The fact that court maneuvers can also be publicity campaigns is one that’s likely familiar to Swift, as well as to the many other pop-music figures who’ve taken civil action in recent months. Reading the news lately might give you the impression that it’s suing season for celebrities, though that’s probably just an illusion given the United States’s notoriously undying love for litigation. As is the case with so many aspects of life that get crossed with celebrity culture, legal filings for stars necessarily speak in the court of public opinion, and what they say can be as interesting to dissect, and as influential on how stars are perceived, as any song.
Earlier this year, the former radio DJ David Mueller sued Swift and her team for telling his bosses he’d groped her during a meet-and-greet, an accusation that he says is false and cost him his job. A star of Swift’s stature and means could, no doubt, make the situation go away relatively quietly. But she instead blew it up into bigger headlines this past week by filing a strongly worded countersuit that makes the groping allegations formal. It’s easy to understand why she’d not want to settle, given that he’s accused her of lying, but she’s doing more than just defending herself: She’s seeking a jury trial and monetary damages, which her lawyers say will go to charitable organizations “dedicated to protecting women from similar acts of sexual assault and personal disregard.” She wants, as her complaint says, to “serve as an example to other women who may resist publicly reliving similar outrageous and humiliating acts.”
The suit is a classic Swift move in the way it savvily combines her interests: standing up for her own credibility, seeking justice against someone she says wronged her, and serving a greater cause that also bolsters her feminist-role-model credentials. As she’s done so many times before—whether with romantic relationships, friendships, or her mom’s cancer diagnosis—she has leaned into the fact that her personal affairs are a matter of public scrutiny.
In other cases of music-legend litigation, the PR calculation is even more straightforward. On Friday, the former manager of N.W.A., Jerry Heller, sued the musicians and filmmakers involved in the summer biopic smash Straight Outta Compton, alleging defamation and breach of contract due to the way he was portrayed in the film as villainous. Heller had already gone on a counter-propaganda tour around the time of the film’s release, telling his side of the N.W.A. story to outlets like Grantland and World Star Hip-Hop. He even released a book about his experiences in 2007. But by filing a lawsuit, he brings more attention than ever before to his claim that he didn’t swindle anyone. Regardless of who’s right, regardless of whether he succeeds in court, he—somewhat like the women abused by Dr. Dre who’ve recently spoken out—has affixed an asterisk to a film that’s likely to be the most influential on-screen depiction of the birth of West Coast gangsta rap.