 years on. Who on the charts today will boast that in 2045?
Marginalized, almost muted voices have started to resist. They shout criticism that ought to be heard, considered, discussed and factored into our perceptions about music, stardom, and the noisy dominance that may have little to nothing to do with art. Rumblings have started lately from corners that don’t need to be liked, and that are not invested in the lie. They speak in comment strings of widely read corporate media until they are banned and muted, (or self-banned and muted), in pointed criticisms that we print here as rumour, not claimed as proven fact, but raised in the interest of debate and cultural criticism:
-It has been stated by internet critics that Taylor Swift has made the largest viral marketing spend in music business history targeted directly at tween girls, that Swift’s existence in music is dependent upon this and that she literally has 20 times the marketing spend of Adele.
Rumours say that Swift plays an instrument to a rudimentary level, and writes juvenile rhymes. (Per her own Wikipedia, her latest album has one song written by Swift, and the other 12 were co-written with heavyweights. She’s always written with a professional co-writer since before she made it in Nashville at 14).
Criticism has been made that Swift is today’s New Kids On The Block, though maybe more apt example would be a one-woman Spice Girls: she’s normal and goody-goody real and has, lately, been all about”girl power”.
Might it be of concern to intelligent adults who make buying decisions for their households and children, who want to minimize the effects of aggressive advertising on their kids, who read labels and stretch their dollar in a difficult world where even food prices hurt:
- That critics say that the marketing of Taylor Swift is unlike anything the music industry has ever seen?
- If Swift’s success is fueled by the systematic professional exploitation of social media on a scale never seen before, and exponentially larger than any other act in music?
- If Swift is a mediocre talent by any professional standard with the largest viral marketing spend since the invention of social media?
- The recent wave of litigation that surrounds the power structure at play here has turned many people off and potentially, muzzled dissent. The safe space where this is vented is the jokey sphere of semi-anonymous Twitter, but the jokes carry the very real distaste of the darker side of big business, and raise questions about enrichment that comes from such legal actions, and not from music. A genuine backlash has begun over stories reported in major media outlets about lawsuits and copyright madness, over stifling, questionable contracts with photographers, and nonsense suits aimed at protecting a brand that is now among the biggest on the planet.
People and their innate compass for bullshit, their ears honed on record grooves of the greatest rock and roll (and the trash of most disco) were and ought to be the gate keepers of reality. Real music. Worthwhile films. Real culture, even in the popular culture that kids defined with their own experiences and ideas. T-Shirts aligned like minded people with big ideas. Concerts, which were attended by teenagers, not children escorted by parents, cost only $10.00 (70’s) $18.00 (mid 80’s) or $30.00 (90’s) (in fact, the less authentic, silly acts always made the cash grab-this is and was and is a red flag- as those acts knew their time was short and they had to cash in fast. ) You could, back then, afford tickets in stadiums to legendary bands in their prime who are still working and iconic today like The Cure, Depeche Mode, or U2 on a part-time after school jobs, and those ticket stubs were destined to become cherished mementos of memories made that were worth exponentially more than those shockingly low prices ought to provide, especially when ticket prices today for big, soulless stadium shows are offensive. It was gauche to talk about net worth then, about how charitable you were, about market dominance, about how many houses you owned- unless you were the crass type who worked in the sleazy world of Finance. If anything, quality in music has mostly always skewed away from consumerism. Until right now. Until what, for the sake of the lifeblood of culture, music and art itself, had better be a blip before the “marketplace” corrects itself.
A bunch of manipulated kids and parents of today are supporting a frighteningly outsized empire for one person (and likely, hundreds of staffers). Real music lovers know and ignore all of this noise. But in this depressed world, too many good people (many of them tired and well meaning parents of kids today) have been bullied into submission by advertising that does not end when they turn the TV off. Because there’s a much better way to get to people, and it’s rarely turned off or limited like TV used to be: private phones, social media pages, kids happily distracted with mom’s iPad. Swift is seen as a healthier, more wholesome choice on a fast food menu of popular music and imagery based largely on pointless boundary pushing; on tits, ass, daggerlike fingernails. adult subjects and everyday profanity. Swift is like the McDonald’s salad, which was still a con with its rich dressing. That salad is largely discontinued now.
A friend’s 8 year old was a major Swift fan until she unexpectedly announced to her parent recently as a Swift song came on the radio “She’s a liar. A fake. She doesn’t write her own music!” And thus, an ex-fan had been born.
True “music” people, writers, journalists, and critics used to recognize each other and discuss real music on an adult level. Nothing we cared about was ever known or understood by 8 year olds, or even most adults – those self-described as “not music people”, who had only a few CDs: the ones they didn’t need- those overplayed on adult contemporary radio. Who got their music recommends from award shows. From TV shows. Who needed to be sold their music. Everything had its place and its space. The important, relevant and exciting bands are still an open secret that are missed by the majority, even as their kids swan around in Joy Division T-Shirts. But through some real dark manipulation, the normal flow of mass communication has been upended in the last five years of social media. Here, (especially on Facebook, the middle-of-the-road of the internet) culture and music, news, information and even gossip has been successfully co-opted and commercialized, as has the majority of the media who writes more about gossip than music itself.
When criticisms are launched at Taylor Swift’s legitimacy, image, or even, as with Tina Fey’s already stale joke at the 2013 Golden Globes, that the world had been making for a year (her dating life, the same subject she mined to its core for songs and riches) the response that comes is vicious and painfully humourless. Madonna could take criticism all in her stride for many years, she was a middle finger-extending bad bitch before she even got famous. For all of her flaws and her terrible template that have launched a hundred anemic imitators, good old Madonna actually did shake it off, that wasn’t wishful thinking, or lip service. But there’s no room for parody, humour or poking fun at stars today whose campaigns are as dry and as publicly sensitive as those of political candidates. Musicians, though, are out on the road, working, writing, and living. They don’t have time for social media campaigns let alone wars or full bodied identities that infiltrate all the celebrity spaces that have been allowed to balloon like tumours. If you know more about an artist’s life than their music, likely they aren’t a musician at all.
There’s a fascist air to the culture of grinning, winking, perfectly lipsticked pop faces of today. There’s the forced, over choreographed but soulless, bought and paid for slickness to each new confessional song that we’re told is just a girl, sitting on the edge of her bed, writing her pain about a boy, that myth that went further than it ever has before. Further than Alanis’ raw pain or Sarah McLachlan’s earnest emoting. Further, somehow, than the genuine Adele who has easily won the foreseeable music game for this young century.
The social media pop star, unlike a real musician, unlike even a real star, uses all the tools of the marketplace and the corporate campaign: by turns bullying and charming. She pummels, in the short term, the records, awards, and widely, tackily disclosed sales figures. This brand can never earn a blossoming music career over decades, the memories and artistic rewards for love more than an obscene wealth (that almost all genuine artists happen to thrive without). One wonders where Swift can go from here with her scores of awards at age 26 (a worry is the likely aim for an EGOT, for which she has the EG instead of a break into normalcy like Adele). What would be if the rumoured faucet of spending and social media messaging, and very obvious and overt PR and blogger support were turned off, as little kids age out of this hype, as is always the way with kids. The money is enough to keep the machine going even if the kids move on, are moving on, or have moved on, as the corrupt media herd moves on to the next shiny thing. Swift is wealthy, and always will be if she doesn’t need to fund PR campaigns just to win a round.
And the post-social media, real and incorruptible independent media of the future waits it out. It cares only for the real music it exists to celebrate and has a healthy life of its own, a good one. The next wave of media is only in its infancy, even as it’s sustained by those with long memories and true passion, people who will never forgive or forget what’s been done to music and culture that was once a thing of beauty, all who drove the nails in, and all who profited. There are many people and ideas and experiences with music outside the pop chart, always have been, that are each and all priceless.
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