In 2014, the best-selling album of the year was by a female singer/songwriter. When YouTube released their list of the most-watched music videos, eight of the ten videos were the work of female artists. In 2015, Taylor Swift broke records during her sold-out 1989 World Tour after being the first artist to sell one million records in 2014, Adele smashed charts with her album 25 by selling over three million albums the first week, and Beyonce, in addition to nabbing six Grammy nominations, became the first African-American artist to appear on the cover of Vogue’s infamous September issue. If the music industry is on fire, it is, in significant part, these women who lit the flame. As women’s roles in society have shifted, expanded, and evolved with a newfound embrace of feminism and push for equality, the world has opened up and allowed female leaders to have the floor—billboard chart leaders, included. In large part, it is the marketing of these modern-day icons that has changed the former “outsider” status of women in the music industry to one of triumph, change, and societal progress. Through the way they present and emphasize authenticity through their own career leadership, social media, and the social issues they choose to tackle—all of which are forms of self-marketing—Swift, Beyonce, and Adele are rewriting women’s roles in the music industry. Through an examination of authenticity, this blog will address the role of marketing in female leadership, musical, and social roles.
MAKING POP AUTHENTIC
To investigate the marketing magic that has helped spur Swift, Beyonce, and Adele into legend status, it is necessary to note how they choose to define themselves by genre in order to understand how they simultaneously market themselves as and redefine “pop star.” According to The Music Exchange, pop music can be defined musically, and the nature of that definition is one that is always evolving, most sufficiently summarized in the idea that pop music is “commercial music. It is entirely a creation of the twentieth century, and it did not exist before the rise of radio” (“What Defines Pop As A Genre?) Though stereotyped as a formula bent on churning out sound-alike successes, authenticity is still a significant component of pop music’s resonance; perhaps there is even an element of authenticity in pop’s characteristic artifice, with pop music critic Ann Powers writing for The Los Angeles Times: “I celebrate the return of glitter and weirdness and fakery in pop. It’s opening up the doors to those who didn’t fit more constrictive paradigms of authenticity: more women, more gay and lesbian faces, more multiracial and international voices. In general, it’s making for a fuller reflection of life in our fragmented, hyper-accelerated time of struggle. (“Pop music notes on the decade”).
Beyonce, Adele, and Swift have all made a conscious decision to capitalize on the appeal of the pop genre. In part, this appeal is a feeling of unity that is a cornerstone of shared interests. Pop music conforms to the “mere exposure effect,” or, when a melody repeats and our liking increases with repetition. According to a study shared by Music.Mic, the psychology of pop music capitalizes on the fact that “human beings crave familiarity,” which means that the sounds of these artists meant to trigger a trend of “established sound (“Scientists Just Discovered Why All Pop Music Sounds the Same”). Despite their differences in genre interpretation—Swift made headlines in the past two years for her transition as a country-pop crossover star; Beyonce music is defined as pop/R&B; Adele is categorized as a pop/soul star—they have created a new authenticity in pop music that allows them to use the best of the genre while maintaining individual sound. Beyonce, in particular, commented that she desired to remove herself from the boundaries of genre altogether, saying in 2010 that she aspired to ““change the sound and make my own genre of music” (“Beyonce Says She Wants To Make My Own Genre of Music”). Adele and Swift are both known for the song-writing prowess that gives their music seemingly more integrity than the bubble-gum pop stereotype. These artists have changed what society thinks of when they imagine a “pop star,” as they do not look the same or sound the same as other artists, nor each other. Yet, their decision to exist in the pop genre is one that is decidedly authentic, and a key piece of the marketing puzzle that allows them all to be referred to as some variation of pop star, queen of pop, or triumph of pop music at various points throughout their careers.
In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction, he states: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, 4). While most would consider Swift, Beyonce, and Adele’s latest albums works of art, they are also artists who have sculpted a “unique existence” in not only the music industry, but a cultural existence that solidifies their roles as innovators. The work of leading female music artists is a reflection of their leadership. How do you ensure work remains authentic and beyond reproductibility, which has become all too easy to do in a culture that thrives on retweeting and sharing? For Swift, Beyonce, and Adele, you simply make that work yourselves, from scratch, providing a fascinating look at what goes into creating true authenticity, but also the capacity of female music leaders.
AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP BY ARTIST
When Adele’s song “Hello” debuted, it garnered over fifty million YouTube views in the first forty-eight hours of its release, and yet, she told Rolling Stone of being famous “I’m really frightened of it. I think it’s really toxic, and I think it’s really easy to be dragged into it,” a stark contrast to the “omnipresence” of “social power in which spectators worship” put forth in The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (Adorno, Horkheimer, 9), (“Inside Her Private Life and Triumphant Return”). To debut her single, Adele employed another spectacularly unconventional approach to teasing her first new music in three years: The advertisement did not feature her name, the new album title, or any indication that the music was by any particular artist—except the distinctive voice. In an instance like this, how does an artist like Adele and the standard of authenticity she sets forth—literally allowing her voice to do the talking—establish herself as “surpassing the theater of illusion, leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience” (Adorno, Horkheimer, 4)?
(Video: Adele’s teaser for “Hello”)
Similarly, the authenticity—or perceived authenticity—of Taylor Swift’s career is the sole result of her creative direction. Though known for the personalization of her album lyrics, the level of power she has over her own branding is unparalleled in the music industry: At just fourteen, Swift walked away from a development deal, refusing due to the lack of control she would have over her own career. This set a career-long precedent for Swift acting as her own manager, deciding to change her sound, name her 2014 album 1989, and release an album cover that did not feature her face on it, all decisions that, had it been any other artist, could have been mistakes of career-ending proportions. Adorno and Horkheimer discuss the strength of the culture industry and its ability to “deal with consumers’ needs, producing them, controlling them, and disciplining them,” noting that there are “no limits set to cultural progress of this kind” (Adorno, Horkheimer, 13). Is it possible that Swift is a one-woman culture industry?
(Video: How Taylor Swift’s career launched, in which she discusses turning down the biggest record label in Nashville)
Benjamin states that “the concept of authenticity always transcends mere genuineness” (Benjamin, 28). In the leadership styles of the powerful female brands discussed thus far, a necessary distinction is that fans and the media do not seem to assume every action is natural, and therefore, authentic. Instead, people know the actions behind said marketing and careers are orchestrated, but authenticity lies in the fact that it is the artists themselves who are in charge of it. There is no greater example of this than Beyonce. In 2014, Beyonce fired her manager from the entertainment management company she founded in order to have full control over her career in partnership with her husband, Jay-Z. She told Billboard of managing herself: “I felt like I wanted to follow the footsteps of Madonna and be a powerhouse and have my own empire and show other women when you get to this point in your career you don’t have to go sign with someone else and share your money and your success—you do it yourself” (“Beyonce on Self-Management”).
(Video: Beyonce drops album with no advertising)
By creating careers, Swift, Beyonce, and Adele have ensured authenticity and assumed leadership that cements them as iconic musical and social presences who did more than sing and dance: They changed an industry, and what is expected of an artist.
FEMINISM & FEMALE ARTIST BRANDING
Entertainment is no longer just about pleasure or mindless amusement; it is, instead, perhaps one of the most powerful social commentaries that exists in our society, something that has maneuvered its way into advertising, reading, news, and even social issues. In an article for The Guardian, an interviewed party said: “I’ll tell you why people are so obsessed with celebrities – it’s because celebrities try to stand for something, don’t they?” (“The Six Tribes of Pop: Why the music you listen to defines who you are”) In today’s society, celebrities are not just standing for something; they are saying everything, and furthermore, they are saying it in their own words via performances, interviews, and social media. Celebrity pull is more significant than ever, so what does it mean to a star’s career when she lends her microphone to a cause? By tackling social issues—such as feminism—female artists further establish their authenticity by engaging with problems that affect their audience, and shed light on those issues that could be affecting them personally and professionally. It is no coincidence that Swift, Beyonce, and Adele have all been quoted as identifying as feminists, and as musical leaders, their feminism is a central part of their branding. While Beyonce has long laid claim to the feminist name as part her public image, Adele and Swift have taken on subtler approaches to equality and girl power.
Upon the release of her new album, Adele told Rolling Stone “I’m a feminist. I believe that everyone should be treated the same. She recalls not being taken seriously in business meetings full of men, of encountering an attitude of “what do you know?” (“Adele: I’m A Feminist). Swift’s newfound ownership of feminism was as publicized as her country-pop crossover, with her noting to Maxim: “A man writing about his feelings from a vulnerable place is brave; a woman writing about her feelings from a vulnerable place is oversharing or whining. So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality” (“Taylor Swift Talks Feminism, Misogyny in Maxim”).
By making feminism part of their branding, these female acts have reinforced the idea of music as “an adjunct to language to emotively reinforce group values, virtues, and normative behaviors” set forth by Steve Brown in How Does Music Work? (Brown, 4). Just as we seek the aforementioned familiarity patterns of pop music, human beings are designed to seek connections to things and people. This subsequently allows women artists who embrace social issues such as feminism to become part of a larger narrative that affects them directly, as well as affecting their target audience: Women. As awareness of world issues grows, so does the need for artists to embody a sort of “social activism,” with MTV even adding a “Best Video With A Message” award to the Video Music Awards in order to promote and share artists who are championing self-empowerment in one way or another.
As Swift, Beyonce, and Adele are female artists who target primarily female fans (though it is apparent they all have significant cross-over demographic appeal), taking on a social, cultural, and political buzzword connects them to their audiences, as explained by The Journal of Popular Culture: “The illusion of intimacy strips away the mask of the public performance through the revelation of personal and private details about the celebrity as an average person that resonate with the audience’s own experiences” (“Can You Handle My Truth?”). Of course, there has been ample debate over whether any of these women can truly classify themselves as a feminist, but in a breakdown of authenticity, they are female leaders in their field who pioneered their careers under their own creative control, who are utilizing a social movement as part of their marketing in order to connect with female listeners. As Adorno and Horkheimer note, “influence over the consumers is established by entertainment;” therefore, the integrity of these influential artists is crucial to how they present themselves to fans: They care about, seemingly, exactly what female audience members do.
Adding an additional layer to the authenticity marketing push is that Swift, Beyonce, and Adele do not simply share social movements with their fans—they share them socially, too. The cross of social issues and social media has utterly altered the landscape of music marketing, and is a direct tie to how these female artists present themselves: No longer are they only in charge of sound and lyric; they are the ones dictating how, where, and why their stories, thoughts, and ideas are transmitted to fans, through a few taps on a smartphone screen. What initially seems like the downfall of society is instead a remarkable glimpse at artists taking back the narrative and controlling their own public image, offering viewers and listeners more authenticity in marketing than is possible in photoshopped, autotuned mass media advertising campaigns. Benjamin observes that “any man today can lay claim to being filmed”: How does the dynamic change when it the celebrities filming themselves? (Benjamin, 9). Swift, Beyonce, and Adele are rewriting the “culture industry” by ensuring they maintain authentic connections with fans and a sense of community that encourages the idea set forth by Sara Cohen that “social practices involving the consumption and production of music also draw people together and symbolize their sense of collectivity and place” (Cohen, 436).
To see clearly how social media is used to create authenticity in self-marketing female artists, one must look no further than the Instagram and Twitter accounts of stars themselves. Swift is particularly notorious for engaging with fans online: During promotion for her 1989 album release, she spent months finding fans on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr, inviting the most dedicated to private listening parties at her homes in Rhode Island, Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, and London. During these listening parties—dubbed the “1989 Secret Sessions”—Swift baked for her guests, allowed them to take photos with her Grammys and cats, and let them listen to the entire new record months prior its release.
This is a new level of authenticity and fan connection: Is this what Adorno and Horkheimer were referring to regarding the “omnipresence” or “social power in which the spectators worship,” and if so, is this a negative thing? It seems the more a celebrity allows fans “in”—that is, into their private lives—the more relatable, and thus, more authentic, they become. Beyonce, who maintains a far more private social media presence, opted to share the first photos of her daughter, which were worth millions of dollars, herself, on a Tumblr account dedicated to Blue Ivy Carter. In 2013, Beyonce, who was “bored with traditional album marketing,” and dropped her album “Beyonce” by sharing a video featuring images of her to Instagram, bearing the caption “Surprise!” (“Beyonce Shows the True Power of Social Media”).
In response to Beyonce’s unconventional album drop, Jason King, professor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, said: “”This seems like a direct gift from the celebrity to the consumer” (Beyonce Shows the True Power of Social Media”). In other words, this marks another connection between listener and artist, and another degree of authenticity in marketing. Recently, Adele followed a similar marketing structure to release 25: She tweeted a lengthy entry that chronicles her growth, the turning point that was actually turning twenty-five, and defining the album as a “make up” record.
Despite Adele’s social media use being somewhat sparse by pop culture standards, she choose to announce her “comeback” via this medium in an attempt to connect with fans directly. Much like the employment of the pop music genre, each uses social media in a different way that is strategic to their image and goals. Considering these gestures as both authentic ones and ones of decisive leadership, it pleads the question: Is this the very “unique existence” Benjamin references?
In various phrasings, Swift, Adele, and Beyonce have all expressed the same sentiment of “be yourself!” or “be true to yourself!” What is so intoxicating about this incantation that it slips its way into what we listen to?
To question this principle further, with numerous other female artists in play, why and how have Beyonce, Swift, and Adele changed the game for women’s roles in music, society, and marketing? Adorno and Horkheimer debate that in today’s culture “no one is officially responsible for what he thinks,” and though a society thriving on follows, retweets, and shares seems to support that theory, these women have proved as female artists—and perhaps, females, in general—it is they alone who are responsible for their art and the authenticity that steams from it. Swift, Beyonce, and Adele are as far from replicable as one can be, and it is their own prowess that has established them as not just celebrities, but icons, role models, and transcendentalists; they have redefined women’s role in music by, indeed, making it an authentic one: No longer are the “queens of pop” bubble-gum, sound-alike hit-makers. Instead, they are entrepreneurs, musical ground-breakers, and social leaders who employ authenticity in both the music they make and its creation, and the presentation of that music in their marketing.
Is it any wonder that we keep listening?