Andrew Ledbetter Talks Taylor Swift, Storytelling and the Invisible String to Communication Theory
To celebrate the release of “1989 (Taylor’s Version),” we spoke with Andrew Ledbetter, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies (and self-proclaimed Swiftie), about Taylor Swift and how her work ties in to communication theory. More than a musician, Taylor is an expert communicator whose narrative skills jump off the music sheet and into real life.
All Along There Was Some Invisible String
There are layers to Swift’s work, and her brand is no different. At her core, Swift is a storyteller. As such, a significant part of her brand is focused on narrative communication, where “the power of storytelling shapes not only her music but also how we perceive our own lives,” explains Ledbetter.
This skill for storytelling has deep roots in country music, and when combined with the broad appeal of pop, it makes her popular with a variety of audiences.
“If you drill down into some of the key parts of the Taylor Swift secret sauce that make her music so successful, it becomes clear that the narrative component, the storytelling, is vibrantly woven throughout her music.”
Midas Touch (On Chevy Truck)
Marcus Collins, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of marketing at The University of Michigan, argues that the “Taylor Swift effect,” (where anything she touches turns to gold) is an example of Two Step Flow Communication, in which Swift’s fans influence one another and their connections. From these second-tier connections, influence takes place not necessarily from Swift herself.
Ledbetter said that Swift doesn’t fit into just one communication theory or concept; what is happening with her is more complex.
“[Two Step Flow] doesn’t capture the quick, rapid and frequent connection that celebrities and influencers have between their fan base in the social media era, because two-step flow is such an older media theory premised on the broadcast media environment — not the very different social media environment we are in now,” he said.
The two-step flow explains the “what” of influence but not the “why” or “how.” It doesn’t explain Taylor’s vast lore (or “the Taylorverse”), a symbolic world where things like friendship bracelets, Easter eggs, a red scarf and the number 13 have their own deeper meaning within the fan base.
“Those meanings emerge from the fans. ‘“All Too Well’” is an example. It wasn’t a single on the original album, but people latched on to it and said ‘this is an amazing song.’ They set the agenda for that song,” Ledbetter explained.
What If I Told You I Was a Mastermind?
Swift has built her brand on her ability to tell stories that make her relatable, which can lead to fans feeling like they have a unique and personal relationship with Swift. Ledbetter said this is an intentional part of her brand strategy.
“Parasocial relationships is a theoretical concept that is a useful lens when talking about Taylor Swift. People have an attachment to her as a person and think of her as someone who knows them or understands them as much as they understand her,” says Ledbetter.
While many brands and celebrities may want to create these parasocial relationships with their audiences, Ledbetter said none seem to do so as effortlessly as Swift. However, he points to her song “Mastermind” as Swift’s suggestion that she does a lot of planning to get the results she wants. She constantly refers to her previous work in songs, Easter eggs, and concerts, creating a social loop that makes her fans feel seen.
She has also monetized these parasocial relationships and the Taylorverse through multiple versions of an album or offering the titular “Cardigan” for sale on her website.
You Should Find Another Guiding Light
Swift has been very vocal about some of the dark sides of her fame, such as stalking. Ledbetter explains why some fans dehumanize the object of their affection.
“Parasocial relationships overall can both humanize and dehumanize. They create an emotional attachment to the person without ethical considerations,” Ledbetter said. “Real relationships are a two-way street; I know you and you know me. That makes us more aware of our ethical obligations to the other person and ourselves.
“A parasocial relationship, by definition, is at a distance. I follow them on social media. I listen to their music. I go to their concerts. But I am less aware of my ethical obligation to them, so I may make choices that are harmful to them, myself or others. We may forget that, at the end of the day, they are a business and a brand but also a human being.”
Swift has been open about the impact of fame on her life, all but shunning public life in her previous relationship with Joe Alwyn. But she has been increasingly more public with her newest relationship with professional football team Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce. Almost everyone has something to say about it.
It’s A Love Story, Baby, Just Say Yes
Full disclosure: Ledbetter admits he doesn’t follow Taylor Swift’s love life much. But he isn’t entirely tuned out to the rumors.
“She has put herself at the center of her narrative universe as this powerful symbol of love and romance. This person is narrating about breakups and love and all of these things. Think of “Love Story” from the beginning of her career. But there is this sense, going back to “Peace,” where she seems to be singing about wanting her and Joe Alwyn to have a child someday. She has crafted this narrative where its natural culmination would be marriage and happily ever after. That is a broader societal narrative she is playing into and not a new narrative Taylor invented. She is adapting that story to her own life through her music.”
Love is a powerful storytelling tool, with romance as a popular, established genre of literature and film. Ledbetter said some of the appeal is watching Swift’s love story unfold. Everyone roots for a happy ending; we want the people in our lives to be happy and that includes our parasocial relationships.
Swift’s current relationship is unexpected and public, what seems to be an intentional change in direction from her closed-off private life for the past six years.
“It seems like we are into unlikely pairings right now in pop culture. Most notably, Barbenhimer this year, where audiences paired two very different movies together,” he said. “In some sense, Taylor Swift and the NFL (National Football League) are like that. We think of those fan bases as being distinct and separate. But now they have collided.”
Ledbetter also admits more research is needed on these kinds of relationships and the impact of social media.
“Having these kinds of connections with celebrities on social media is relatively new. It is not very long in human history that we have had this dynamic. We are wired to respond to people as people at a very deep level,” he said. “When we see human communication, even when it is mediated through a screen, we respond to that as human communication.”
It’s A New Soundtrack, I Could Dance to This Beat
1989 (Taylor’s Version) Q&A: What are you most looking forward to with 1989 (Taylor’s Version)?
That album is a pop music masterpiece. It has to be in the conversation with some of the greatest pop albums ever. It is so well constructed, produced and performed. I assume it will fall into the pattern of her other re-recorded albums, where she seeks to replicate the original album.
Yet she also is doing subtle things to reposition these albums. On “Red (Taylor’s Version),” the country twang is much less. Originally, she had to honor her country legacy while also trying to step toward pop. As great as the original “Red” is, it was trying to do two things that sort of fought against each other. “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is more cohesive. It steps away from that country angle and is much more established with its feet in pop. “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” with the vault tracks, has become an homage to music in the early 2000s pop-punk era. “1989,” I am curious to see if she does any subtle repositioning of the album.
In terms of tracks, “Wonderland” is a vastly underrated Taylor Swift song. I don’t know why it hasn’t garnered much fan attention. It is incredible. In the re-records, I appreciate that the production sounds richer and more three-dimensional. Her voice has improved. I am looking forward to how that track sounds when it is released.
Want to read more about Taylor Swift? Learn more about fans and social media, Media Insights (Taylor’s Version). Check out Ledbetter’s ranked list of Swifts songs, or learn more about how Swift relates to communication theory as he uses examples of Swift to describe 33 communication theories.