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.