Again, we’ve found ourselves living in the shadow of a forthcoming Taylor Swift album; Reputation, her first since 2014’s 1989.
The first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” and accompanying rollout strategy is all meticulously tailored to have us believe that we’re about to hear a new Taylor Swift; no more nice Taylor. She wiped her social media accounts and posted a blurred video of a snake’s tail, a not-so-subtle reference to the Kardashian/West feud that led legions of Instagram-addled persons to dub Taylor a “snake.” The mainstream internet got excited.
Increasingly, media rollout strategies are tied up with the tonal and lyrical themes of a new release. In 2017, a traditional rollout isn’t required to move merchandise. Kanye West’s Yeezus, an abrasive, minimalist, Drill-inspired nightmare of sawtooth synths and dancehall samples dropped without album art. His primary form of promotion was directing a fleet of vans to project his face on the side of buildings across the world, lip-syncing to “New Slaves” to confused passersby. He posed for promotional photos with a red mask obscuring his face. It was all designed to unveil a new Kanye, dreading his impending fatherhood and refusing to apologize for his worst instincts.
Brand New, a niche emo band from the 2000s, currently holds the number one spot on the Billboard Charts with their first album in 8 years, Science Fiction. They released the album by mailing a singular, hour-long track to 500 fans, only to release it as a proper 12-song LP moments later. The strategy acknowledged the sense of mystery around their 8-year hiatus, and accounted for the fact that such a strategy would result in countless leaks and uploads. They preserved their cult status, catered well to a comparably small fan base, and landed their first number one album.
It’s still not entirely clear whether Taylor will embrace her role as the anti-hero in the wake of her Kardashian feud, but whatever her new persona, it’s sure to be calculated. As The Ringer’s Matt Borcas points out, Taylor Swift is a bit Machiavellian:
On Red, “Tay astutely realized that, as her popularity grew, the more likely she was to face backlash for becoming mainstream. So, on Red, she declared war on hipsters, which served the dual purpose of disarming potential critics and pandering to her poptimistic base.”
I don’t much care for Taylor Swift’s new song – it’s hard to generate a chorus that’s actually less catchy than the one it parrots, and the spoken word refrain toward the end is a bit too on the nose. You can almost hear her PR team shouting “PIVOT!” Moreover, she dragged out the “snake” teaser on her Instagram for three days, only to reveal that it was, in fact, a snake. It’s resembled a poorly designed Easter Egg hunt.
But the lesson still stands: don’t underestimate the importance of your media strategy. And never underestimate the power of a rebrand, whether it be for an artist, your product or your company. My favorite example comes from Domino’s. They went on television and said “Hey, we just realized that our pizza isn’t very good. That’s a problem, since we’re a pizza shop. We make it different now. You should try it.” And it worked.
Although Taylor’s pivot is anything but subtle, the narrative is sure to take hold and move units. However clumsy, it’s at least been calculated to garner attention, and it will. After all, look what she just made me do.