Just Like Us: The Rise, Fall, and Future of Taylor Swift, America’s Relatable Sweetheart
In the history of pop music, there have been few Greek tragedies quite as epic — or as strange — as that of Taylor Swift and her image.
As late as mid-2016, few would have believed a prophecy predicting the pop star would one day announce a new album, release the first single with its corresponding video, and be met with a tsunami of derisive Twitter glee. When Swift released her previous record, in 2014, she was America’s Sweetheart, nearly universally adored — at least, in mainstream public life — for her dorky-cool-girl-next-door brand. She was so real, with her ugly purebred cats named after prime-time soap characters and her relatable sense of humor. When Kanye West and Kim Kardashian dared challenge that image by claiming Swift had signed off on West’s song “Famous” — “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous”—and then lied about it to portray herself as West’s victim again, it seemed like sour grapes of the highest order. Until it wasn’t. And things began falling apart.
Suddenly, it had been revealed, beyond a shadow of a doubt — by one of the most gloriously superficial celebrity couples on the planet, no less — that America’s Sweetheart was hardly as sweet, as real, as she claimed. Besieged by an avalanche of triumphant tweets and snake emojis, courtesy of Kanye/Kim supporters (and others who simply never believed her act anyway), Swift went almost entirely radio silent, online and in public. Where she once played the paparazzi like a world-class virtuoso, now Swift was pointedly avoiding them. A brief fling with Tom Hiddleston was immediately labeled as a PR stunt; the relationship fizzled not long after.
When Swift finally reemerged this past August with an album announcement and a first single, the internet — beyond her most die-hard ring of stans — immediately tore into the presentation. “Look What You Made Me Do” was dramatic, almost entirely spoken in monotone; screenshots previewing the video were uncomfortably similar to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a resemblance that spawned countless memes. It was even suggested, not without precedent, that Swift made the announcement on the 10-year anniversary of the death of West’s mother on purpose. In short, she had become a villain, but not the goth antihero she claimed to be embracing: Now, without a good-girl façade and the copious public good will she once used to obscure them, Swift’s sins shone brightly in every move she made. This Taylor Swift is no longer at the wheel of her own brand. And it could crush her.
None of it — her extraordinary record-breaking highs, her inevitable free fall, and whatever this next chapter may ultimately become — would have been possible before the age of social media. Swift’s direct access to fans has been both her greatest weapon and tragic flaw; its power made her an unstoppable force — until she got too cocky, and it sent her reeling. (Her refusal to endorse or condemn either candidate during the 2016 presidential election did her no favors, either.) Just before her Reputation announcement, complete with a full-blown and heavily referential new style, Swift set the stage, phoenix-like, by obliterating her social media feeds.
However unsuccessful that plan may have been, hitting the reset button in such a way was a none-too-subtle symbolic gesture. But to understand precisely why, you’d need to start at the beginning.
Nearly every working pop star uses social media, of course. Online followings have become behemoths of influence, and over time, celebrities have learned how radical fan engagement can be beneficial. In the past few years, this online behavior has grown so popular that it’s easy to forget it was once exceptional, unheard of, for any A-lister but Swift.
The Swift approach — on Tumblr, Instagram, and sometimes Twitter — was personal, apolitical, lovably awkward (“weird”), and seemingly un-self-aware (see: surprise face). It engaged fans on their level, responding directly to their lives and feelings in ways that, on the surface, had nothing to do with Swift’s music. She showed up at a fan’s bridal shower, took sick fans as dates to award shows, paid off a fan’s student loans, invited them for pizza at her apartment. She reblogged fans’ posts, remembered their names, laughed at their silly posts about her, and created inside jokes with them. Taylor Swift became the ultimate BFF, one now worth an estimated $280 million.
This behavior reached its fever pitch in 2014, with the release of 1989. Even more than Red, the record was framed as Swift’s crossover; she’d completely jumped the country singer-songwriter ship and planted her feet squarely in the world of mainstream pop. Her image as America’s Sweetheart was supercharged, not only through songs — which drew from myriad genres to construct a charismatic, skillful representation of pop cultural touchstones — but also through one of the most bizarrely aggressive guerrilla marketing campaigns in recent memory.
Leading up to release day, Swift went on the offense, inviting random fans to, per Gawker, “a series of private parties at her various home modules across the world.” She baked them cookies, let them play with her cats, and played the record for them.
Then, two months later — after the album debuted at number one, with nearly 1.3 million copies sold in its first week, and was well on its way to becoming the top-selling album of 2014, with 3.66 million units — Swift began selecting Tumblr followers at random, observing their posting habits and leaving emojis in the comments. Then, she bought, wrapped, and shipped them Christmas presents, like makeup kit and a porcelain Japanese tea set, each accompanied by a long, handwritten note. Finally, as the girls began posting their hyperventilation fits on social media, Swift took care to reblog and retweet each one, piling on affirmations and tagging the teens’ Tumblr accounts in cute animal photos, all intermingled amid agog posts about 1989’s record-breaking sales and her recent Time cover story (“PS WHAT IS LIFE RIGHT NOW”). Then she uploaded a supercut of all the reactions to her official YouTube account.
It required a lot of labor, creating that lovable-older-sister image, for someone who simultaneously was shedding reasons to interact with the suburban, teenaged world by the dollar. Even in January 2016, when Swift’s legal team trademarked more than 70 1989-related memes, it was still hard to articulate exactly why these philanthropic displays were so unnerving. The feeling didn’t last.
To understand the context in which Taylor Swift first came to digital prominence, let’s rewind. As early as 2008, the concept of celebrity was shifting dramatically as a result of platforms like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. On top of the more obvious transformations, including direct access to consumers and the devaluation of major media, the “micro-celebrity” — relatively “normal” people who, thanks to self-publishing platforms, had gathered massive followings for the content they produced — was suddenly a major force to contend with. What made someone famous was changing.
Social media academics Alice Marwick and danah boyd saw this happening and, in 2011, wrote about it. “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter” describes how the traditional concept of celebrity has been radically altered by the Twitter age. The pair argue that the rise of self-branding micro-celebs like MySpace’s Tila Tequila and YouTube’s Jenna Marbles — not to be confused with reality stars, whose constantly observed behavior birthed its own brand of over-the-top fame — proved that contemporary celebrity must be viewed on a spectrum, as opposed to a static, famous/not famous binary, as a fluid performative practice that one learns, rather than achieves.
That new definition, at the very least, still had roots in traditional sociological theory. Symbolic interactionism—a concept proposed by social psychologist George Herbert Mead around the turn of the 20th century, then fleshed out by his protégé Herbert Blumer in the mid-1930s — suggests that our identities are not inherent; instead, they’re entirely formed through social interactions. Through others, we learn what is “good” and “bad,” acceptable or unacceptable, what produces positive or negative results. From there, we build our “selves” around what we learn from these cause-and-effect encounters.
With the rise of Web 2.0 and youth internet culture came these figures who cultivated fan bases by directly interacting with followers, largely because they, too, were plebes — normal people who just happened to command the attention of hundreds of thousands of people “just like them.” Consumers found this kind of “authenticity” extremely attractive, especially comparing it against A-list celebrities, who, before social media, enjoyed a luxurious sheen of mystery that left fans with only their imaginations to determine whether megastars were nice or down-to-earth. As Marwick and boyd point out, this shift toward the bourgeois was so dramatic that it eventually prompted stars to shift their own behavior, adopting micro-celebrities’ familiar tone when connecting with fans online—because, they quickly realized, the strategy worked.
Thus, the priceless commodity of “relatability” took hold. Publicists and mainstream media now can do only so much to craft a celebrity’s image if she can’t easily reproduce it on Twitter or Instagram; just like anyone else with Internet access, the celebrity must build her own brand. Whether she’s “being herself” is beside the point; Marwick and boyd highlight another fascinating theory from Yale celebrity sociologist Joshua Gamson, who proposed that the uncertainty of authenticity — “Is this all an act?” — is actually a powerful component in and of itself. For the most part, though, the more “normal” and relatable a celebrity is widely acknowledged to be, the general wisdom now goes, the more successful they will be.
But here’s where we get to Taylor Swift’s unique schtick. While Rihanna’s Navy and Beyonce’s Beyhive certainly best other fandoms in terms of sheer enthusiasm, Swift’s relationship with her “Swifties” has been by far the most intimate. Perhaps due to her music’s thematic bent, she has actively and visibly bucked aristocratic behaviors usually afforded pop stars with fanatical followings. As Swift’s online voice evolved, it became a pointed, if not conscious declaration of exceptionalism, a way of distinguishing herself from superstars who request that fans “bow down, bitches” or “get on [their] knees.” Her deliberate, overempathetic interactions with individual fans on Tumblr and Instagram elevated her value as a superstar.
Yet as much effort as Swift puts into engaging with her fans on their level, it’s still a parasocial relationship (a mass media studies term coined in the mid-1950s to describe the one-way emotional connection people have with artists and movie and TV stars). Relatability isn’t a way to get closer to fans; it’s a way for Swift to set herself further apart from them, to wow them with her generosity, to keep them following along.
“She can only prove her down-to-earthness because fans interact with her in visible ways,” Robin James, author of Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, and Neoliberalism and an associate professor of philosophy at UNC Charlotte, told me in 2015. Echoing Marwick and boyd, James pointed out that for Swift, being publicly acknowledged as relatable is more important for her image than actual intimacy. “[The gift giving] is a totally calculated marketing move, which is sort of the opposite of remembering where one came from.”
Calculated or not, being on the receiving end of Swift’s perceived generosity was almost obscenely flattering for these die-hard fans. They likely hadn’t read the Wall Street Journal op-ed Swift penned in July, three months before 1989’s release, when she unceremoniously pulled her catalog from Spotify. The essay would have certainly put the gestures in a new light: Ultimately, it showed that Taylor Swift measures how generous — how relatable — Taylor Swift needs to be to benefit from that kindness. “Music is art, and art is important and rare,” she wrote. “Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” In this light, her altruism looked different; now it became a tactic to maintain the loyalty and buying power of longtime fans, while simultaneously inspiring newcomers — who saw Swift rewarding only those most dedicated fans — to go hard or go home. The essay betrayed the artifice of her reblogs and baked goods, revealing an artist who demands her value be both recognized and delivered in the currency she sees fit.
By underlining this oddly libertarian insistence on maximizing her own profit at the expense of fan accessibility, Swift implied that fan labor — voluntarily informing streaming algorithms that encourage others to play artists’ songs, enthusiastically building promo machines via fandoms, essentially building artists’ careers for free — is not, or is at least less valuable than what she has to offer. Swift is far from the first artist to implicitly devalue the manual and administrative (and, especially in the case of Swift’s fans, the unpaid) labor that brings that art to market, but the way she did so—at the top of her game, when money had ceased to be even a minor obstacle to her success — certainly foreshadowed Swift’s fall from relatable grace.
In light of all this, it would be easy to identify Swift’s ways as Machiavellian. After all, she chose to position herself as a normal girl, untouched by the trappings of her enormous wealth, because it benefitted her. Then again, this can be argued of nearly every social interaction any of us ever have.
For those who skipped Sociology 101, the argument primarily comes from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, a seminal text by Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. Using a theater metaphor, Goffman theorized that all social interaction is, essentially, an exercise in impression management: Like an ensemble cast, society performs as a group “onstage,” helping one another maintain the illusion of our collective interpretation of a given situation. (Like actors, when someone forgets a line, social groups will work together to keep the play moving.) However, when we exit and walk backstage, each of us is alone; we ostensibly stop performing. Because we’re no longer taking social cues from anyone else, our “selves” become irrelevant and virtually nonexistent.
In a way, Goffman’s theory set the stage for the personal brand phenomenon that has now come to define the social web: Even more than real life, social media engagement must always be a calculated performance, conscious or no, for anyone and everyone who uses these platforms. When all social interaction is performance, observing a pop star “putting on an act” in a social space isn’t in itself an indictment.
But what has made Taylor Swift exceptional in this context is that she has rejected this framing entirely. Her public existence, especially online, seems to implicitly insist that her “stage” is no different from her “backstage,” that her “brand” is synonymous with her private, personal identity. The way Swift jokes with fans, even hosting them in her home, implies that this is what she would do with any friend (and does, if you glimpsed her star-studded Instagram account before she wiped it clean). Had she not been so adamant in this insistence, perhaps we might never have witnessed the humiliating revelations that led to her 2016 hibernation — and the bizarre self-rebrand that has followed.
But we’ve nevertheless ended up here, at a juncture where Swift’s future has become unclear, all because she committed too hard to crafting the illusion that there was no illusion — until the world was provided with irrefutable proof to the contrary. Now stripped of that illusion, Swift seems to have presented Reputation as the dawn of a new era — “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now, ’cause she’s dead” — in which Taylor Swift drops the act and becomes the “villain” the world believes she is. Yet even on “Look What You Made Me Do,” she blames the transformation on everyone but herself — and rehashes the exact victimhood positioning that started this whole mess in the first place.
Has Swift learned anything from her fall from grace? She’ll no doubt still succeed financially — she’s reached permanent critical mass on that front — but will she break as many records this time? Will the public remain as trusting? And if not, what will Swift become if, in an America torn apart by existentially dire issues, she can no longer be its sweetheart without fully coming clean? Attempting to act naturally in an entirely unnatural environment might be a habit that dies hard, if ever. When you perform regularness in the extreme limelight for as long as Swift has, it can become virtually impossible to identify where your brand ends — and where you begin.