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Nov. 22, 2023, 2:02 p.m.
Reporting & Production

I’m a media reporter and a diehard Swiftie. I don’t cover Taylor, but here’s how I wish someone would

She’s a billionaire, transforming the music industry in real time. Few living celebrities have her scale of cultural influence. Shouldn’t someone be, at least, attempting to look without fear or favor to see if she’s keeping her side of the street clean?

Last Friday I came home late after a night out with a close friend. I’d worn the friendship bracelet she’d recently given me, talked her ear off about the latest in Taylor Swift’s public romance with America’s endearing Ken of a Travis Kelce, and danced to “Cruel Summer.” This is someone who knows me very well, and, as such, has a longstanding, loving tolerance for my zealous identity as a Swiftie, despite not being a member of the cult herself. At home, I sleepily opened up Instagram and, out of habit, clicked on the new story bubble for Taylor Swift, ready for a little dopamine rush. Did she kiss Travis again? Which surprise songs had she played at her first concert in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that night? Was Reputation (my favorite album) Taylor’s Version finally here?

Instead I read that a fan, Ana Clara Benevides, had died at her concert that night. She was 23. (I’m 25.)

I associate Taylor Swift with my personal life, not my professional one, but I’m letting them collide here after a conversation in Slack last week — before Friday’s tragedy — that started with me sharing some off-the-cuff thoughts about actual critical stories I’d love to see covered, or covered more skeptically and rigorously, about Taylor. Since Gannett hired Bryan West to cover the star full-time, and after reading Parker Molloy’s newsletter interviewing eight music journalists about that hire, I’d wondered: If I weren’t her superfan (as I’ve been since approx. fourth grade, for the record), how might I cover her as one of the most powerful people of our time?

In my mind, last week’s fan death is a tragic demonstration of why we need a dogged Taylor Swift reporter who doesn’t shy away from asking questions and is willing to report unflattering stories with public-interest value (even if Taylor won’t talk to that reporter, and she probably won’t).

The last time I remember noticing a substantively critical story about Taylor dent the news cycle (substantive, as in, not having to do with who she’s dating) was last summer, when a sustainability marketing firm alleged that her private plane flights, and the environmental consequences of those flights, far exceeded those of other celebrities (more on that later). Since then, though, it seems like Taylor has managed to utterly saturate the news cycle (Midnights! Eras! Travis!), but with a Midas touch that insulates her from that saturation leading to actual scrutiny.

I’m not writing this piece to pick on any one reporter. I don’t think Gannett’s early Taylor Swift coverage has been what you would call scrutiny, so far — though I’m in the camp of people who never expected it to be that, and I did not believe any reporter Gannett hired was ever going to be set up for a job that was more than fan service dressed like journalism.

One caveat: The media, traditionally, has been a key part of the meat grinder that destroys young women celebrities (Taylor is number one on BuzzFeed’s 2021 list of women mistreated by the media), and in my mind, it’s a minor living miracle that Taylor seems to have stayed true to herself, and stayed sane1, after being put through that meat grinder so young. (One of the 1,989 reasons I and so many others are her loyal fans, etc. etc.) From that perspective, I don’t really blame her for not doing a traditional magazine profile since 2019 — practically speaking, she doesn’t need publicity on someone else’s terms anymore. I don’t want to see manufactured negative stories or lopsided coverage that backslides the other way, turning up its nose at Taylor’s business and artistic successes instead of treating those as their own complex stories (which are, increasingly, even the subject of academic study and recognition).

That being said: She’s a billionaire, her tour is taking over the world, she’s transforming the music industry in real time, and very few living celebrities have her scale of cultural influence.2 With all the love in the world, shouldn’t someone be, at least, attempting to look without fear or favor to see if she’s truly keeping her side of the street clean?

Taylor Swift fans flock to Downtown East in Minneapolis for the first of two shows on the Eras Tour. Photo by Chad Davis being used under a Creative Commons license.

I’m not the right person to report out the half-formed story ideas that have been living rent-free in my head, so I’m throwing them out there for any enterprising music, culture, or even local news reporter with the grit and wherewithal to go against the grain in covering the mastermind of the moment, the machine she has built around her, and, God help you, the Swifties.

Are you ready for it:

Who is accountable for Benevides’ death and for Eras Tour safety decision-making? To what extent is Taylor herself accountable?

Taylor posted that the fan died “before” her show in her official statement Friday night, but other reports based on interviews with Benevides’ friend indicated she passed out during the early set of the show. Maybe Taylor didn’t have up-to-date information, but for someone who is so careful, and whose team is so careful, it seemed an awful lot like subtle CYA (some fans have speculated the move was forced on her, or strongly advised, by legal counsel?). While I have no doubt that this death was traumatic for Taylor, too, that statement alone deserves more scrutiny than I’ve seen it get (I’m not the only one to point that out). Others have raised questions about whether Taylor and/or her team reached out to Benevides’ family or supported them financially in bringing Benevides’ body home (fans, at least, reportedly fundraised for that cause). This wasn’t even the only concert-linked death reported: Another fan, Gabriel Mongenot Santana Milhomem Santos, was stabbed to death during an attempted robbery later that weekend.

As for the dangerously hot concert: The New York Times and AP, among others, have reported on what it was like being inside a stadium that felt close to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Multiple fans passed out; ventilation into the stadium was cut off to prevent fans without tickets from seeing inside; water wasn’t allowed in; and some fans fell on hot metal surfaces and got burned. Taylor herself looked as if she was struggling to breathe and about to pass out in a widely circulated video, and tossed some water into the crowd during her All Too Well performance as well as pausing her Evermore set to direct water distribution for fans in a floor section.

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What’s the process for reviewing safety conditions of a stadium ahead of a performance, and which party/ies make the final call? (Taylor is legendary for show-must-go-on perseverance, especially when it comes to rain storms, though she has also emphasized her commitment to safety in past public statements, including last weekend — what are the consequences of the pressures to perform on the biggest, most powerful stars?) Does the final call rest with Taylor, her team, the show production company, or somebody else? Who made the decision to reportedly close the air ducts to the stadium and not allow external water in? Who decided to continue with pyrotechnics during the show? The production company, Time For Fun, seems to have taken a lot of the blame for Benevides’ death and the dangerous conditions so far, but I would like to see more reporting on those questions.

The underbelly of the fanbase (rose garden filled with thorns)

Last month, Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote about Swifties, Swiftiedom, and celebrating girlhood based in part on her experience attending the Eras Tour in Santa (Swiftie) Clara for The New York Times Magazine. Swifties are a generally wholesome bunch as fanbases go; we’re hardly a monolith, as Joe Garcia’s outstanding New Yorker essay demonstrates, but there are a lot of stereotypically (pathologically) people-pleasing, high-achieving, vanilla women among us. We’re also terrifyingly loyal (as in, camp-out-in-a-tent-five-months-before-a-tour-to-get front-row-seats loyal). There’s always an edge to a crowd of true believers, and you see it when you dig deeper than the celebration of girlhood — into the death threats on the social media accounts of Taylor’s exes, perceived rivals, nemeses, and critics. (Talk about anti-heroes.) Who are the Swifties who post threats and harassment on social media, and how prevalent is this behavior? Within a fanbase with a reputation for glitter-covered joy and enthusiasm, what do the nasty parts of Swiftie online culture look like and how have these evolved over time?

Taylor has explicitly asked fans not to cyberbully her exes, which raises another question: What’s the relationship and power dynamic between a fan and a fanbase (Taylor’s Version), and who is the real source of power, influence, and control?

Revisit the private jet story

Taylor Swift is only one person, and given the mania that surrounds her, it probably isn’t safe for her to fly commercially. But if she actually takes so many more private jet flights than other celebrities, why? (Personally, I did not find her publicist’s statement — “Taylor’s jet is loaned out regularly to other individuals. To attribute most or all of these trips to her is blatantly incorrect.” — to be satisfactory, but we’ll dive into PR in a minute.) As part of a bigger story about privacy and private jet travel, Forbes reported last month she had taken 131 flights this year, “many to Eras Tour locations.” What proportion of these flights could be train or car rides instead? Personal choices, even by celebrities, can’t stem the tide of climate change — but the scale of private jet pollution is staggering, as personal choices go.

(Here I must also inform you that there is an insane fan theory that Taylor attended a Jets game in her courtship with Travis Kelce in order to have a “Taylor Swift jets” Google search yield pictures of her smiling at a football game, instead of tallies of her carbon emissions. This seems excessive even to me. But that theory is still one of my Roman Empires.)

A deep dive into Tree Paine, PR, and crafting a public image (and political voice) with a life of its own

Taylor’s PR machine is a formidable one, and many fans can name-check her publicist, Tree Paine.

Taylor’s fanbase is known for decoding every puzzle and code she shares (I am extremely guilty of this, and joke that being a Swiftie is dangerously close to being a conspiracy theorist). It’s a practice that, while delightful and addictive for fans like me, keeps Taylor at the center of attention largely on her terms and dovetails conveniently with generating fluffy PR. In the lead-up to releasing 1989 TV, for instance, Taylor cut a deal with Google for getting Swifties to search “1989” in order to unlock her vault track titles by collectively playing 33 million (yes, that is the actual number)3 puzzles built into the search engine. To what extent is Taylor’s easter egg approach to marketing a deliberate PR strategy? To what extent does Taylor herself plan marketing stunts for albums and products, versus Paine? How has Paine’s influence shaped Taylor?

Photo from Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour by Paolo Villanueva being used under a Creative Commons license.

Taylor is extremely cautious about speaking out on world issues. While she has spoken out against gun violence, in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, and urged her fans to vote, she’s said nothing that I’m aware of about the Israel-Hamas conflict even as other celebrities, including her friends, have waded in (and been attacked for entering). Taylor would be an interesting case study, I think, to explore how much fanbases today expect, reasonably or unreasonably, celebrities to speak out on public issues, and how much responsibility they themselves feel to use their enormous platforms to speak, or not speak, on different high-stakes issues.

What’s more, Taylor is increasingly wielded as a symbol by fans and others in political debates today — even international political debates she has not commented publicly on (see: Argentinian Swifties (and BTS fans) rallying against far-right president-elect Javier Milei when the Eras Tour hit Argentina just prior to his election). That’s another phenomenon begging for a reporter to explore the power dynamics, belief systems, and symbols tying together an icon and her fanbase.

Beyond speech…

Follow Taylor’s money — especially political donations

Taylor Swift started speaking out publicly about politics, to endorse left-leaning politicians, in 2018 (as chronicled in her documentary Miss Americana). There’s been some reporting on who she gives money to — she donated to food banks in each city she visited on the American leg of the Eras Tour — but what are her bigger-picture philanthropic giving practices, and to what extent is she a political giver? Will these grow, and change, now that the Eras Tour has sent her wealth skyrocketing (and as we enter 2024)?

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The scale of fan spending, especially on merch and collectible vinyls

Taylor Swift’s brilliance as a businesswoman has been thoughtfully and creatively reported on, especially as she has reached billionaire status and the economic impact of the Eras Tour has taken the U.S. by storm (you’ve probably heard the tidbit about her getting a mention by the Federal Reserve in Philly).

One of Taylor’s many, many sources of revenue is collectible copies of the same vinyls. (Example: four Midnights vinyls in different colors that form a clock). I wouldn’t want four copies of the same record, but people do buy them. Where is the line between business acumen and, um, scamming your fans?

 

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A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift)

Also: How much more do Swifties spend, per capita, than fans of other big artists? How much more money are merch sales on the Eras Tour making than merch sales for other big tours? (Because, with the almost scary extremes people are going to to secure said merch, surely she’s making more than other artists have?)

How is Taylor affecting the music industry and younger artists, especially women?

Taylor is known as a role model to a lot of young artists, especially women — including some up-and-comers who have been touring with her, like Sabrina Carpenter (24) and Gracie Abrams (24) (and even Ice Spice! (23)).

Another rising star with a claim to artist of the moment, Olivia Rodrigo (20), broke out as a gushingly self-proclaimed Swiftie, but has been quiet about her love for Taylor since her icon quietly got writing credit on one of the biggest hits on Rodrigo’s debut album (“deja vu”) after Rodrigo openly described in interviews how Taylor’s “Cruel Summer” helped inspire the song. That post-release credit meant Taylor (and two other co-writers) got a cut of the song’s royalties, and, when Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” also got a retroactive writing credit for Paramore4 (Hayley Williams is a longtime friend of Taylor’s), it fueled criticism of Rodrigo for supposedly plagiarizing other artists’ work. “It was really frustrating to see people discredit and deny my creativity,” Rodrigo (who was 18 years old) said. Now, there are fan theories that at least three songs on Rodrigo’s new album — “vampire”, “lacy”, and, (most compellingly, IMO), “the grudge” — might be inspired by a feud with Taylor. (Rodrigo doesn’t say who her songs are about, and has vaguely denied the feud rumors as conspiracy theories.)

As a casual Rodrigo fan, I felt a lot of empathy for her when she went from waxing poetic about Taylor in interview after interview to avoiding talking about Taylor at all. That shift makes me wonder (beef or no beef, but you can’t convince me there’s not beef): Is there a flip side to Taylor’s influence on younger artists, so often described as positive? And I know we’re verging on tabloid territory with this feud stuff, but that example feels important to me because of the power dynamic it suggests — could any young artist speak out against Taylor about anything without ruining their career?

Zooming out further, to think about her seismic influence on the music industry: Taylor is undeniably bringing attention to a movement for artists to own their own work, but some outlets have already reported on music studios closing the door behind Taylor’s re-recordings so others can’t follow her playbook. Are artists without her power and voice losing out due to the changes she’s spurring in the broader music industry?

Lost in the labyrinth of my mind

Taylor’s lyrics live etched in my head and heart. This woman has kept me company while I learned to drive, while I’ve worked late into the night, while I’ve been heartbroken, when I’ve fallen in love, as I’ve grown up. If you really want to report on the cultural tsunami of Swiftiedom, you need to understand that this is the profoundly personal reality of millions of Swifties.

Photo of the Eras Tour in Foxborough, MA on May 19 by Dylan Clark (who attended the show with the author and two friends).

Even for those who aren’t Swifties, today, amid so much unrelenting awful news, the parallel Taylor news cycle has been a refreshing source of, for the most part, joy. (Don’t just take it from me! Among others, sociologist Brian Donovan agrees with me, at least about why there’s such public fascination with Swelce: “It seems like a pure unalloyed moment of joy in the wider context of global wars, deepening political polarization, dysfunction in Congress, an ongoing health crisis. There’s a lot of bad news out there, and this is a common story that everybody knows about and can talk about. I don’t think we’ve had that in American culture for a long time.”)

I don’t see news coverage ever changing the gratitude and love I feel for Taylor and her music. And I know many, many fans feel the way I do.

But what’s being a Swiftie about if it isn’t looking at the messy, painful, beautiful world, and trying to use words to make sense of it all?

Photo from Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour by Paolo Villanueva being used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. But: See “mirrorball,” “Anti-Hero,” “The Archer,” “Dear Reader,” “Nothing New,” “The Lucky One,” “You’re on Your Own, Kid,” “Sweet Nothing,” arguably the entire Reputation album, I could go on, for a wrenching glimpse into the toll the cruel spotlight takes… ↩︎
  2. For what it’s worth: I don’t have the 15+ years of encyclopedic fan knowledge to write the equivalent to this piece about how one could and should cover Beyoncé — the other megastar Gannett recently hired a reporter to cover — but I would LOVE to read that story by someone else who does!! I’m sticking to what I know (all too well) here. Also, the reporter Gannett actually hired for that role, Caché McClay, seems to already have an admirably thoughtful approach to covering Beyoncé critically. I hope Gannett puts its money where its mouth is in supporting her. ↩︎
  3. Because she’s 33! And it’s been 33 years since 1989, when she was born! Get it? ↩︎
  4. If you listen to “good 4 u”and “Misery Business,” it’s difficult not to hear the similarities — my view is that “deja vu” and “Cruel Summer” sound far more different. ↩︎
Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Nov. 22, 2023, 2:02 p.m.
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