It's been a few weeks since the celebrity sphere was rocked by the TS vs. Kimye feud, but that might as well be a few millennia in gossip time. Still, the rock dropped in the pond of America's No. 1 Good Girl was so big that the ripples on the surface are still washing up on the shore. Why was it such a big deal, and why did the world care?
There's a version of the events that could cover your whole apartment if printed out on wallpaper, but to sum it up quickly, rapper Kanye West and pop-country singer Taylor Swift's recurrent beef through award show speeches and song lyrics reached its apotheosis when West's wife, Kim Kardashian-West, used video to prove the world that Swift had been lying.
And it mattered not so much because Swift haters were happy to point an accusing finger at her as if they'd just told the teacher someone was cheating on their calculus test — it mattered because Taylor Swift has built an empire where lasting friendships, true feelings and hard work are (seemingly) valued as much as the music she writes and performs.
As she's lurking around on Tumblr, leaving random notes on fans' posts or even sending them Christmas presents, you might be tricked into thinking of Taylor Swift as a person, but before everything else Taylor Swift is a brand. The assets have varied from curly locks and broken hearts to red lips and a confident strut on a catwalk-like stage, but Swift's brand has been consistent from day one.
What makes her writing so unique is also what makes her brand so powerful: The songs sound like personal confessions, like an intimate story shared with a friend over a coffee or during the late hours of a sleepover session. The Swift persona is about candor, about getting your feelings hurt although you never really saw it coming. It's not fully innocent either, as she softly admits to mistakes and regrets. But even in the tales of revenge and girl power, it's a plushy world where the bad guys walk away and the girls stay hand in hand.
Then suddenly, after all those years of careful choices, complete with just the right amount of publicity for every relationship she'd been going through, Taylor Swift's castle felt a brick being pulled from the very base of its tower, leaving us all with the question: If she's capable of lying, who can she accuse of betraying her own perfect little world?
It's painfully obvious now, but Swift was never the doe-eyed incarnation of candidness, fallen from heaven with a gift. One lie reminded us that she was lucky enough to be born into a family with the means to churn out her first CDs and deliver them across the country; celebrity-savvy enough to surround herself with long-legged, envy-generating beings like her; powerful enough, ultimately, to make or end music deals with the likes of Apple and Spotify.
Most importantly, though, we were reminded that Swift was no one's Best Friend Forever — at least not among the mortals that are her fans, even if they briefly met her or if she remembered their name. Just because you talk to your fans and you send them thoughtful shoutouts online and turn up at their weddings and birthdays in real life, you can't be BFFs with your admirers and claim you stand above the ivory tower of the celebrity system, when actually you've been making phone calls to the very person you've been calling the enemy.
But if a celebrity's strategy to seem approachable and real is clear as day, why does the industry still rely so heavily on the cool girl next door? We've had plenty of that vibe recently, with Jennifer Lawrence a.k.a. J-Law at the helm of a ship whose flag reads "Celebrities, they're just like us!" The actress is constantly reminding us that even she, with her toned body and regular red carpet appearances, eats pizza when she feels like it; that she too can be grumpy and won't try to hide it; that she too will trip when walking onto the stage in front of a huge crowd.
In a plastic surgery-filled, tabloid-ridden Hollywood, this new sense of "normal" was a breath of fresh air. It also meant a great move forward for female celebrities, who've always been (and are still) so pressured to stay in tip top shape, that an A-lister would discuss their love for fried foods on national television. But the more we started getting convinced that yes, indeed, these stars were just like us, the more tense the fan reaction would get if they dared to do anything that would break the illusion.
How Did We Start Believing So Easily That Celebrities Were Our Best Buddies?
Combine the relatable factor of statements such as "I, too, love to dip my fingers and my toes in the Doritos bag to get the maximum amount of sticky orange powder into my belly" with the power of social media, and we've been edging toward a feeling that we're actually sharing part of our lives with celebrities, and vice versa. Whether it's their own initiative to post a sneaky video on Snapchat where they're jumping around at home in their pajamas, or a Twitter account diligently relaying all paparazzi pictures of their errand-running outfits, it's become scarily easy to get all the details of a star's personal life — or at least what they sell as such.
But then the scrutiny became so extreme, the whole deal of being buddy-buddy with a VIP backfired. It's like the more we became engrossed in the idea that we could all be on the same planet, the famous people and the anonymous ones, the more any signs that would suggest otherwise were disappointing or infuriating. There are plenty of awful outcomes: Either the star's attempt at asserting their cool-person-next-door status becomes so painfully obvious that the fans walk away and the accusations of "fakeness" start raining down on them, or it's the celebrity who snaps from a sudden overdose of being followed and adored by so many total strangers.
Take Justin Bieber, who recently cancelled all his meet-and-greets not long before deleting his Instagram. Or YouTuber PewDiePie, who became so sick of uninvited fans showing up at his house that he published a video begging his viewers to please not make an unannounced trip to see him. Meanwhile Taylor Swift, who a few albums ago was doing her own hair and makeup backstage, staged a stroll along the beach with her new beau Hiddleston that she wanted so bad to look like an impromptu promenade that the whole gossip-reading world laughed out loud at such fake realness.
Even worse, getting closer through social media has also enabled many fans to turn into eagle-eyed critics, ready to pounce on the tiniest of wrongdoings. Cameras are advanced enough to spot a pimple on a cheek, and Instagram accounts are ready to relay any skin mishaps or fashion faux-pas the minute they're immortalized with a picture. And the more we dive into this oversharing frenzy, the more ridiculously cynical we seem to become. Since when have we been capable of getting so mad at our idols? We're in an era where we feel like celebrities owe us because they've put so much effort into seeming close and relatable, but the outcomes aren't benefiting anyone.
Is There Anyone Doing It Right, Then?
Take a look through Beyoncé's Instagram, and you won't be able to tell who she hangs out with or where she is exactly. She doesn't even caption her posts, which makes you wonder if she's involved at all in the curation of her social media feed, or if she's just assigned someone she'd trust enough not to pick any unflattering angles. Sure, we get the occasional glimpse into her private sphere — back to cuddling with Jay after that lemon-scented burn, roaming around with her daughter Blue Ivy — but just enough to feel a little pang of envy at how awesome her life seems to be. Never ever has she posed as your friend: She's not here to discuss exes over a cup of homemade pumpkin spice latte, she's here because she's so much better than everyone else at singing, dancing, and whatever else she sets her mind to. Essentially, she's a star and she knows it.
J-Law too has adopted the right strategy, technically, by choosing not to have any social media accounts — but in her case it's the media who won't leave her alone, endlessly reporting on the latest cool-girl statement she's made, up to the point of saturation. It's like the industry as a whole refuses to give up on what was once a best-selling concept: the idea of a magical friendship between the anonymous and the unattainable. And why would it? If we stopped dreaming about that conversation we'd have one day with our favorite celebrity, that day we'd randomly run into them because they're getting coffee around the corner because they're just human after all, would we really keep on buying posters and t-shirts and sets of emojis?
We can't get enough of our idols and, ironically, they can't get enough of us. But if we could refrain at least a little bit from feeding on their supposed fragility, and they would stop pretending they're just like us, the world would be a less hysterical place. By trying so hard to sell that she's a normal girl, Taylor Swift has achieved the very opposite — but when you're such a talented musician, you really shouldn't have to act.