The Apotheosis of Taylor Swift
USA Today finally hires its Taylor Swift reporter
A 35-year-old named Bryan West is USA Today’s new Taylor Swift reporter, taking a freshly-formed perch that might have been, for a brief time, the most coveted in history. West is a journalist from Arizona and, inevitably, a tremendous fan of the most popular artist in the world. “I would say this position’s no different than being a sports journalist who’s a fan of the home team,” West told Variety. “I just came from Phoenix, and all of the anchors there were wearing Diamondbacks gear; they want the Diamondbacks to win. I’m just a fan of Taylor and I have followed her her whole career, but I also have that journalistic background: going to Northwestern, winning awards, working in newsrooms across the nation.” This is true only on a technicality; local anchors can cheer for the home teams all they want, but beat reporters are forbidden from wearing team paraphernalia in the press box. I cannot cover Yankee games in my ratty Hideki Matsui t-shirt. Sports journalists and columnists can profess their fandoms in the biographies they share publicly, but they are expected, on behalf of their readers, to aggressively hold the team to account. One of the Athletic’s Yankee beat reporters grew up in the Bronx rooting for the Yankees. He does not use his position to produce propaganda on behalf of the franchise.
It should be stated that Swift is worthy of a beat reporter. She is a billionaire colossus, a cultural icon on the scale of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and the Beatles; she is, in this fragmented and quasi-desiccated pop musical environment—the major labels no longer know, for the most part, how to break out new talent—the most dominant pop act since the Beatles stormed the United States in 1964. The Fab Four were more transformative and ultimately inventive, heroes of both the sepia-toned early sixties and the shimmering counterculture, influencing too many bands to count and cementing rock, for the rest of the twentieth century at least, as a popular and enduring art form. Swift’s music is not a revolution; this might be a rockist opinion, but it’s a correct one, and even her most ardent fans don’t justify her greatness in the context of what she has reimagined or upended. Her music is very catchy and that is enough. And like the Beatlemaniacs of yore, they relate to her parasocially, directing their greatest and most personal yearnings on a human being who cannot possibly return their affection, who offers them so little, comparatively, beyond the music. A writer recently quipped that, in the future, we’ll all date Taylor Swift for 15 minutes. That sounds about right.
That is Swift’s magic—she is such a blank space, pun very much intended. She had nothing to say about the 2016 election, one of the most consequential of the last half century, and seemed to only notice the political churn around her in that frothy midterm after Donald Trump became president. The Beatles, in their heyday, weren’t so different, though the media milieu of the period brought them into contact, far more frequently, with ordinary journalists. Remembered today, retroactively, through John Lennon’s nebulous peace activism and Paul McCartney’s opposition to playing in front of segregated audiences, the Beatles were, functionally, apolitical enough to be everything to everyone, as the academic John McMillian has argued. The Beatles’ opposition to Vietnam was vague enough to never warrant any backlash. They did not take part in civil rights marches. They eschewed high profile shows for specific causes. Lennon’s “Revolution,” off the White Album, was counter-revolutionary, intended as a New Left put-down. The most overtly political acts the Beatles ever committed were signing a letter, with other luminaries, calling for the legalization of marijuana and penning “Taxman,” a protest against Harold Wilson’s Labour government which, in the 1960s, had the temerity to levy high taxes on the wealthy to fund Great Britain’s postwar welfare state.
The Beatles, though, gave many interviews. They had to. In the 1960s, newspapers and magazines were a vital conduit to the broader culture. Pop icons, bereft of the internet, could curate their images only so much without coming into contact with shouting reporters. It is unfathomable, today, that Taylor Swift would hold a press conference, but the Beatles did all the time. The major newspapers, it should be noted, did not take pop rock seriously as an art form until the latter half of the decade. The New York Times’ panning of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band represented the first time they ever designated a critic to review a Beatles album. The alternative and underground press championed rock, and their young critics took delight in both celebrating the ascendant artists and making discoveries of their own. To hunt out and elevate a new act was a victory; rock critics and reporters could draw far closer to the celebrities of their era than their equivalents can today. Brian Wilson had helmed, for a period, the most popular rock group in the United States, writing three number-one hits and many more songs that vaulted near the top of the charts. Yet young critics like Paul Williams could smoke weed with him while he toiled on a new album, and other writers could tail him for weeks at a time.
All of this, it should be remembered, was very new. If you turned forty in 1966, you had a working memory of a time when popular rock and roll effectively did not exist. Pop stars themselves, in their teens and twenties then, could only do so much to erect institutional walls between themselves and those on the outside who sought to know more about them. At the same juncture, critics who openly championed the new rock music weren’t afraid to tell an artist, through their writing, that a certain album wasn’t up to standard. They saw themselves in conversation with their favorite bands and songwriters. They saw it as their duty, when needed, to judge new against old, to weigh, with their full critical faculties, what was put before them. The critics of the sixties, seventies, and eighties—those on the rock beat—could be unsparing. And when music magazines were a force, the savvier artists and their management knew how to cultivate and coopt them. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, had his favorite reporters he selectively doled out access to, in return for squelching unflattering coverage. The Beatles, ruffians from Liverpool, carefully cultivated their cuddly, virginal images in their early years; Epstein did not want fans to know Lennon was already married or that all four of the boys did their fair share of fighting and fornicating.
Swift, comparatively, does not have to make such an effort to manage access or even sway critical opinion. The immolation of print newspapers and magazines has meant that there are no longer influential tastemakers or even alternative critics in select markets that must be cultivated. Local radio stations don’t matter, for the dissemination of new music, any longer; the era of the disc jockey in Philadelphia or Los Angeles or Milwaukee playing an artist’s music enough to generate regional popularity that could then be parlayed into something greater is long past. The Spotify algorithm guides all. Will the USA Today reporter ever interview Swift? This is something I have pondered and it might be that even West, the well-meaning journalist, does not believe it matters. Or he’s hoping she deigns him worthwhile. Why not talk to someone who worships you, who would never use his allotted minutes to ask what amounts to a challenging question? Musicians aren’t politicians, after all. We do not need to know what Swift thinks about Gaza or the cost of prescription drugs. When Swift talks now, she choose the medium of television, which is logical on several levels. More eyeballs, even with the rampant cord-cutting among millenials and generation Z. Television is also, for her, helpfully limited; the host, sandwiched by commercials, only has a precious few minutes, and time hops along quickly. Swift did sit for Rolling Stone, but that was more than four years ago. Will she bother again?
The USA Today gambit should be recognized for what it is—Gannett’s bid at chasing clicks as its business slowly withers. The conglomerate has been, on the whole, awful for newspapers, slashing staff as it fails to imagine what a useful media organization might look like in the 2020s. Not everyone can be the New York Times, but the Times, for all its failings, has made itself a product worth paying for. If USA Today is going to do Swift sycophancy, it is not worth the money. This has nothing to do with one’s opinion of Swift—it reflects, rather, the reality that there is no market inefficiency being exploited, no product getting offered that can’t be found elsewhere. Would you like to read more about how Swift is fabulous? The vast and free internet already has you covered. Taylor Swift fans do not need USA Today. The husk of USA Today needs them. For everyone else—-for those who might want to pay for rigorous, nuanced coverage of domestic and international affairs—what does the newspaper actually offer? The Times is still the place you show up to when you want to read about the war in the Middle East or Joe Biden’s speech to autoworkers; it’s still a hub of intriguing long-form journalism. The Times will pander and push out shlock and its cultural coverage, at points, exhibits some of the worst impulses of poptimism, but the newspaper is smart enough to keep its brand, as a venerable and nigh imperial newsgathering operation, fully intact. There’s a reason, in 2023, BuzzFeed is wholly irrelevant and the Times is not.
There are lessons, perhaps, USA Today can draw from all of this. They’ll have to consider whether there’s value in paying a Swiftie to write on Swift. The strongest music writing does far more than fan service. It takes the artist seriously enough to proffer criticism. It takes the audience seriously enough to do the same. USA Today, famously, is also hiring a Beyoncé reporter. Will either of these journalists, once they take their beats, attempt any reporting that could irk the two largest and most dedicated fanbases in the world? A conglomerate managing a fading national newspaper might not be best equipped to endure fan backlash. Better, then, to produce anodyne content and keep the customer satisfied, to print more stories about the tremendous success of this album or that tour or how excited everyone is both these artists are alive and performing. The trap here, for the new beat reporters, is relevancy—there is nothing they can give, in Queen Bey or Tay worship, that cannot be given already, billions of times over, from the maw of the internet. They are nothing against Swift’s Instagram and TikTok accounts. They will be noticed no more than any other mortal supplicant at the feet of a glorious goddess.