Taylor Swift spoke and Apple listened. She wrote an open letter to the tech behemoth regarding its plan to use music without compensating artists, writers, or producers during its three-month trial run of its new streaming service, and just like that, Apple reversed its policy. In response, Wired declared Taylor Swift the “queen of the internet,” while Entrepreneur called her “the most powerful person in tech.”
Swift used an open letter—the most self-congratulatory medium there is—to reach Apple. She made a big show of her standing up for the little guy. Part of her letter reads:
This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.
These are not the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child. These are the echoed sentiments of every artist, writer and producer in my social circles who are afraid to speak up publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much. We simply do not respect this particular call.
In response to this, Pitchfork ran a think piece called “It Me Taylor Swift Literal Underdog.” Its incomprehensible title is consistent with many of its sentences. Writer Kathy Iandoli casts Swift as a people’s champ, her letter perceived as “an earnest request to let the starving artists live. For whatever reason, Taylor was previously viewed as disingenuous, but the reality is, Taylor Swift has never not championed for the underdog.” Regarding Swift’s tweeted response to Apple’s decision, Iandoli writes, “Taylor addressed her congregation accordingly: ‘They listened to us.’ Us. Taylor Swift is now ‘us.’”
There are a few principles we should have in mind when monitoring Taylor Swift’s public behavior:
1. Building and maintaining a personal brand is at odds with altruism.
2. The only true act of generosity is an anonymous one.
3. Taylor Swift is not an underdog.
4. Taylor Swift is not us.
This is not to dismiss Swift’s impressive ability to deliver the results she sought, no matter how obnoxiously they were packaged. This is a call for some perspective.
The Taylor Swift-is-an-underdog narrative was most publicly hammered out last year by the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica in his review of Taylor Swift’s most recent album, 1989. The pop on 1989 is more synthy but no less poppy than her previous country-inflected pop. That album sold 1.287 million copies in the U.S. its first week. Swift’s preceding album, 2012’s Red, sold 1.21 million copies during its opening week. Speak Now, from 2010, sold 1.047 million copies its first week. Just saying.
...In the video for this album’s first single, the spry “Shake It Off,” in which she surrounds herself with all sorts of hip-hop dancers and bumbles all the moves. Later in the video, she surrounds herself with regular folks, and they all shimmy un-self-consciously, not trying to be cool.
See what Ms. Swift did there? The singer most likely to sell the most copies of any album this year has written herself a narrative in which she’s still the outsider. She is the butterfingers in a group of experts, the approachable one in a sea of high post, the small-town girl learning to navigate the big city.
Yes, she has written that narrative, and if you believe it, I know a woman with glasses and her hair up that will positively floor you with her beauty once she takes them off and it down. Hit me up and I’ll introduce you. [Editor’s note: I think I look great with my glasses on, thanks.]
To be clear, Caramanica seemed to find this narrative plausible if not wholly authentic. His review of a Swift concert in Bossier City, Louisana, last month ran with the headline: “On Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ Tour, the Underdog Emerges as Cool Kid.” In it, he wrote:
Whatever underdog anxieties Ms. Swift might have had earlier in her career are mostly gone. With the release in the fall of 1989 (Big Machine), her fifth album, Ms. Swift neatly ascended to the top of the pop hierarchy, largely by bypassing and ignoring most of her peers. She used the same blend of guilelessness and savvy that made her a radical figure in country music, and applied it to 1980s-influenced sounds that made her one of the most conservative figures in pop.
So she’s still a kind of underdog, but a big dog, too. The 1989 album has gone platinum four times over, and this show was the first stand-alone date of the American leg of her 1989 world tour, which will mainly play stadiums. (This arena was far smaller, holding about 13,000 people.)
There’s no kind of an underdog about it; Taylor Swift is a pop pitbull. Everything she releases is a hit. Her farts go gold (at least). She is in that can-do-no-wrong career sweet-spot that Madonna found in the mid-80’s, that Janet Jackson held from Control to janet., that Mariah Carey floated through the ‘90s on, that Katy Perry most recently departed post-Teenage Dream. This is undeniable, as much as I would like for it to be untrue, as Taylor Swift annoys the living shit out of me.
Salon wrote a piece about Swift’s posh upbringing to counter Carmanica’s concert review. A photographer has come forward claiming that Swift is a hypocrite for (via her father) handing him a contract that’s similarly shitty as streaming services’ contracts are to musicians. At least one critic wrote brilliantly about the toxicity behind Swift’s disingenuously affirming messages. Sure, uh huh, absolutely.
But all that aside, let’s not invest another second in the idea that Swift is an underdog. It’s bullshit she’s trying to spoon feed you and you’re being seduced by a human product if you believe it. (Do you believe that she’s actually that surprised when she wins music trophies, too?) Granted, Jurassic World taught us that even a great white can be an underdog when in the presence of a mosasurus. They’re still both monsters.
[Image via Getty]