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Taylor Swift Won’t Let Go of Pop’s Big Machine

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - APRIL 25: Fans await Taylor Swift's arrival at the new Kelsey Montague mural on April 25, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. Swift commissioned the mural and put clues about her upcoming new music in the piece. (Photo by Leah Puttkammer/Getty Images)

Taylor Swift’s music is very eager to remind us that we have plenty of things to say about her, most of which are rude. So I’ll at least give her this: Among modern day pop superstars, she stands alone. Never has been that been more clear than with the release of her newest single “Me!”—a song explicitly designed to be as broadly appealing as possible, delivered via a greasy brand-assisted mass media campaign. At a time when many of Swift’s peers are pursuing their own aesthetic visions as auteurs, while at the same time eschewing traditional promotion and distribution almost entirely, “Me!” feels like an anachronism, and not a welcome one.

As the media and entertainment industries have shrunk in some ways but expanded in other (mostly weird) ones, a few pop stars have rewritten the rulebook for how they, and their art, are supposed to interact with the public. The names of such artists are big, bright, and obvious. Beyoncé, of course, has essentially upended the rule of law, dropping albums and films without warning, having created an entire company, Parkwood Entertainment, to both distribute her art and mediate her dealings with the outside world. Kanye West, to pick another, has turned his music into something like a quasi-public community project, culling artists from across genres to help him create albums that he releases suddenly, and then continues to tinker with even after releasing them to the public. Lately, he has been staging what look like cult gatherings in the translucent celebrity bubble of Calabasas, images of which are distributed by his family via Instagram, seen and heard only in snippets.

Such artists are no longer engaging in the distribution of music as we have understood it for decades. “Singles” are increasingly ceasing to exist—instead they are crowdsourced, with programmers and playlisters mining data, intuition, and social media feeds to see which songs from an album fans are latching onto. (“Sicko Mode,” one of the biggest singles of 2018, climbed the ladder this way.) Videos may exist or may not, though if they do they’re rarely in the service of promotion in the traditional sense. Interviews are even more rare. Drake, for instance, has not sat for an interview with a journalist in years. The closest he’s come is a recent appearance on LeBron James’ HBO show The Shop that counted as engrossing simply by dint of its existence. When Beyoncé appeared on last year’s edition of Vogue’s vaunted September issue, she chose both the photographer and writer, and the entire package was creative directed by Kwasi Fordjour, a creative coordinator at Parkwood. For her most recent album, Nicki Minaj spoke to some interviewers, but saved her most incendiary and newsmaking quotes for her radio show on Apple Music, which she used as a bully pulpit—for better or worse—in the style of New York’s loudmouth shock jocks.

This understanding that the rules no longer need to apply to them is a luxury for some of these artists, but it was borne out of necessity. Everyone listed above is both Black and an artist that makes rap, R&B, both, or something in between. The all-encompassing domination of streaming services has flipped the tables in an extreme and radical way, thrusting rap and R&B back into the center of pop culture, so it might be easy to forget that not too long ago Black artists appeared close to being erased from the landscape of pop music entirely. When Beyoncé surprise released her game-changing self-titled album at the end of 2013—the time of “Blurred Lines” and “Thrift Shop”—no Black person in the calendar year had been the lead artist of a song that made it to No. 1, the first time that had ever happened in the history of Billboard’s charts. Further, during that year, Billboard’s R&B and hip-hop chart was topped by a white artist for 44 weeks out of the year. Beyoncé may have shaken up the music industry by scrawling all over the blueprint for how pop stars release music, but as a Black woman her incentive for doing so was clear, even if only, at the time, to her.

If Black artists at-large being temporarily locked out of pop music triggered a search for a new kind of artistic and economic freedom by those at the top, resulting in some of our era’s most beloved albums, it figures that other pop stars would take notice, too. This past December, Ariana Grande suddenly released the single “thank u, next,” harnessing personal and public turmoil for what turned out to be an instant No. 1 smash. She soon followed that with an album of the same name, released just six months after her previous album, Sweetener, which was supposed to represent her grand reemergence after the Manchester bombings of 2017. In explaining her decision to trample over the typical protracted life cycle of her big statement album with a new big statement album, Grande told Billboard that she was tired of the promotional rubric imposed on pop stars, specifically women:

“My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does. I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t. We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the preorder, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day, and all this shit.”

Here, in outlining the different standards she feels that singers (women) are held to versus rappers (men), Grande is unknowingly referencing a different kind of forced Black music renaissance, when the music industry, coming down from its CD-era largesse, was unable to properly nurture the careers of rappers, leading the likes of 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and Gucci Mane to release some of the best rap music of its time completely outside the major label structure as mixtapes. Grande is drawing lines around gender when doing so around race is more instructive (Minaj, who came up on the mixtape circuit, is a rapper, too) but nonetheless, as a pop superstar who was explicitly looking to break free of age-old restraints, her point stands.

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This all brings us back to Taylor Swift, who, like Beyoncé and Rihanna before her, has become a pro at making the media industry work for her. (Her own company, TAS Rights Management, has a habit of becoming litigious when the press don’t comply.) Reputation, her most recent album, was accompanied by a magazine, designed to mimic fashion monthlies and supermarket gossip rags, through which she communicated directly with her fans. A month after the release of the album, she appeared on the cover of UK Vogue, but the photos were accompanied simply by a poem Swift wrote titled “The Trick to Holding On.” In anticipation of her new music, she recently covered the March issue of Elle, for which she provided a list of “30 Things I Learned Before Turning 30,” and her recent appearance on one cover of Time‘s annual “Time 100” issue was, as is customary, pinned to an essay written by a celebrity friend, in this case Shawn Mendes.

Yet, in basically every other significant way, Swift is adhering to the industry rulebook many of her contemporaries at the tippy-top of popular music have happily lit on fire. In the lead-up to “Me!,” Swift devoted several weeks to a theatrical rollout, leaving breadcrumbs, as is her wont, to be examined by the watchful eyes of her stans. She unsubtly shifted her Instagram to photos that adhered to a strict color palette of pinks, purples, and blues, before teasing a vague “announcement” for April 26, the day she eventually unveiled the song. And when she did, she did not do it quietly, instead wedging herself into the first night of the NFL Draft, held in her adopted hometown of Nashville, via a live interview with Robin Roberts, who was hosting ABC’s broadcast of the draft. Immediately after, ESPN (an ABC broadcast partner) announced that “Me!” would soundtrack their coverage of Round 2 of the draft, coining the hashtag #MeOutNow. This very specific sort of corporate synergy was in no way foreign to Swift, who tethered the first two singles from Reputation to ESPN broadcasts of college football games. A phrase like “…Ready For It?” took on the air of a vague threat: even if you don’t want it, you’d better get ready, at least if you plan to watch football on ESPN.

If we are to accept that various forces led Black artists of a certain stature to, like those before them, seek a sort of personal and artistic liberation via new methods of distribution, what then are we to make of the person who is most well positioned to do the same, but instead is proudly clinging to the old gatekeepers that nobody really seemed to miss? The “Me!” video opens with a slithering snake exploding into a flock of butterflies, ripping a page from George Michael (himself an early crusader against the promotion-industrial complex) to signify to her fans and the public that we are entering a new era of Taylor Swift. But what, really, has changed? “Me!” may be a triumphant, inspirational anthem with a video that is a cheery wonderland of pastels—an obvious about-face from the steely monochromatic palette and reptilian imagery of Reputation—but, in this time of distribution-as-statement, it’s being thrust down our gullets in the exact same way.

Swift, one day, may find her liberation, too—or at least that’s what some of us are perpetually hoping for. Jon Caramanica—the New York Times pop critic who was the first to say that despite Swift’s best efforts Reputation was actually good (he was right)—tweeted upon the release of “Me!” that maybe Swift’s next album would be the stripped-down, artifice-free, singer-songwriter gem that must be coming one of these days . Diet Prada, a verified Instagram account that chronicles rip-offs in the fashion world, posted nearly indistinguishable side-by-side screencaps of Swift’s Instagram account and that of Kacey Musgraves with the caption “I guess this means @taylorswift is coming back with a country album?” The implication might have been that Swift was about to be the latest to jump on the “yeehaw” bandwagon, but it also could’ve been read another way: that Swift, fresh off being shut out of a Grammys that named Musgraves’ Golden Hour as Album of the Year, was going to drop the pop shtick and release a tasteful, timeless album, true to her roots, that everyone could respect.

So why does it appear that she won’t be? You could read a very pure form of cynicism into Swift choosing to release her new single with the help of ESPN and the NFL, two lightly-to-heavily evil entities that many good people would rather not be associated with. She has more money than she could spend in one lifetime and enough accumulated power and industry goodwill to do literally anything she wants with her time and art, and yet, she chose, at least for one night, to spend it in the rain, talking through Robin Roberts to 4.54 million potential consumers of her music. Granted, that’s two more million than the number of people who paid actual money for Reputation, but, as that link explains, it’s also at least two more million than the number of people who paid actual money for any album in the last two years.

In that interview, Swift had this to say about “Me!”: “I think with a pop song we have the ability to get a melody stuck in people’s heads, and I just want it to be one that makes them feel better about themselves.” You could read this as Swift reacting against the narcotic, downtempo pop of, say, Post Malone and Billie Eilish, a sound that before blanketing America first dominated the streaming services Swift once took to battle. This wouldn’t exactly be a surprise, though Swift is probably a fan. Those artists, to put it bluntly, represent a cool version of pop music, and Swift has never once been that. Even Red—the Taylor Swift album that people who think they have good taste say is her best—contains treacly duets with Gary Lightbody and Ed Sheeran, a lyric about “dressing up like hipsters,” and a (humble?) brag about owning more James Taylor albums than any girl previously dated by a boy she fancies. Taylor Swift likes big, broad, tasteless pop music—who can ever forget this, uh, iconic outfit? “Me!” is not just who she loves, but also what she loves.

That recent Elle cover also brought along an essay Swift wrote about pop music titled, “For Taylor Swift, Pop Is Personal.” In the piece, Swift presents the creation of pop music as a challenge which she is eager to solve. Where someone like Beyoncé might have relished the opportunity to create her own universe parallel to the rest of pop music, Swift wants to do the opposite: to expand the universe of pop music so it welcomes even just one more person than it might have otherwise. She writes:

“The fun challenge of writing a pop song is squeezing those evocative details into the catchiest melodic cadence you can possibly think of. I thrive on the challenge of sprinkling personal mementos and shreds of reality into a genre of music that is universally known for being, well, universal.”

Fair enough, but one also gets the sense from the sick-to-your-stomach sweetness of “Me!”—a song so relentlessly catchy, so precisely engineered to be omnipresent, that your options are to submit or go insane—that pop music is not just a challenge for Taylor Swift, but a crusade. And if her pop is personal, as the headline states, so then are her choices for how it’s presented to the world. With “Me!” Swift is conveying not just that she loves pop music as an art form but also as a corporate institution. While her peers in the rarified air of pop megastardom appear happy to leave the machinery behind, she is putting on her cape and flying through the air on a mission to save it from destruction.

During that appearance on ABC, Swift took the viewer on a short, guided tour of Nashville that had been filmed some time before. Jumping into a car, she says that she is going to be “taking you around to some spots that are really significant to me over the course of my life.” We are shown her high school, as well as a venue called the Bluebird Cafe where she performed a set that she says landed her a record deal. These are relatable, if obvious, landmarks, hitting notes familiar to anyone with a dream. Next, though, we’re shown the Nashville offices of Sony Music Publishing, a drab brick building at 8 Music Way on the city’s famed Music Row that looks like the wing of a hospital. “Sony/ATV publishing,” she says from behind the wheel. “I’m very loyal to that company. They’ve been very loyal to me.”