The year 2015 has belonged to Taylor Swift. Not only has 1989 sold 1.5 million copies in the U.S. this year alone, “Blank Space” became the most viewed music video in Vevo history. High-profile feuds with Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Miley Cyrus have dominated headlines, and she may have singlehandedly caused Apple to change direction during the Apple Music rollout. Hell, Ryan Adams even released a 1989 covers album.
Naturally, the 1989 tour gave Swift even more opportunity to flex her personal brand. During each stop, the pop singer allowed at least one of her famous “friends” to join her #squad by performing on stage. In return, they could bask in her spotlight. But while the #squad movement may seem like Swift promoting the power of friendships and unity, it really was part of a general shift in strategy to control her own public image.
According to Swift’s GQ cover story, she became overwhelmed by the media and avoided the internet for about a year and half (2012 and 2013) before recognizing “if enough people say the same thing about me, it becomes fact in the general public’s mind.” As a result, Swift took control of the narrative, telling Vanity Fair that she made a conscious decision to not “be seen around any men for years.” Instead, she went into a “mode where my friends are everything to me.”
And so, the original incarnation of Taylor’s #squad was born. It’s a clique of popular women – ranging from Victoria’s Secret models, actresses, and musicians – that does everything together, especially appearing on red carpets and celebrating major holidays.
After a series of curated Instagram posts provided a window into the group, there was a coming-out party during the Kill Bill-inspired “Bad Blood” music video. Debuting at the Billboard Music Awards, it featured more than a dozen stars, including actress Jessica Alba, singer Ellie Goulding, and Victoria’s Secret models Cara Delevingne, Lily Aldridge, and Karlie Kloss — each more beautiful than the next.
This air of female empowerment and “sisterhood” seemed to have given Swift the ability to fully embrace her true brand: the benevolent pop princess. Besides sharing “motivational speeches about self-confidence, heartbreak, and the pitfalls of comparing yourself to others on Instagram” during concerts, she opened up the #squad to anyone willing to join her on stage.
The World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s National Soccer team paraded down the catwalk during the same weekend Swift was joined by…The Weeknd. Fetty Wap crowned Swift his “Trap Queen” for one night only, while Wiz Khalifa performed his smash hit, “See You Again,” and Justin Timberlake came on stage to sing “Mirrors.” And those are just some of the highlights before Taylor’s #squad became a parody of itself.
The Taylor Swift co-sign did give many artists social media and sales bumps, but videos of the performances are revealing. Whether Swift is sharing vocal duties, or dancing alongside the artist, she doesn’t actually give the spotlight to her “friends.” The attention is still focused on her, allowing her to maintain control of her brand. On one hand, this makes sense; it’s still a Taylor Swift concert, still Taylor Swift the ticket-buyers paid to see. And that’s fine, but it then becomes disingenuous to claim that the spotlight is on the bonds Swift has formed with these people.
Long after peak #squad, the 1989 tour is winding down. It closes out U.S. dates in October, before continuing to Asia and Australia until the end of the year. Still, Swift accomplished her goal of taking control of the narrative. She shifted public perception by only letting people see her with female friends at first, before opening up her life and enhancing her brand with an endless parade of celebrities. If the music thing doesn’t work out, she has a bright future in marketing.