What Getting Taylor Swift "In Her Own Words" Really Means
As magazines reinvent the format of the celebrity profile, they spark questions about how much truth their audience is actually getting from today's biggest artists.
Image via ELLE UK.
Like many of a certain generation of television watchers, Taylor Swift takes musical recommendations from the Grey's Anatomy soundtracks. The carefully-curated albums have developed as rabid a fanbase as the show itself; each episode is named after a song, and the tracks featured as the backdrop for pivotal scenes have been propelled into hits.
Swift did not reveal her fandom on Instagram, or in an interview, but in a piece she ostensibly wrote herself for ELLE UK's new music issue. In it, she outlines songs that were important musical moments for her, like the aforementioned Grey's Anatomy soundtrack:
When I hear “How to Save a Life” by The Fray, “Breathe (2AM)” by Anna Nalick, or “The Story” by Brandi Carlile, I immediately flashback to being seventeen and on tour for months on end.
When I’d get a day at home in between long stretches on the road sharing a van with my band and crew, I would spend my rare nights off painting alone with candles lit in my room—just being alone with those songs (Those are all from the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack. My commitment to that show truly knows no bounds).
Swift is also notably on the cover of this issue, and both details suggest that, after a period of relative quiet, she will be releasing new music soon. The potential forthcoming album will be her first since signing a new deal with Universal Music Group, which allows her to keep her future masters. She'd hinted as much in recent days, posting a series of relatively cryptic Instagrams, most of which used merely one emoji as a caption, excluding the one captioning a photo of her cat looking surprised/shocked/whatever extreme emotions cats can display that read "She just read all the theories 🙀"
Much will likely be made of Swift choosing to not do an interview to begin the promotional roll out for her new music. Indeed, much has already been made of similar moves; the conversation surrounding the current state of music journalism came to a head this past fall, when Beyoncé covered Vogue. The piece inside wasn't a traditional profile, but instead an "as told to" painted as "in her own words." (I'll note here that the interview was done by my former colleague Clover Hope.) The conversation became even more frenzied over reports that Beyoncé had chosen the photographer who shot her for the cover and inside spread, a narrative Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour unsurprisingly pushed back on.
To do an interview, regardless of how it’s presented, is crafting a narrative the subject does not have full control over. But Beyoncé's longtime control over her image and voice made her a natural subject to jumpstart (or continue) concern over this topic within the media community. In a subsequent, widely discussed piece in The New York Times, Jon Caramanica lamented the number of celebrities avoiding traditional interviews with journalists. "What’s replaced it isn’t satisfying: either outright silence, or more often, unidirectional narratives offered through social media," he wrote. "Monologue, not dialogue. It threatens to upend the role of the celebrity press."
In his piece, Caramanica specifically points out Swift, writing that she "hasn’t given a substantive interview and access to a print publication for at least two years," a complaint this piece for ELLE doesn't really upset. But perhaps there's something more here than just artists successfully attempting to control, even more than they ever could before, their own stories. Take the latest cover of Vanity Fair, devoted to Miley Cyrus. Interviewed by Zach Baron, Cyrus is quite candid, though it'd be inaccurate to argue she was the type of musician, like Swift or Beyoncé, who ever wasn't. Post-Disney, Miley has truly always been doing Miley, as Baron's piece reflects. In it, she discusses her recent surprise marriage to Liam Hemsworth, losing their home in the California fires, and her ever-shifting musical sound.
But scattered within it is another "in her own words." "Before we begin, Miley Cyrus would like to read something she’s written," the piece begins. "She’s not sure what to call it, actually. At one point she says 'op-ed,' but it’s not an op-ed. Statement? It’s kind of a statement. She’s trying to explain herself."
Later, Miley goes further. “Where I am in life right now is very complex, even to myself,” Cyrus tells Baron. “So I wrote something that, in my mind, could maybe come before our conversation.”
Sections of this manifesto are placed in italics within Baron's words and Miley's words to him. But the entire treatise was also published separately online, dramatically titled "Miley Cyrus’s Personal Memo to the World." What follows is 1500 words of what you would write in your diary, if you were particularly high that day (Miley reveals she wrote it in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, so this tracks): "Who I am now is a mosaic of who I have ever been. How I feel can be drastic but life is fun, thrilling, and exhilarating this way. This year, I wanted to live carefree but not careless, if that makes any sense."
It doesn't really, but maybe that's not the point. As Caramanica points out in his Times piece, there have been a variety of factors in recent years that have upended the celebrity profile, alongside new formats that have replaced its traditional shape: famous people interviewing famous friends, celebrities "guest editing" publications. But something rarely touched on is the intention of the publications in publishing these new missives. The assumption seems to be that this is the access they will get, so this is the access they put forward. Weakened in a tense and volatile media climate, desperate for anything, a magazine will offer up or take anything offered by the subjects they wish to cover.
Perhaps that's not giving them quite enough credit. It's undeniable that things have changed; with social media, and gossip blogs, legacy publications are rushing to aggregate or respond to news that once would have been handed to them to release first. But there's something more; the underlying message of these new pieces is that you're getting something personal, something precious, that a star has never revealed before, even more than you might in their previous iterations. They seem to be attempting to, in an oversaturated world, make these people more interesting. You've seen Taylor Swift before, ELLE UK seems to be saying, but here she is, talking JUST about music, and in a NEW way. Vanity Fair handles it differently: Miley is so kookie, and here she is, even kookier, but there are new layers to it. Either way, the intent of all parties involved reveals more about them than we give them credit for: their shared, blatant desire to provoke the audience into feeling closer to this artist than they had before.
This message is sent home even more in Carrie Batton's interview with Beyoncé's longtime publicist Yvette Noel-Schure in this month's ELLE (this time, the US version). "The Bey Keeper: Yvette Noel-Schure Stands Between the World and Beyoncé" the headline reads. In it, Batton paints a picture of a loyal, meticulous, talented public relations expert, but whether purposefully or not, reveals that by so controlling her image, Beyoncé has created an entirely different image for herself: as someone who plays it so close to the vest that anything she does is worth endless interpretation:
Today Noel-Schure is more in the business of saying no than knocking on people’s doors. “I’ve perfected the nice no,” she said. “I think there’s a way to let people know that something is not possible without completely crushing their spirit or their need to get something done.” Beyoncé is one of the first artists of the digital age to eschew the conventional carousel of interviews, suggesting that the work itself—as well as a stream of well-curated, cryptic Instagram posts—can make a more impactful statement than the press can. And this strategy has proven fruitful: Beyoncé has only sat for a small handful of interviews in recent years, a decision that has helped usher her into a new era of untouchability and superhero status. In 2015, she became the first-ever Vogue cover subject to skip a sit-down interview altogether.
These days, Beyoncé’s peers are taking a page from her playbook, often choosing their own mechanisms for broadcasting their messages, rather than relying on the press. These decisions have sparked a hand-wringing debate about the power dynamic between celebrities and the media, one that can be frustrating to Noel-Schure. “As a former journalist, I guess I can understand journalists saying, Give us the opportunity to do an interview. I don’t know that any artist owes someone a sit-down interview, honestly, now. Politicians, yes,” Noel-Schure told me. “I feel like what artists owe their audiences is a really good performance.” For Noel-Schure and her biggest client, something like Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance is a powerful rebuttal to the criticism: A profound, emotionally excavating body of work that stands for itself.
The implication here seems to be that the music can and should stand for itself. But in actuality, in a vacuum, any little thing says much more than it would otherwise, the frenzy around it becoming panicky. It's savvy, to say the artist in question just wants attention on their work while the manifestation of that choice is that attention won't just fixate on the music, but becomes more intense around any little thing that they do, music included.
Noel-Schure's use of the word "owes" is also interesting. Much of this debate seems to boil down to: Who is owed information, and how is that information best received? “I think people have to respect an artist who often does a lot of talking with the content, with the music. Some people actually say a little bit too much. The music, the content that we consume, doesn’t live up to all the controversy that you create,” Noel-Schure tells Batton. “I think I sort of like what my client does, and that she has leveled the playing field so fans as well as critics get it at the same time.”
Not to get too meta, but all this about her client not owing an interview is stated in an interview she herself has agreed to give. So perhaps owed is not the right word; no one is owed an interview with Beyoncé, or new music from Taylor Swift, or coherent thoughts from Miley Cyrus. Rather, we deserve enough understanding to be able to parse whatever we receive, and how it was intended for us to receive it. Decades past the point when stars were the pawns of their publicists as well as the publications that wrote about them, these highly successful woman musicians are considering how best they can play their part in this ecosystem, as the publications that cover them try to do the same. "We actually do NOT want our pop music to be generic. I think a lot of music lovers want some biographical glimpse into the world of our narrator, a hole in the emotional walls people put up around themselves to survive," Swift notably writes in her ELLE UK piece. The cover line? "TAYLOR TAKES CONTROL."
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