On Taylor Swift and the Court of Social Media

Celebrity outcry on the internet is prevalent, but is an internet war ever a fair fight?

Jul 2, 2019    8 min read
Written by
Helen Donahue

It feels like more often than ever before, we’re witnessing celebrities both embarrassed and outright incensed by criticism. We’ve grown accustomed to attacks by hordes of fans, clap backs, and (their infamous cousin) the dreaded Notes app apology on our social media feeds. It’s simple: when a celebrity is upset or scorned, they can post about it. And no matter how vague or detailed their argument, a famous name can count on their followers to fill in the blanks. Give the loyalists a dilemma, a name, and 20 minutes to play detective, and you will probably get what you want—or, at least, you can cause enough of a ruckus online for the media to pick it up and the rest of the world to either spread or acknowledge a hashtag (or petition) dedicated to the redemption arc.

It’s all a game—especially in the music industry, which seems to be going through a late-stage reckoning following #MeToo— and if anyone knows how to play it right, it’s Taylor Swift. On Sunday, Swift uploaded a statement to her personal Tumblr detailing her pain in learning Scooter Braun (manager to Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and more) had, on June 28, officially acquired her first six albums in a merger with former label boss Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records and Braun’s Ithaca Holdings. And regardless of who I believe (I’m a fervent Swift fan, for the record), the scandal inspires a need to question whether objectivity is possible in 2019, in the age of social media’s rule.

Social media has, over the last decade, grown into a writhing entity incapable of sitting still and capable of impacting change through pressure. At this point, it’s important to recall that this isn’t the first time Swift has used social media to vent about her peers: She publicly addressed Kim Kardashian-West and Kanye West during their very public 2016 feud, claiming Braun orchestrated Kardashian-West’s illegal phone recording of a conversation in which Swift gave West permission to use a derogatory lyric in his song “Famous”: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” The lyric, of course, alludes to the origin story of Swift and West’s beef: the infamous mic-grab during Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Swift also alleges Braun set up Kanye’s unsettling music video for “Famous,” featuring a wax-casting of Swift, surrounded by many other celebrities in Kanye’s orbit, calling the video (which also features Chris Brown lying next to Rihanna, both naked) “revenge porn…which strips my body naked”. Swift also recalls how she felt when Bieber posted a screenshot of himself FaceTiming with West and Braun in 2016 on Instagram with the caption, “Taylor Swift what up;” a distinct, albeit juvenile, harassment.

Social media’s instantaneous power means musicians feel like they may not be able to “sit this one out,” or like they may need to debate the validity of Swift’s bullying claims. When Swift accused Braun of “incessant, manipulative bullying” (alongside his clients and associates for years), she essentially gave the green light to fans and fellow musicians to unleash hell, behind a screen and a hashtag, of course (#IStandWithTaylor). Swift didn’t come with receipts, and she didn’t need to. All she had to do was what she’s already done on her albums for more than a decade; provide a glimpse inside her heart, no matter how justified it may be.

Fans are now the ones keeping celebrities in check, through follow policing, or regularly investigating their social media accounts and whether or not their favorite is following someone (in this case Braun), or liking or commenting on specific posts.

In response to Swift’s allegations against Braun, Bieber felt compelled enough to release a pretty standard non-apology immediately following Swift’s post, wherein he acknowledges his “distasteful and insensitive” past Instagram post, then blames Swift for “crossing the line.” Braun’s wife, Yael Cohen, took to Instagram “for a public airing of laundry,” deeming Swift’s statement a “hissy fit,” and insisting Swift isn’t one to talk: “The world has watched you collect and drop friends like wilted flowers.” Demi Lovato went to Braun’s aid when she wrote, “I have dealt with bad people in the industry and Scooter is not one of them. He’s a good man.” Kacey Musgraves and Tori Kelly have also earned significant internet demerits for liking Cohen’s story in defense of Braun. Musgraves later took back her like. Swift has since blocked Bieber, Lovato and Kelly on Spotify. At the same time, Harry Styles, Selena Gomez, Halsey, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Lana Del Rey, Britney Spears, Camila Cabello, Iggy Azalea, Billie Eilish and Adele have all unfollowed Braun in support of Swift. Halsey, Iggy, Cara Delevingne, Brendan Urie, former Braun client Todrick Hall, and even Cher have all issued statements in opposition of Braun. A petition has since appeared on Change.org, proposing Swift should be allowed to rerelease her first six albums under her new label, Republic Records, without Braun.

Exercising your thumbs and posting in 2019 is the easiest way to address an issue when the whole world is watching you. Fans are now the ones keeping celebrities in check, through follow policing, or regularly investigating their social media accounts and whether or not their favorite is following someone (in this case Braun), or liking or commenting on specific posts. Fans put pressure on celebrities to take sides, post vulnerable accounts of their own, and remain on the right side of history—and more importantly, remain liked. Speaking out not only earns celebrities points with fans online (some will simply have “no choice but to stan”) but it can also shield celebrities from criticism, which many are unwilling to weather. Since Swift’s allegations, musicians may have talked to their teams to orchestrate statement—or in Braun’s most successful client Ariana Grande’s case, recanting one (Grande deleted an Instagram Story congratulating Braun for his purchase following the unrest). It’s all about what makes you look good, and celebrities can succeed through even minor participation when it comes to social media.

Is it even worth reading Borchetta’s version of events or has the damage been done? Do we believe Swift? Are we sure this isn’t a game? Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the first time Swift has misrepresented the truth for her own benefit. She was, after all, caught in a pretty boldfaced lie with Kim and Kanye in 2016 that remains difficult to refute, despite the legality of Kim’s recording. And since Kim’s infamous “World Snake Day” tweet—which inarguably pointed a metaphorical middle finger Swift’s direction—we’ve collectively accepted Swift as a snake because she’s our snake and we love her for it. Swift, always self-aware, has acknowledged her reputation many times, dressing in full snake attire and recently featuring snakes turning into butterflies in her new music videos for “LOVER” (2019). She’s also savagely pointed to public opinion in previous songs like “Look What You Made Me Do”, “Bad Blood”, and “Better Than Revenge”.

Even if the damage for Braun and Borchetta is done, it’s worth noting that Swift most likely was not notified the day-of like the rest of us, as she claims, though this matters little in facing the greater question of artists owning their music. Negotiations like this take time, and Borchetta claims he made Taylor’s father, Scott Swift, a shareholder in Big Machine Records, aware of the sale on June 25, when Borchetta notified the rest of the shareholders of the acquisition. And on the evening of Saturday, June 29, Borchetta claims he texted Taylor a heads up that the news would be breaking the next morning. With all of the shareholders aware, Borchetta says it’s unlikely “her dad Scott, 13 Management lawyer Jay Schaudies (who represented Scott Swift on the shareholder calls) or 13 Management executive and Big Machine LLC shareholder Frank Bell (who was on the shareholder calls) ‘didn’t say anything to Taylor over the prior 5 days.’” Also Borchetta, unlike Swift, came with receipts: a deal memo from 2018 whereby if Taylor signed, “100 percent of all Taylor Swift assets were to be transferred to her immediately upon signing the new agreement.”

Borchetta claims his deal wasn’t an-album-for-an-album, either, but that they were “working together on a new type of deal for our new streaming world that was not necessarily tied to ‘albums’ but more of a length of time.” Borchetta also includes a friendly text from Swift, dated November 2018, in which the singer alleges she’s far more concerned with her future and, though she wanted to own her Masters, needed to focus on the “bigger picture.” Swift told Borchetta, “I had a choice whether to bet on my past or to bet on the future and I think knowing me, you can guess which one I chose.” In the same text, Swift admits she’s leaving for Republic Records and UMG and wishes Borchetta well. He wishes her well, too.

Did Scooter Braun promote the bullying of Taylor Swift over the last decade, causing her pain and discomfort? Maybe. Did Swift then manipulate the internet to get what’s hers? Maybe. It’s entirely plausible Swift would have never spoken out about what she thinks of Braun if he hadn’t acquired her Masters and left her with what she felt was the only remaining choice—the utilization of her army. And how wrong can call-outs be if they urge people to pay attention to a subject—in the case, the maze that is music contracts and the industry’ #MeToo reckoning—that matters? There is a reason why court of law traditionally has two sides, with two lawyers, a judge and a (hopefully) objective jury. Even then, the legal system manages to mess up often. Our collective stray from objectivity and our willingness to assume the popular opinion instead of deducing from the facts is a strange, new symptom of online culture in 2019 and the introduction of the only two camps that matter: good and bad. I wonder if celebrities’ uncensored public outcry, and the subsequent fallout, is the new normal. Because what celebrities do, we can all do—celebrity behavior helps identify what’s acceptable for us ordinary folk and what’s not, and always has. And if this trend continues to rise in prominence, we’ll all be airing out our dirty laundry, both personally and professionally, for the world to evaluate. The results may get messier than we’d like.

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