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Lesson to Learn: Unpacking Taylor Swift’s Storytelling Strategy

05 Jun 2024 | STORIES | 0 Comment
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Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of learning and communication. In fact, human history begins with stories. These stories were so important that they were memorized and passed down countless generations before the written word. Using language, humans communicate and express their ideas as well as feelings, which can be done through literary works such as a song. 

Consider standup comedians who use anecdotes and humor to captivate audiences, offering stories about our mundane lives while bringing out laughter. Filmmakers use the visual medium to transport viewers into their own worlds, crafting narratives that resonate long after the credits roll. Similarly, novelists construct plots and develop characters to draw readers into their imaginative world, stimulating empathy and understanding. Meanwhile, singers use songs to convey an idea and/or a feeling through its lyrics. In a song, the lyrics may contain various metaphors that carry contextual meaning in order to convey feeling and emotion.

“When Taylor Swift tells you a story, you listen, because you know it’s going to be good… because she’s an extraordinary storyteller.” So starts Time’s announcement of the news magazine’s 2023 Person of the Year, which is Taylor Swift. Storytelling in music is nothing new and Taylor Swift has long been renowned as a singer-songwriter who excels in this area. 

Do you know why everyone is always so excited for a new Taylor Swift album? Because it’s just like a new season of your favorite TV show just dropped! People can’t wait to see what happens in a saga we’ve all been following for years since her albums are mostly based on her personal experiences. In Taylor Swift’s songwriting, fans are positioned not only to eavesdrop on the narratives presented but are also invited to conceptualize and enact particular roles and scenarios in the discourse. 

As a public relations practitioner myself, there is much to learn from Taylor Swift’s approach to storytelling. With her songs resonating with billions, giving voice to people’s emotions, Swift offers us a window into the different eras of her life and career. You might think what does a communication strategy have to do with the world of pop music? Well, you’ll find out at the end of the article!

Taylor Swift’s Evolution Through Different “Eras”

When revisiting Taylor Swift's earlier albums, her songs were more "confessional" or expressed something personal, often directed at specific individuals. Tracks such as "Style", "Dear John", "London Boy", "Cornelia Street", and "Cruel Summer" have sparked media speculation regarding the identity of the person Swift was referring to, as well as the metaphorical meanings associated with the mentioned locations. Her lyrics are considered like a "diary", allowing fans to know her life story, making them realize that what they experience is shared by others, including Taylor. However, in recent years, Taylor has shifted from a diary-like songwriting style to more creative storytelling through the albums folklore and evermore which she wrote during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music in 2020, Taylor Swift revealed that she was trying different things in writing. Instead of writing about her life, she created characters in the cities of her imagination. However, that doesn't mean Taylor Swift eliminates personal elements in her songs. folklore opened the door for Taylor Swift to be able to write and compose songs that are distant from her life story, a concept she further applies in her next album, evermore

Taylor Swift brings her songs to life not just through her lyrics, but also during live performances. One of them is through The Eras Tour concert, an autobiographical concert that she began last year. The Eras Tour marks Swift’s sixth concert tour, showcasing her musical journey spanning 17 years. In this article, we will explore how Taylor Swift uses storytelling skills to convey meaning in songs, and how she presents them on The Eras Tour stage, with various amazing performances and stage acts.

Since Taylor Swift's work is quite diverse and numerous, it is impossible to analyze them all. Hence, I have selected a few songs that not only narrate Taylor Swift's life story and connect her with fans but also address complex and sensitive social issues.

The Man

Source: Rolling Stone

“The Man” was released in 2019, as part of her seventh studio album, Lover. In this song, Taylor Swift talks about gender bias, in which bias usually appears in a workplace (or other situations), and its disproportionate impact on women. Even in the music video, she wants to show that women like Taylor Swift face criticism and judgment for such behavior, men’s behavior is somewhat normalized and even praised by societal standards and values.

The stage transformed into a three-level office setting to highlight the song's message. On the lower level, female dancers toiled as "employees." A single chair and desk marked the "boss's" office atop the platform. As Swift sang, she ascended the levels, reaching the top to deliver the song's highlighted lines, "I'm so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I'd get there quicker if I was a man. And I'm so sick of them coming at me again, ‘cause if I was a man, then I’d be the man." By wearing a blazer that resembles a man’s suit, which is synonymous with power and authority in the business world, often associated with masculinity, Taylor visually challenges these gendered associations and critiques society’s tendency to grant men more authority and respect in professional settings.

the last great american dynasty

Source: Business Insider 

The song begins with the lyric, “Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny – her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis.” Turns out, the Rebekah in the lyrics was Rebekah Harkness, an American socialite, who once resided in Swift’s Rhode Island mansion. The song recounts Rebekah's journey from divorcée to the wife of William “Bill” Hale Harkness, heir to the Standard Oil fortune. 

In the Eras Tour, Swift presented this song like a mini-play using the infamous folklore cabin. Swift, assuming the perspective of a narrator, seamlessly weaved her storytelling amidst the choreography, capturing the essence of Rebekah's life with every movement. Close-up shots provided a glimpse into the intricate details of the performance—the graceful swirl of Rebekah's dress, the subtle exchanges between dancers—culminating in a climactic moment as Swift delivered the line, “and then it was bought by me,” referencing her acquisition of the Rhode Island mansion in 2013.

tolerate it

Source: @gleam_twinkle on X

“tolerate it” (yes, all lowercase), is the fifth track of the “evermore” album that she put out in 2020. The song is a slow ballad that Swift claimed she wrote after reading a book by Daphne du Marier called “Rebecca”. In the book, Rebecca’s husband just tolerates her, while she’s trying so hard to impress him. Swift thought there was a part of her that was related to that, hence she wrote the song. 

The song explores the complexities of loving someone who fails to appreciate the depth of their relationship, a theme Taylor portrays masterfully alongside a male dancer, embodying the dynamics of a troubled couple. The stage was decorated with just a long table and “fancy shit” on top of it. Taylor immerses herself in the role of the neglected partner, her portrayal brimming with desperation, every flicker of fury and agony vividly etched upon her face. The male dancer, too, delivers a compelling performance, embodying his character with subtlety and nuance. Sipping his "wine" and shaking his head in response to Taylor's impassioned confrontation, his portrayal adds depth and realism to the scene. It did feel like watching two actors in a Broadway scene!

So, as a Public Relations (PR) practitioner, what can we learn from her?

As a PR practitioner, observing Taylor Swift and her Eras Tour has been an enlightening experience for me. Taylor Swift’s mastery of storytelling is an example of how narrative-driven content can captivate audiences and build strong emotional connections. In PR, effective storytelling is not merely about conveying information, but creating narratives that evoke emotions and resonate with the target audience. 

Taylor Swift’s ability as a storyteller is present in every aspect of her public relations. Her songwriting plays a crucial role in developing her brand image and speaking with her audience. Although some parts of it are deliberate, she maintains an authentic tone which makes her “Taylor Swift”. The result is loyal Swifties or just regular listeners of her songs. By using the power of storytelling, PR practitioners can humanize brands as well as develop deeper connections with consumers and stakeholders.

A person who works with words.
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