When Taylor Swift sang “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me” on her latest album, she could have been talking about a recent breakup. But I’d put money on it being about the media, not men.
Reputation, which came out in November, marks a turning point in her relationship with the people who write about her. The cover shows her against a background of her name repeated endlessly in newsprint. She has refused to promote the album in the traditional way by giving interviews.
Instead Swift has mined social media, launching a new app and talking to fans on Tumblr, using YouTube and, most ironic of all, producing two print magazines. The unconventional strategy paid off. Reputation sold 1.2m copies in its first week, making it the best-selling album in the US this year.
She also appears on the cover of not one but two influential magazines this week, Time and British Vogue. For the latter, she appointed her own photographers and wrote a poem instead of granting an audience. For Time’s person of the year issue – her first print interview for over a year – she sent her replies to questions in writing.
If ever there were a celebrity who sums up the two biggest issues for journalism in 2017, control and trust, it is Swift. In one sense, her desire for control is an affront to journalism’s ability to seek out truth and hold the powerful to account – and Swift is powerful. But at the same time it’s hard not to have some sympathy for her decision to do things on her own terms.
The reaction to the Time cover is a case in point. Swift was one of five women chosen for their decisions to speak out after the Weinstein allegations – the magazine called them “silence breakers” – but the only one to be criticised for it. Free speech means everyone has the right to criticise, of course, but if the internet has taught us anything it is to stop and ask if it is fair.
Objections coalesced around the fact that she had been chosen, possibly for her newsstand appeal, over worthier candidates such as Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement. Burke featured prominently, along with many other women, but only on the inside pages.
In a damning piece in the Daily Beast, headlined Taylor Swift is no Silence Breaker, Amy Zimmerman criticises the 27-year-old for not speaking out on other things, or sooner, seemingly unaware of the irony of attacking a young woman for “spineless feminism and political passivity”. Zimmerman did grudgingly admit that she “technically fits the bill as a woman who took her groper to court this year”.
Whatever you think of Swift or her music, this criticism surely runs counter to the spirit of #MeToo. In the Time Q&A, she talks about how a country radio station DJ “stuck his hand up my dress and grabbed on to my ass cheek”.
“I figured that if he would be brazen enough to assault me under these risky circumstances and high stakes, imagine what he might do to a vulnerable, young artist if given the chance,” she said. She reported him, and two years after he was fired he sued her for $3m in damages. She countersued for just $1, and won. “My advice is that you not blame yourself and do not accept the blame others will try to place on you,” she wrote in Time.
It’s clear that Swift is far from some sort of Instagram Joan of Arc, carrying the sword of truth and justice. She’s a young woman who hasn’t always got everything right. One example is her initial dismissal of Nicki Minaj on Twitter when the latter was making an important point about racism in the music industry.
Her brand of feminism has justifiably been a lightning rod for many who argue that white women, notably rich ones, ignore the problems of others while appropriating their contributions. Swift has made mistakes and not apologised for them quickly or emphatically enough.
Speaking up for yourself and not letting somebody else do it for you is, however, a powerful message for many young women. One example of this power? In the days following her August trial, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reported a 35% increase in calls. The phrase “take back control” might have been tarnished by its political connotations but, as a rallying cry, it is still meaningful. With her image and message management, Swift is its musical apotheosis.
Her sidelining of journalists is savvy commercial sense in a music industry that has been revolutionised by social media. Beyoncé has a similar way of holding them at arms’ length. It is also a reaction to a clickbait culture that has led to a great deal of abuse online.
Just as Madonna wrote the media engagement rulebook in the pre-Insta-age, Taylor Swift is writing it now. Using platforms such as Tumblr to establish a direct relationship with her fans, including home visits, she is cutting out the middlemen. Traditional outlets need to recognise this, and work out how to stay relevant.
A star since the age of 15, Swift is victim turned arch-manipulator of the media that propelled her to stardom. Look What you Made me Do, indeed.
Breaking through the celluloid ceiling
Swift has been accused of using causes such as feminism for her own commercial gain, but what if respect for women was simply considered good business sense for everyone? Next week sees the launch of the latest in the Star Wars franchise: The Last Jedi, starring Daisy Ridley as Rey. If, as expected, it’s a monster hit, the top three films of 2017 could all have featured women in the lead role. The other two are Wonder Woman, which made $413m, and Beauty and the Beast, which made $504m. For years, however, Hollywood power brokers have claimed that female-led films would not attract huge crowds.
In an interview in 2015, Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm, which makes Star Wars, called for more to be done to promote women both in front of and behind the camera. “Having a balance of men and women in the room changes the story,” she said. “The dialogue, the point of view.” One thing we know about dialogue, however, is that money talks.
When the going gets tough, the tabloids get royal
There is still a plethora of traditional roles for women in the media, of course. When Women in Journalism produced research (pdf) into front pages in 2012 it found that Kate Middleton and her sister Pippa were the women most likely to feature. Having watched the papers salivate over princess-in-waiting Meghan Markle, it’s clear that more research should be done on whether those pictures pop up more often when the news is bad.
At the end of last week, as the secretary of state for Brexit admitted his failure to research its impact and the prime minister prepared to hand the EU a cheque for £39bn, the Daily Mail put a smiling Meghan on the masthead above a story about which royals she might need to curtsey to. The Daily Mirror also ran an exclusive about Markle’s father, showing that Brexit fears are proving a headache at both ends of the political spectrum.
Anyone would think an unholy alliance of Paul Dacre and David Davis forced Harry’s hand. It’s hard not to believe that there are talks in train between No 10 and the palace to time the wedding itself for the worst point of the negotiations. Or maybe for the day we’re told there’ll be no more money for the NHS after all.
Credit: The Guardian