The Taylor Eclipse

When one of our closest celestial bodies hijacked our collective conversation this week, we stopped everything to watch, if only to distract ourselves from the turmoil of our present terrestrial existence. The light shifted and reframed our perspective, reminding us that something greater lives above. That’s right: Taylor Swift began her comeback.

The greatest Chief Marketing Officer in a generation launched it with a dark social media post that, much like Monday’s solar eclipse, could have caused blindness if you stared at it for too long. (Is that snake or a rodent tail? An FX ad for The Strain? Oh god, did somebody shave Meredith and Olivia?) She deleted every post from her Twitter and Instagram accounts — even her profile pictures! — a Friday news event that was surpassed only by Steve Bannon’s White House departure. And yet, the accounts themselves remained active, a not-quite-full blackout that served as a harbinger of things to come. The Taylor Eclipse was coming.

In reality, she disappeared from view in 2016, a year after submitting one of the greatest years in the history of music. Her just-a-little-too-public relationships had once again started drowning out her colossal impact on her industry and culture itself. A quick carom from Calvin Harris to Tom Hiddleston culminated in Hiddleston wearing an I Love T.S. shirt, a cute joke amongst Taylor’s Fourth of July revelers that also made him look like a poster child for Stockholm Syndrome. But she’s managed tabloid fiascos before. What she couldn’t manage was a brewing controversy about Kanye West’s newest single, “Famous.” When Kanye claimed that he cleared the lines “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous” with Taylor, her management flatly denied the claim. His wife responded by spitefully posting video of the supposed clearing call on Snapchat, a slight problem for Taylor because Kanye happens to be married to a Kardashian. And not just a Kardashian — THE Kardashian.

That whipped the Taylor-haters into a frenzy. She’s a hypocrite! She’s lying! She’s playing the victim! Few cared that a lot remains unclear and inconclusive from that heavily edited video, including whether or not Kanye actually read her the second line. But one revelation was undeniable: Taylor says on the tape, very clearly, “I’m like this close to overexposure.”

And that’s literally the last we’ve seen or heard from Taylor. She broke up with Hiddleston one month later, going to such extremes to stay in hiding that our only Taylor glimpses this past year have been 1) maybe/kinda/probably being carried out of her New York apartment in a box, and 2) a courtroom sketch artist’s rendering that was either Tom Brady-level bad, or suggested Taylor had actually lived in said box to hide a full facial transplant.

Visuals aside, the context for that courtroom trip gave us more insight into Taylor than any paparazzi photograph ever could. She’d been sued for millions by a fired Colorado DJ who argued essentially that, by telling his bosses that he’d groped her at a meet and greet, Taylor had deprived him of wages. To tell her story and stand up for victims of assault, Taylor countersued, but only for one dollar. Money was irrelevant to Taylor; she wanted justice. She destroyed the DJ’s attorney on the witness stand, had the DJ’s suit thrown out, AND won her own case. Here there was no doubt: Taylor had been a victim. She released a short but spot on statement reiterating her support for other victims everywhere, acknowledging her privilege in being able to defend herself, and vowing to help financially support cases of other victims. The haters were silenced. Praise from all sides rightly poured in.

This was the second time Taylor took up the cause of the disadvantaged. Remember her open letter to Apple in 2015, which changed how music streaming services compensated artists big and small? Combined with her legal action against the handsy DJ, both actions underscore the Taylor Paradox that drives critics crazy but endears her so deeply to her fans. She constantly manages her presence, sure. But if she constantly uses her presence for good, what’s really wrong with that?

In this age of artist-as-entrepreneur, transcendent musicians are always the best brand managers; nobody’s music can survive on its own. (Even Adele, a relatively private person who picks her public spots carefully, managed to turn that complicated trait into part of her brand.) In business, superior brand managers have superhuman empathy for their customers. Isn’t that Taylor’s greatest skill? She knows her fans, and she definitely knows how to reach them. The seeds for the success of 1989 were planted long before the album’s release — when Taylor stalked the internet to find some of her most passionate fans, then invited them into her homes for an advance listen. She had a shirt made from a popular fan meme on Tumblr. She personally liked fan postings so frequently that “Taylurking” became a thing. Any of these strategies could launch a clothing line, a movie, a phone, or a car. Or in this case, one of the century’s biggest albums.

What does the ultimate CMO have in store for us this time around? Right now, Taylor has nearly 103 million followers on Instagram, a powerful platform that recently added multiple forms of storytelling (and might have turned Evan Spiegel into the Winklevoss twins). She can still reach fans directly through Twitter (a measly 85 million followers) and Facebook (a paltry 74 million), and she’s not even on Snapchat yet. If the whispers are true (and the right people within the music industry are whispering), Taylor Swift spent the last year in Nashville making new music. Combined with her social media arsenal, and her deft instinct for avoiding overexposure, I don’t need to spell this out for you. Taylor is coming.

And that’s a good thing. We have alarmingly few female executive rockstars in business; it’s even rarer to see a genius at her craft execute a complicated plan in broad daylight. You can expect a master class in social media, consumer outreach, and brand building from one of the world’s best marketing executives in the coming months. And unlike Monday’s eclipse, we are going to be staring right at it. Let’s just hope the music doesn’t burn a hole in our ears.

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(More stuff I’ve written lives here.)