Why are fans surprised that a pop star manipulates her image?

Unless you’ve spent the last month living under a rock, you’ve likely caught wind of Taylor Swift vs. The People: the American public’s reconsideration of a beloved pop star. For those who missed the multi-chapter feud between Swift, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian, please find a comprehensive recap here. TLDR: Kanye rapped about Taylor in his single “Famous,” Taylor lied about Kanye to preserve her image, Kim released secret condemning footage revealing Taylor’s dishonesty — and the internet exploded.

You’re Invited: #KimExposedTaylorParty

What makes this particular celebrity scandal so notable is this: during the decade leading up to Kardashian’s merciless social media attack on Swift’s public persona, the latter was notorious for her intensely crafted, sugary sweet, down-to-earth, girl-power personal brand. Thanks to expert publicists and a carefully strategized public comeback in 2014, Swift had triumphantly navigated the transition from teen idol to bona fide superstar.

But that kind of polished perfection breeds skeptics, and the internet’s victorious outcry over Swift’s Kardashian-induced downfall revealed just how eager the public was for news of her empire’s overdue collapse. The tide had in fact been in the process of turning against Swift long before the “Famous” debacle in July 2016; in August 2015 the Daily Beast declared she was due for her “Regina George moment — a fall from Grace akin to being pushed in front of a moving school bus.” It’s safe to say, though, that not even the most optimistic celebrity news journalist could have predicted the witch hunt would end in a Snapchat spectacle, orchestrated by the only woman arguably more famous than Swift herself.

It’s Just Business

But why were fans so shocked to discover that Swift thinks about the media’s perception of her to the point of her willful manipulation of the news cycle? The ordeal exemplifies the double-edged sword of celebrity branding. As Vox puts it: “The idea that Taylor Swift cold-bloodedly manages her image to promote her career doesn’t make her a villain. It makes her good at her job…You don’t get to be Taylor Swift levels of famous without developing a persona that an audience is willing to spend money on, and you don’t develop that persona without getting at least a little bit fake.” Is it fair to rake Swift over the coals when we, the public, were complicit in the creation of her faux persona?

The 1989 Apology Tour

It remains to be seen whether Swift will traverse the well-worn path of celebrity apology tours, following in the footsteps of Justin Bieber (crimes: various), Ariana Grande (crime: licking a doughnut she hadn’t paid for), and more serious offenders Hugh Grant (crime: caught with a sex worker), Reese Witherspoon (crime: sparring with a Georgia State trooper), and Chris Brown (crime: assaulting former girlfriend Rihanna). So far, she has addressed the controversy in a single, defensive Instagram post — one that fans were quick to dissect and discredit.

Could it be that this is all performance art? Maybe. Perhaps Kim, Kanye, and Taylor will soon step out arm-in-arm-in-arm, having successfully reminded the public that so much of what we perceive as “authentic” is merely constructed narrative designed for popular consumption. Regardless, the explosive feud has pulled back the curtain on the puppeteered nature of celebrity in the age of social media. Whatever happens, the public might reconsider its own role in the fame exchange before nailing Swift to the cross; all she did was show us the strings, after all.

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(Image credit: Eva Rinaldi/Flickr)

Author Grace Stearns

A graduate of Pepperdine University, Grace has worked in PR and brand communications at publishing giants like Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, and Simon & Schuster. She writes about content marketing, social media, and technology for L&T's blog. A reluctant West Coast transplant, Grace lives in Brooklyn and spends a majority of her free time curled up with a good book.

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