Drake, Taylor Swift, and the Triumph of the Fake

The least relevant criticism someone can make of a superstar is that they’re not self-made.

A Drake action figure from his "Energy" video (OVO)

If you follow pop culture, perhaps you spent part of this Tuesday clicking through Internet slideshows of images of the slideshow of Internet images that Drake showed at his most recent show. Perhaps you then Googled around to see whether anyone had yet made a meme involving Drake and the concept of ouroboros, and the best you could find was an image of the Toronto rapper in an Inception poster.

The Drake/Meek Mill feud that led to this grand exercise in the meta has captured public attention not only because it involves famous people, but also because it involves the question of what makes certain people famous. Mill accused Drake of not writing his own lyrics; Drake changed the subject with amusing disses that generated amusing memes that he then repurposed for a amusing PowerPoint-like presentation at his OVO Fest in Toronto. The sheer volume of Drake’s response has led many to call him the victor in the beef (Meek’s latest, paltry salvo: wedgie threats), but he’s still yet to deny the ghostwriting accusation that started it all—in fact, he just let the Internet ghostwrite his concert.

The saga’s made clear that Drake, like a lot of stars, should be thought of less as a solo artist than as a collaborator both with behind-the-scenes figures and with pop culture at large. He (and/or his team) serves up raw material—songs that balance tough-talking wit and sensitivity, but also “YOLO,” GIFable videos, and emoji tattoos—to be digested and turned into viral phenomena, which are then reseeded into the project that is “Drake”: music catalogue, media narrative, and merchandise trademark. Part of his success comes from whatever image of hip-hop authenticity that Mill tried to slash through, but more of it comes from his entertainment value, which has nothing to do with being real.

The Drake kind of celebrity is not new, but it is thriving. The Kardashians are continuing to pioneer new ways of not-so-secretly manipulating the public: Kim expanding into entrepreneurship and motherhood while maintaining her ability to winkingly “Break the Internet” with her body; Caitlyn Jenner using a deeply personal transition for a reality TV series that doubles as a public-awareness campaign. But the current media master is Taylor Swift, whose marketing is deeply powerful and as sophisticated as a multinational’s. She wears the memes made about her; she rewards her fans with films of them being rewarded; she presents her pivot from singer-songwriter country into factory-made pop as a move to satisfy her soul; she uses her friendships to evangelize for friendship to evangelize for herself.

Swift, like Drake, will always be a target of controversy because some people think this kind of manipulation is deceitful or wrong. Last month, partly spurred by a Twitter spat between Swift and Nicki Minaj (Meek Mill’s girlfriend![?]), a flood of pent-up dislike was unleashed toward the 25-year-old singer, perhaps most potently by Dayna Evans at Gawker. In a post titled “Taylor Swift Is Not Your Friend,” she called Swift “evil” for being a “a ruthless, publicly capitalist pop star” who uses feminism for profit. Like Meek Mill calling Drake a hack, articles like Evans’s create the impression of there being a counter-narrative that the public should wake up to; if only people realized their entertainers were putting on a show, they wouldn’t scream for them.

The truth, though, is that on some level fans and haters alike are already in on the routine. The majority of people who think every giggle and grin and shout-out Swift makes onstage is 100 percent the result of pure, spontaneous feeling are probably tweenagers or younger; even the most positive concert reviews from adults center around just how savvy she is. If you love dancing “Shake It Off,” if you cry to “All Too Well,” if your kid sister builds stronger bonds with her female friends because of something Swift posted on Instagram, then it means that the machine worked. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for you—but another machine probably will.

What about the idea of hypocrisy? The fact that she has rooms full of songwriters and huge marketing power might make Swift’s on-stage projection of herself as a warm, selfless underdog seem false to some. But those are also the very things that allow her to be big enough to be on that stage in the first place, putting on the show at all, delivering any sort of message—deeply sincere or not. Similarly, the existence of a ghostwriter clearly undercuts a lot of what Drake raps about (“understand nothing was done for me,” yeah right). But it’s also helped bring him the success that allows him to swagger so convincingly in front of a festival he founded, slinging disses about a guy who dared to point out that it’s all an act. Of course it’s an act. It’s entertainment.