Is Taylor Swift on top of the world? Or is she poised to go beyond it, at least figuratively speaking?
That may sound like hyperbole, or the gushing of a wide-eyed fanboy or fangirl. But in Swift’s case, the questions posed above seem more closer to reality than starry-eyed fantasy.
This, after all, is the same Taylor Swift who:
• Has amassed an estimated worth of $200 million, has sold 140 million albums around the globe since 2006 and has 60 million Twitter followers, give or take (about 56 million more than President Obama);
• Generated international headlines last year after she yanked all her songs off Spotify to protest the streaming service’s meager compensation to the artists whose music it plays;
• And, this year, single-handedly took on Apple’s new streaming service, Apple Music, and its stated plan to not give any compensation to artists for songs streamed during the service’s free 90-day trial period.
In an open letter on Tumblr, Swift wrote: “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.” Apple caved less than a day later, citing Swift specifically for its sudden decision to compensate artists after all.
Like no other young pop superstar since Michael Jackson in his “Thriller” heyday of the early 1980s — that is, before everything started to go very wrong for him — Swift’s career trajectory has soared with rocket-like propulsion.
Credit for this goes largely to Swift herself. She is a textbook example of what Michael Jackson’s sister, Janet, sang about in her 1987 hit “Control.”
Careful calculation and execution
Indeed, it is difficult to think of another young pop superstar who has so carefully calculated and executed nearly every aspect of their career with as much care, precision and success as Swift, who performs a sold-out show here Saturday at Petco Park.
The date is one of 75 on her current world concert trek. It is expected to gross more than $100 million, in part because she is now performing in stadiums as well as arenas, which means a large jump in attendance and ticket and merchandise revenues.
Not coincidentally, this is her first tour since Swift released “1989,” the top-selling album of 2014. To date, the album has yielded five Top 40 singles, including “Bad Blood,” “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space.” Its commercial success has furthered her reputation as one of the very few artists (Adele is another) who seems to almost singlehandedly be keeping the ailing record industry afloat. To date, "1989" has sold more than 4 million copies, a phenomenal number at a time when albums can enter the charts at No. 1 after selling as few as 30,000 copies in a week.
After becoming the biggest-selling country-pop artist of the past decade, Swift made a carefully calibrated turn with “1989.” It is, as she puts it, her first “documented, official pop album.” If her previous album, 2012’s “Red,” clearly suggested she was heading in a more overt pop direction — “1989” seals the deal.
Whether she’s performing a country song, like her 2006 breakthrough hit “Tim McGraw,” or romping through the ebullient “Shake It Off,” Swift, 25, has an unerring ability to connect with her listeners. That she has a conventional singing voice, average range and does not engage in the look-at-me! vocal pyrotechnics so common in this era of "American Idol" and "X Factor" overkill may actually be to her advantage, since it enables scores of her fans to sing along without feeling hopelessly outclassed.
No matter the genre, Swift’s carefully crafted, unabashedly mainstream songs have struck a resounding chord with millions of young and not-so-young listeners. She makes her story theirs, if not vice versa, with songs that sound both personal and universal.
But that's just the musical part of the equation.
More than virtually any other music star, Swift deftly uses social media to connect with her fans. Then she goes several steps beyond, interacting with them in person during meet-and-greets at her concerts, where her mother typically handpicks fans each night to go backstage to chat with Swift and pose for selfies.
Offstage, she reaches out to fans who ill or facing obstacles. She is also generous in recognizing those whose devotion to her rises above the ordinary.
In early January, Rebekah Bortniker, a 25-year-old college student, posted a video she and some friends had made paying tribute to their musical hero. Swift responded by sending Bortniker a "gift basket." It included a water-color painting Swift had made especially for Bortniker, along with a handwritten than-you note and a check for $1989 to help pay off Bortniker's student loan. (Yes, $1989 just happens to correspond with the title of Swift's latest album.)
Then there's Jill Ralke, a 20-year-old fan who Swift follows on Tumblr. Or, as Ralke put it in one post: "I love Taylor Swift with all my heart. I love cats. Tay followed (me starting on) 10/4/14." In February, Ralke wrote a post that she'd bought a ticket to attend the Grammy Awards and would be sitting in "the nosebleed" section at the Staples Center for the telecast. Despite the fact that Swift presented two awards that night, she arranged for Ralke to be escorted backstage to meet with her.
In early March, Swift spent 20 minutes talking with 4-year-old fan San Antonio Jalene Salinas, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. A year earlier, Swift serenaded a 7-year-old cancer patient at Boston Children's Hospital. The list goes on.
Is Swift the only superstar to reach out to her fans like this? Of course not. But she seems to do so with unfailing regularity, connecting with them in ways that deepen the bond she has with her followers.
Avoiding controversy, mostly
Another key to Swift's success is non-musical. She has the well-honed business acumen you might expect from the daughter of an affluent stockbroker father and an equally savvy saleswoman mother.
Or, as Swift told an interviewer in late 2008, a few months before the planned launch of her first line of sundresses at Walmart: “I was raised by a stockbroker, so I’ve always been conscious of what the market is doing and where the economy is. I never want to put my name on something that an 18-year-old girl struggling through her freshman year of college can’t afford or a family of four who won’t spend $150 for a dress.”
Until recently, Swift has largely avoided controversy, apart from the songs she has written documenting her breakups with some of her famous former boyfriends. They have included Conor Kennedy, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and One Direction member Harry Styles (the hapless target of her blistering “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”).
But her biggest spat not directed at a music streaming company has been with Katy Perry, whose apparent hiring away of several of Swift’s tour dancers prompted Swift to write “Bad Blood.” The video for the song features an array of her A-list female BFFs from the worlds of music, film and modeling. What results helps illustrate how the girl-next-door image Swift once so successfully projected to her fans may now be shifting from inspirational to aspirational.
The empty controversy of “Bad Blood” aside, she’s had some well-publicized stumbles this year.
The first was in an uncharacteristically tone-deaf exchange on Twitter with hip-hop star Nicki Minaj, who had lamented that slender, young, white female singers seemed to be favored over less slender, young black female singers as nominees for this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Swift quickly (and wrongly) assumed Minaj was criticizing her, rather than the music industry and racial stereotypes. Her response to Minaj, for which she soon apologized, sounded self-centered and condescending.
The second stumble came with the July announcement in China of Swift’s clothing line, TS 1989. While the line takes its name from her initials and year of birth, 1989 is the year pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing led to the deaths of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators at the hands of Chinese soldiers.
“Ni hao, it’s Taylor Swift,” she said in an online video posted on China’s Weibo. “Be sure to check out my new authentic mercy (merchandise), now available in China.” The ensuing uproar — the number “89” is banned on many Chinese websites because of the Tiananmen Square massacre — was immediate.
It remains to be seen if Swift, who generally avoids political statements, will address her TS 1989 line when she performs in Shanghai in November. Presumably, she now appreciates the difference between real blood and sensationalized “Bad Blood,” and she and her music will both be the better for it.
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