The Business of Being Taylor Swift

Her new single and livestream showcase her honest-yet-savvy image.
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Eric Thayer/Reuters

Ever since Taylor Swift posted an Instagram video two weeks ago of herself repeatedly pushing the “18” button on an elevator, savvy fans knew exactly how this was going to play out. On August 18, she would announce the date of her new album release, just as she did in the summers of 2012 (Red) and 2010 (Speak Now). The album would come out sometime in October, as it always does. And there’d probably be a new song before then.

Indeed, all of that has now come to pass. On Monday, Swift announced in a Yahoo livestream that she has a new single (“Shake it Off”), complete with music video, and her new album, called 1989, will come out on October 27.

“Shake It Off” is about haters, what they will do (“hate hate hate hate hate”) and what you should do in response to them (“shake shake shake shake shake… shake it off”). It has some good grumpy trombones in the background. It has a horrible break in which Swift… talks? I can’t in good conscience say “raps.” The video is a montage of Swift dancing poorly in different styles, from ballet to twerking, in front of some background dancers who are dancing well in those different styles. It is fine. I have already listened to it 15 times.

“I like to make a new album every two years,” Swift explains during the livestream to her fans who have not already figured out her pattern, noting that two years is enough time to change your hairstyle, where you live, everything about your life. Two years has also probably exactly how long the people can go without a new T-Swift album, just enough time to leave them aquiver with anticipation, but not so long as to incite a rebellion.

Two years is also the perfect amount of time for a reinvention. She calls her new album a “rebirth,” which is why it’s called 1989, after the year of her first birth. During the Q&A portion of the livestream, the first question she takes (from Instagram, of course) is from a fan who notices that her look tends to change with every album she makes (The Speak Now era was spiral curls and floral dresses, Red was all hot pants and bangs.) Swift does not deny this. She can divide her life into perfectly demarcated two-year increments in which she purposefully arranges her whole aesthetic to reflect whatever image best encompasses her latest album. Her fans don’t mind. It’s a helpful visual cue.

The thing about Taylor Swift is that all of her moves are calculated, but she is completely transparent about it. A fan during the livestream asks if she’s going to keep putting secret messages in the album’s liner notes. This is a tradition in which she capitalizes random letters in the song lyrics to spell out cryptic messages. They typically seem to hint at which of her myriad ex-boyfriends the song is about. It’s great fun. (She’s well aware that people love to analyze her relationships. One of the lyrics from “Shake it Off” is: “I go on too many dates, but I can’t make ‘em stay, that’s what people say.”)

“If you guys keep on liking that I do that, I’ll keep on doing it,” is Swift’s response. Then: “All of what I decide to do on albums is based on what I think you will like.” Sure, she’s in it for the art. But she’s also in it to please people. And she’s totally honest about that.

She is giving fans all kinds of extras they never knew they wanted—“bonus tracks” that are actually just voice memos from her phone, photo packs of different Polaroid photos of her (gotta catch ‘em all! “I’ll trade you my ‘Surprise Face Taylor’ for your ‘Leaving the Gym’ Taylor!”). But just around the point where the self-exaltation almost becomes unpalatable—right around when she announces a sweepstakes called “Swiftstakes”—she says something to bring us back down to earth. Such as: “It’s like sweepstakes, but we made it annoying.” It’s impossible to resent her cunning salesmanship, because she’s so self-aware. “All I think about are metaphors and cats,” she says at one point. I know, Taylor, I know.

It’s no surprise that as Swift’s image has become more polished, and her business model perfected, she has moved farther away from country music, a genre that prides itself on at least the appearance of downhome authenticity, toward the sleek manufactured sheen of plain-old pop. 1989 will be her first “documented official pop album,” she says, even though Red was only holding onto the “country” label by the thinnest of threads. But fans aren’t pretending anymore. We all know what we’re here for.

Based on the clues from the livestream, the next two years of Swift will be pop-heavy and nostalgic. It seems we’re in for more Max Martin-produced radio jams, fewer acoustic metaphor-laden ballads of romantic woe (unfortunately, in my opinion). She sung the praises of ‘80s pop during the livestream, and is apparently really into crop tops now. Her new album cover is a Polaroid photo of her, grainy and faded with the top of her head cut off. She plays it off like she just stumbled on this photo and decided to make it the album cover.

“It was kind of an accident,” she says.

No it wasn’t. 

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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