It’s been about ten years since Sam, my son, returned from the outlet mall to tell me he had met Taylor Swift. She was singing in similar establishments across the country seeking to hone her gifts and develop a fan base. Thinking back I’m sure the outlet malls of America probably functioned for her as Hamburg did for the Beatles; in the language of Gladwell’s remarkable book Outliers, there she got the 10,000 hours needed to shape her gift. And what a gift it proved to be!
She will undoubtedly go down as one of the musical greats of her generation. Already her songs have been given the greatest of honors – they have become part of the soundtrack of our lives. From her break out ‘Tim McGraw’ to the serial ‘number ones’ of her most recent multiplatinum album ‘1989’ her words and music appear to have expressed the Zeitgeist of an entire generation.
Everyone loves talent, intelligence, and beauty, but there are some things that enable Taylor Swift to go beyond the usual level of celebrity and fame given to the average superstar. I believe it’s from these things that we can learn some important lessons.
Identify with your followers
First of all Swift fully identifies with her fan base. She’s decided to whom she wants to communicate and every lyric says, “I’m one of you”. As her fans have grown older so has the content of her songs. The same people, who enjoyed the innocence of ‘You Belong With Me and Love Story’ in 2008, sang along with ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ in 2012. Now those same fans, older and world-wearier, now identify with the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of ‘Blank Space’ and the hauntingly beautiful ‘Clean’ on her newest album ‘1989’. Interestingly though the themes of her newer songs are obviously more adult and there is an unusual modesty (for popular music) in her lyrics when it comes to relationships and sex and her fans love that about her.
Not only have the lyrics developed but the musical genre has changed as well. Embracing new influences she has moved from Country to mainstream Pop. In her early work the references and production were most definitely Nashville, but in ‘1989’ you can hear homage to such greats of the 80s as The Fine Young Cannibals, The Cure and The Eurythmics.
Her fan base has aspired to become more sophisticated and Swift’s music has reflected their journey, but all the while she’s still saying ‘I’m one of you’.
Establish common ground
Secondly, she fights for and establishes common ground among all her followers. In her fan forum after some fans began revealing their political views’ she said,
‘Just wanted to remind you guys that let’s try to avoid topics and conversations that lean towards political or religious topics. In the end, someone will inevitably get offended and this just isn’t the place for that.
For example, I decided to remove the LGBT thread due to political and religious battles, not because we don’t accept everyone here on Taylor Connect.
Thanks for understanding. It will make things better for all of us’
And it appears that her followers do understand and respect the rules that she has established; the numbers of young people becoming ‘Swifties’ continues to grow.
Operate with kindness
Thirdly and perhaps most importantly Taylor Swift operates with genuine kindness towards the people who follow her. Of course there will be the cynics who doubt her motivation but the stories of real concern that she seems to have for her fans continue to grow and speak for themselves.
Like the time she surprised a fan by accepting an invitation to a bachelorette party. She flew in on her private jet to celebrate with a young woman and her ordinary group of friends the most important day of her life. Or perhaps the stories recorded on YouTube of her buying, wrapping and personally delivering Christmas presents to her fans in different parts of America.
This is a person who appears to genuinely love her fans and looks for ways to show them kindness.
Identification, common ground, kindness, these are the particular elements that Taylor Swift embodies and they have helped her to build one of the largest and most loyal fan bases in history. Yes she is an extraordinary talent but she has done very ordinary things to grow a following.
Those three elements, seen so clearly in her work among her fans, are common to all leaders, churches and movements that are growing today. From the largest American mega-church to the unknown Sisters of Mercy working on the streets of Calcutta, identification, common ground and kindness are the currency of mission, movement and growth.
We talk a lot about incarnation and mission in the Church often struggling to understand the ‘how’ if not the ‘what’. Here is an example of how to incarnate a mission dressed in the garb of a modern musical phenomenon. Taylor Swift may have a different mission to the Church but she shows us how identification, common ground and kindness will go a long way in helping us fulfill ours.