Critical Thought

Speak Now: A Fearless Look at Reputation Since Midnight in 1989 (Taylor’s Version) – Or, Thoughts on the Nature of Fame and Having a Voice

She’s not the best example, but the figures associated with Taylor Swift help to illuminate something. It could be the record sales, the number of weeks at number one, the number of songs to crack the top ten (even sweeping all ten spots), her number of social media followers, or her bank account – the numbers are mammoth. She’s a titan.

Now, I have two reasons for hedging a bit and let’s get them out of the way now to focus on the point. First, she achieved the first level of stratosphere around age fourteen, so it’s hard to say she had a “normal life” up to a certain point. Second, without saying anything about her personal talent and drive, her parents’ contribution was significant. Not many people would receive the advantages (to go along with her talent and determination) to achieve what she did (at least not so early).

That said, the reason I bring up Taylor Swift is to discuss the juxtaposition of her subjects and her seemingly overnight success. While she did not go from obscurity to millions of Swifties overnight, it was exponential – just like the Beatles did not go from unknown to world sensations overnight, but we tend to point to the Ed Sullivan show as the moment their otherworldly popularity launched.

Why it’s interesting to me is you have this teenage girl from Pennsylvania who writes songs about her day. Her success is not innovating the music itself or composing musical treatise – her success is in her relatability delivered in a beautiful way. It makes it funny to think of Taylor as one of millions of teenagers writing away in her room (as she undoubtedly inspired countless Swifties to do) on a Tuesday, and then on Wednesday she’s T-Swift and any attempt to disrespect her is met with, ahem, swift justice from legions of diehard fans.

I was not (and am not) a Swiftie, because I was not a teenage girl in 2005 to relate so strongly to her songs. I found them enjoyable, but it was not until several albums later that I became impressed by her growth as a musician that I felt an inner shift from “enjoy Taylor’s music” to “Taylor Swift fan” (again, not a Swiftie – I’m not about to challenge a hardcore Swift fan to trivia). The constant thought as I’ve watched her career is, “What if she didn’t become famous?”

Without her parents’ help getting her to Nashville and music lessons in New York, networking with industry players, and a literal investment in recording, does Taylor make the jump from “Taylor from West Reading” to “Billboard Champion Taylor Swift”? More to the point, is there a material difference between those two people beyond the numbers? The Taylor the world knows today is still famous for writing about her experiences, just like that pre-fame teenager.

My mind goes to thoughts of an equally talented Taylor Swift that no one knows, writing the same songs as she slogs her way through a “normal” high school experience.

Because my mind is really not on Taylor Swift at all, but on how many other “Taylor Swifts” exist about which we do not know. The thought isn’t new, but social media definitely amplifies it. We have, let’s call them classical celebrities like Taylor Swift with millions of followers, and the new breed of celebrity famous for social media itself. As with the real world, many of those followers are non-celebrity people going about their lives, and the social algorithm does not offer them the same consideration. It makes sense, statistically, because far more people are interested in what Taylor Swift has to say than Jane Doe, even if she’s the same age and lived five houses down from Taylor in West Reading. Jane is not a celebrity and by definition not known to that number of people. Jane may have great ideas and be a tremendous talent.

Now pretend that Taylor tweets a video of Jane on Tuesday and from the pool of millions even a percentage say, “Wow, this Jane also has talent!” On Wednesday, Jane may find herself at the outset of her own boundless growth in popularity.

The other part of the equation is the popularity itself. As stated earlier, I’m not a Swiftie. I’m a fan of her music, but not to many others’ diehard extreme. We must also acknowledge, beyond this gradation of “true” fans, that there exists a population of people who like Taylor Swift because it’s popular to like Taylor Swift.

It reminds me of a scene from The Office where a bartender asks Steve Carell’s Michael Scott if he’s read Lee Iococca’s new book. “Read it? I own it. But, no, I have not read it,” he replies.

There’s a social currency to being in on the trends, and that includes pretending to be a fan of musicians not heard, games not played, books not read, and the like. I can’t help but feel the energy put into amplifying the already popular only helps to keep the not-yet-discovered in obscurity.

The point is not about undeserving fame – I don’t think anyone maintains a level of fame without their voice genuinely speaking to legions of fans – or even about the nature of fame itself. I think it speaks to the nature of listening and the way we’re conditioned to allow certain voices to reach us easily and to assume a level of competence when the voice comes from a capitalism-approved channel. A voice without fame, producing the same message or indeed even inventing the message might go unheard because people, in general, lack the artistic literacy to identify these voices without guidance from the free market.

Oh, and Taylor Swift is a talent who defines an entire generation of music and is likely to continue to do so for decades to come.

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