Why I look up to Taylor Swift

Most of my friends know that I’m a Taylor Swift fan. They usually find out when they scroll through my iPod/iPhone and are alarmed by how 60% of the songs were by her. (Not to mention the fact that the only QuizUp segment I ever scored full marks in was, you guess it, a trivia quiz on Taylor.)

But laughs aside, what makes Ms. Swift such an alluring and respectable celebrity? (Even Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, professed that he enjoyed listening to her songs.)

I believe that the allure of Taylor Swift is itself, an example of how force of personality when melded with discipline can result in the fulfilment of one’s personal aspirations. In non-jargon speech, Swift shows that diligence, humility and passion are the necessary ingredients to turn dreams into reality.

Behind The Artist

The way I was introduced to her music was itself pretty amusing. I don’t usually listen to English music as much. (The remaining 40% of my iPod’s memory is dominated by Jay Chou.) During a vacation in Taipei, I was literally bombarded by a coincidental advertisement campaign of her music. On the plane ride to Taiwan, SIA’s musical recommendations included “Mine” (the lead single from her 2010 album, Speak Now) as the #1 track on their playlist. When I turned on the television in the hotel room, I was greeted with the music video for “Mine”. Even when I got on the cab, the radio was playing “White Horse” (another single from her 2008 album, Fearless).

By the time that happened, I concluded that somebody up there must really want me to listen to her music. I got curious on her backstory as I felt that her music was loaded with vivid imagery and catchy choruses. I wanted to see what went under the hood.

A couple of interviews and wikipedia pages later, I was sold. Taylor Swift, through brilliant management of her personal image, had managed to reinvent the relationship between a singer and her listeners.

Most singers would rely on the strength of their music (production values, musical complexity, vocal range) to sell albums. What made Swift different was her decision to focus not just on the music but it’s extension, her own personality and thoughts.

In effect, she went from being your run of the mill musician to a generational scribe and poet. People listened to her music, less so for the production values and themes, but with the belief that Swift would tap into the universal emotions of love, heartbreak, confusion, happiness, sadness as she crooned her next ballad.

To be honest, this isn’t very unique to her. Great singers like Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury (of Queen fame) and the Beatles have shown their songwriting prowess through incorporating complex themes be it racism, war and death.

What segregates Swift from her predecessors and her contemporaries is her direct focus on her personal experiences. Her albums don’t read like a fictionalised novel but like a diary/blog hybrid that incorporates reality and art.

You see this from the onset of her career with songs like “A Place In This World” and “Teardrops On My Guitar”. The confessional and highly personalised nature of her songs were there from Day One. When you listen to those songs, you don’t see yourself as a passive listener trying to enjoy the beats and melodies. You find yourself actually rooting for Swift. This is partly because the songs are less defined by genre but more by the fact that they are ballads and narratives.

You see this in her country-pop and pop songs too. Songs like “You Belong With Me”, “Enchanted” and even “I Knew You Were Trouble” feature chronological narratives. This is something more commonly associated with country music, the genre which Swift broke out from. Nonetheless, her decision to stick to this structure has paid dividends with her growing fan base and success.

In 1989 (Swift’s latest album), you see this in her slightly popular songs “Clean” and “Out Of The Woods”. The narrative aspect of her songs have been present since her debut and in fact, have become a part of her artistry.

You listen to a Taylor Swift song with certain pre-conceptions and expectations. You expect to get a nice hook, smooth bridge and catchy chorus. But more importantly, you expect to hear a narrative. You want to see (or in a literal sense, hear) the girl describe a personal journey amidst a sea of complicated emotions. I think this is what has made Swift endure to her huge fan base (whether female or male).

Humanity craves stories. Whether it be the cave paintings since ancient times to Homer and Shakespearean epics, everyone enjoys a good story.

Artist 2.0

Aside from her artistry, a major reason for Swift’s success lies in her mastery over modern day communication channels. In the past, singers relied on television commercials and appearances, maybe a billboard to help promote their albums. They then follow up with a concert or world tour for good measure.

To a certain extent, Swift maintains this paradigm but introduces some tweaks of her own. Since her MySpace days, Swift has tried her best to erase the boundaries between fans and herself. Today, the frequent updates on her Twitter and Instagram page serve as a window to her life and thoughts.

Single handedly bringing to fore the hashtag “Squad Goals”, Taylor Swift’s pictures of her hanging out with her (celebrity) friends seemingly shows a normal life of baking, shopping and of course, taking care of her cats. This fits in perfectly with the persona we are used to rooting for in her songs.

But is the persona of the songs wholly similar to Swift? Well, I doubt it. Swift herself has stated that most media agencies misrepresent and misinterpret the content of her songs and her life.

“I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime,” Swift says. “And I’m just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore. I don’t like seeing slide shows of guys I’ve apparently dated. I don’t like giving comedians the opportunity to make jokes about me at awards shows. I don’t like it when headlines read ‘Careful, Bro, She’ll Write a Song About You,’ because it trivializes my work. And most of all, I don’t like how all these factors add up to build the pressure so high in a new relationship that it gets snuffed out before it even has a chance to start. And so,” she says, “I just don’t date.”

The Reinvention Of Taylor Swift, by Josh Eells from Rolling Stone

From an extremely literal and blunt perspective, one could listen to an entire Taylor Swift album and conclude that she must have dated like 20 guys in a year. How is that even possible for a globe-trotting celebrity? It’s a ridiculous accusation from the outset.

Similarly, some critics have derided her “Girl Squad” as a manifestation of “celebrity elitism” and highlights a growing divide between her and her fans. I think the very notion of celebrities being “one of us” is itself a false construct. How can celebrities be the same as us? We don’t get greeted with the paparazzi the moment we step out of the house. We don’t have to ensure that we look our best each time we step out to grab a Starbucks or take a walk. We don’t have to worry about maniacal stalkers wishing to kidnap and marry us.

We look up to our celebrities because they are different from us. The generous acts of philanthropy and her consistent stand on the flaws of online music streaming are examples of what celebrity power can be beneficial for. They can help raise awareness on important social causes and problems. They are figures of empowerment solely because their heightened lives show to us that power and influence can be used for good.

We don’t really need Swift to be a girl next door. We need her to write songs that deal with relatable problems. In her case, she has chosen love and heartbreak which are universal themes most listeners can relate to.

Some even say that Swift’s “Girl Squad” is a cunning way to gain free cross-advertising when its celebrity members tweet about each other. Well, that’s true but I don’t think it makes sense to deride that as a negative point. Aren’t friends there to root for each other? Celebrity friends just kick that up a notch with all the personal influence they wield. Besides, our friends are often people we can relate to. (Our army buddies when we serve our military service. Our colleagues from our workplace.) It’s no surprise that the friends of celebrities are celebrities (no surprise there). It is more likely since they are all able to relate to one another’s concerns and problems of being a public figure.

Her X-Factor

I believe that what truly defines and results in her success is her strong belief in the value of diligence and ability. To be honest, Taylor Swift is no Adele or Michael Jackson. Her voice isn’t as memorable or unique as say Teresa Teng. And I think even she herself knows that. (Swift herself has admitted that she is a songwriter first and that her voice is but a medium to convey her lyrics.) That’s partly why she has invested so much time and effort in crafting songs with strong narratives as I mentioned earlier.

If one were to delve deeper into her origins as one of music’s current biggest stars, we see not some spontaneous emergence of a star but a carefully built career. Swift, like Steve Jobs, has an uncompromising vision and goal. She has her own style of music and has taken numerous risks to turn that vision into a reality.

Just think about this. A 15 year old Taylor Swift chose to walk away from an artist development deal from a major label, RCA Records. Back then, she wasn’t happy that RCA would’t let her record her own material and would only let her launch an album when she was 18. On hindsight, it’s obvious that her decision was a master stroke in kickstarting career but at that point in time, who would have done what she did? It takes a huge amount of confidence in one’s own ability and talent to pull such a bold move. I believe that her determination and ambition is what defines her success. She may not have the world’s most melodious voice but the sheer force of her ambition and confidence has elevated her to a whole new level.

Following the massive success of Speak Now and Red, one would most probably recommend Swift to make another country pop album. It is a more pragmatic move after all. (Her label was quite persistent in Swift doing such a move.) Yet, Swift chose to challenge that idea. Her decision to focus on pop alone has yielded one of her best works. 1989 is one of the most sonically cohesive albums with a strong overarching theme and narrative she has ever made.

“But at a certain point,” she says, “if you chase two rabbits, you lose them both.” So this time, she set out to do full-on “blatant pop music.” A casual fan won’t notice much difference, but to Swift and her brand, it’s a big step. She says she won’t be going to country-awards shows or promoting the album on country radio.

The Reinvention Of Taylor Swift, by Josh Eells from Rolling Stone

1989 is her experiment making “blatant pop music” and I think the term “experiment” is also too derogatory a term to describe it. After all, “(she) is the only artiste in history to have three albums – 2010’s Speak Now, 2012’s Red and 2014’s 1989 – sell more than one million copies in their first week of release. And the numbers don’t lie: 1989 is also the highest-selling album release since 2002 and the only album to go platinum last year.”

Success is rarely accidental. The effort that went into making the album was well documented in a series of videos produced by the Grammy Pro website (link here). The three videos provide fascinating insights to Swift’s thought and musical production process. I was particularly impressed by how Swift puts in a lot of thought and attention to every detail (the type of instrument used for the background music and the composition etc) of the album.

Essentially, her discipline, diligence and focus makes her one of music’s current luminaries. That’s Swift’s X Factor.

Why I Look Up To Taylor Swift

So why do I idolise Taylor Swift? Well, it’s because she’s a shrewd businesswoman and all-rounded performer. I may not have any musical training nor am I some fan-site writer but I do know who is a role model. Unlike other singers whom I listen to, Swift is still the only one whom I actually respect and feel is worthy of emulation.

Her firm understanding of what it takes to survive in the cutthroat music and entertainment industry is best shown through her self-awareness. She doesn’t drink her own kool aid and appoint herself as the patron saint of teenage girls and women in general.

She knows she’s not perfect and chooses to make light of the accusations levied at her. Just listen to “Blank Space”. That song is the best example of Swift’s self-awareness where she chooses to turn the tables on her naysayers by playing out the stereotype of “serial dater” to its most extreme.

Tracks like “Mean” and “Shake It Off” are not just catchy ear worms but rousing anthems of empowerment. Sometimes, its the cliched and innocent values of determination that best uplifts one’s spirits. The fact that even music’s biggest star has her own fair share of problems to overcome is a strong source of motivation for me to get through my own obstacles and difficulties.

In addition, her dedication to craft and her humility has made her more than just a facile construct of today’s entertainment industry. Taylor Swift is an artist. Her work is more than just another pop product but a polished work worth appreciating. Reinterpreting songs like Luna Halo’s “Untouchable” or more recently Vance Joy’s “Riptide” are but some examples of her technical ability.

I really love her cover of. “Riptide”. The soft and gentle touch to Joy’s originally fast paced song made it more than just a cover. It was a reinvention and elevation of the source material.

The harmonious, soothing nature of the cover made it one of the songs I listened to on repeat while studying for my A Levels. I found it oddly relaxing (though I find the lyrics utter gibberish on closer inspection) and used it calm my nerves before every major paper.

Her commitment to excellence and her fervent pursuit for success makes her one of my heroes. Success comes with a price. Increased pressure stress. Increased paranoia over one’s impending failure. Yet, Swift’s management of her success has shown to me that despite its price, success is something that is still worth fighting for. Success means a bigger canvass and platform for one to fulfil their biggest ambitions and life’s dreams.

“Maybe I’m just a girl on a mission

But I’m ready to fly”

Taylor Swift “A Place In This World”

At a sprightly age of 25 years old, Taylor Swift has accomplished far more than most celebrities older than her. As a fan, I look forward to seeing what else this “girl on a mission” has in store for the world of music.

First published on my Wordpress blog: tankwanwei.wordpress.com

Image taken from iDigitalTimes

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