Last week Taylor Swift released “Welcome to New York,” a song from her 1989 full-length out today, to widespread derision. We joked that the song sounded like a tampon commercial, while on Twitter music critics blasted Swift for trying to brand herself as a New Yorker with almost no time actually living in the city itself. Meanwhile, Swift posted another checklist of lifestyle-branding items on her social media: Photos of lattes, front stoops (not her own, she lives in the penthouse of a Tribeca condo building), and a Le Creuset cooking set hash-tagged #WelcometoNewYork. It was clumsy and slightly embarrassing, easily one of the most “off-brand” moments of Swift’s carefully monitored career.
One day later, she released a teaser for the album cut “Style” as a commercial for Target, in which the singer described what it takes to be her, befriend her, or (potentially) date her. A white shirt for you, a tight little skirt for her, some sort of product to slick your long hair back with. (All things presumably available at Target, should you want to play along.) “We never go out of style,” she sings, posing for a wide-eyed selfie using a Target logo-emblazoned Polaroid camera. “Take me home,” she croons into a similarly stamped microphone. And before you know it, she’s sold Target (who have launched Apple- and iTunes-branded sales counters, by the way), the cool vintage aesthetic of Polaroid, her album and subtly dissected her own “Style” — all within 20 seconds.
What do we learn from these two carefully curated, practically simultaneous reflections of the same girl? That Swift is better at selling a lifestyle when she’s had a little corporate help. Left to her own Instagram-filtered devices, Swift comes off less like the uncool girl-next-door than a rich-kid wannabe playing dress-up. But Target’s suburban-imprinted aesthetic is something she can represent authentically; something her fans will buy into. (Some Swifties are already giddy at the prospect of a Taylor/Target Polaroid camera collab, and her album comes with a set of exclusive Polaroid photo prints.)
If there was any remaining question of whether pop stars need corporate branding in order to maintain their level of income, the overwhelming lack of album sales answers it. Without a single artist going platinum yet in 2014, artists have chosen to team with marketing giants to keep up with the lifestyle and revenues they’re used to. But artists are doing more than just recouping lost revenue — they’re sidling up to corporations in a way that would have been unthinkable on a mass scale even 10 years ago. Plainly speaking, the reason that some of the most talked about, chart-topping music videos to come out of recent months look like commercials is because they are commercials, and ones that artists themselves are happily signing up for.
When Gwen Stefani premiered her first new solo song in six years, by way of a music video on Vevo last Monday, for instance, she too signed into an existing packaging agreement before branding it to become her own. She has been away for several years, however, and her lack of context screams out in the awkward, pointed advertising in the video: Pause the glitchy vid at 2:10, as she pulls out her new iPhone, and you’ll see that she’s loaded up the the Apple-acquired, Beats Music-developed “Play the Sentence” app and has typed into a screen that she’s searching for music that describes being, “On a Journey & feels like Discovering with My Vibe to Rad New Music.” It’s a soul-sucking endless branding loop: On an Apple-partnered streaming site, we watch her cue up an Apple-owned app on an Apple product to listen to a song that she will then sell — via Apple.
And there it is again: the ever-present elephant in the room, Apple. 2014 has been a big year for the mammoth’s ever-growing music platforms. With iTunes sales at a low, Apple has all but shifted from focusing on selling their consumers music to seducing them to stream it. With this shift in strategy has come a shift in tone: As designer and tech reporter for Forbes, Anthony Wing Kosner pointed out back in May: “Although Apple products have a style (thank you Steve Jobs and Jony Ive) they are almost universally too tasteful to have a personality.” This lack of personality has become a larger focus of strategy: Increasingly, massive corporations are hollowing out their identities and expanding their infrastructure to provide room for others — artists, fans, hashtags — to do the branding work for them.
In fact, Apple has been busily acquiring platforms to help them do just that. In the past year, the company partnered with Vevo to produce MTV-style streaming television for Apple TV. They’ve also acquired both Swell Radio, a podcast-streaming app with an simple interface that “learns” its users’ tastes with very specific precision, so that it can recommend similar things to listen to, and Beats By Dre/Beats Music, a product line and streaming music platform that focuses on user customization while providing an endless number of playlists sorted by genres, themes, and cred-bolstering playlist curators like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.
Beats Music, meanwhile, is a brand whose personality is based on being as amorphous as the user wants it to be. When Trent Reznor announced that he would be acting Chief Creative Officer for the brand back in 2012, and narrated their launch video earlier this year, he promised the service would find “the perfect music for every moment.” A place where “inspiration would flow and life would be fused with magic.” In acquiring Beats for $3.2 billion this past May, Apple now owns a service that smartly caters to the user’s own personal tastes with mind-bogglingly specific criteria and allows its spokespeople, including Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj among others, the same luxury. Labels come into play as well — UMG and Sony are part-owners of Vevo and Interscope founder and Beats Electronics director Jimmy Iovine left his label to continue running Beats at Apple.
The branded-video trend isn’t exclusive to major-label pop stars, though. A week ago indie R&B singer FKA twigs released a short film on YouTube in collaboration with Google Glass. At first the twigs-directed video, a gorgeously choreographed vogue sequence, looked like an independent project; but soon enough, twigs swipes and commands her Google Glass to YouTube a selection of dance routines and makeup tutorials to emulate herself. The video delivered a subtle statement; perhaps while Vevo went after the major-label pop stars, YouTube was going after the underground. But both twigs’ YouTube-assisted dance routine and Stefani’s Beats search for the perfect song ultimately delivered the same behavioral cue for consumers: Corporations are here to help you define and display yourself. YouTube can help you learn how to be or do something you haven’t before, Beats will use a madlib to help you figure out what you might like.
Sure, product branding and placement in music has been around forever. But the past week has bluntly shown pop stars and indie artists alike bending the focus of their brands to include corporate entities. (So much so that Universal Music Group will begin “native in-video advertising” with their artists — a process where the label will subtly alter existing music videos to include new ad partners.) While musicians have always had relationships with huge corporate brands, this is the first time we’re seeing those brands figure in so prominently with the artist’s actual output; the music and videos that have traditionally been kept under strict artistic control. Target gets equal billing on the premiere of Swift’s new track; STefani clutches her Beats-branded iPhone during her big, long-awaited return to the solo-scene. (Of course, streaming videos now help boost artists in the Billboard charts and are also responsible for larger fraction of video-related artist royalties and ad sales than ever before.)
There’s no doubting that some fans might find this branding distasteful. But as artists have been forced to reconsider what it means to “sell out” (a concept that’s antiquated in 2014), they have also become empowered by their weight as marketing tools, enjoying newer and creatively closer collaborations with the corporate brands they work with. Take Ariana Grande, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj’s “Bang Bang” video; it previewed as a 30-second Beats Pill commercial on Vevo before appearing in full on the video platform after the VMAs. (And we’ll go ahead and assume that the trio have gained some sort of profit from the David Guetta designed Bang Bang collection of headphones and speakers.) On “Anaconda,” Nicki Minaj was a walking billboard for the corporate sponsorships that she serves as the face of, including her line of Beats speakers (the Pink Pill), her MYX moscato, VSX sportswear and the Metafit weight-loss drink.
But Minaj has had it right all along. As music sales shrink, musicians and corporations have become dizzyingly adept at tying their brands around each other. This is why we don’t notice when Swift brands for Target or why we’re not surprised when an image Minaj’s Pink Pill pops up seconds after she raps that she’s “taken half a pill” in “Anaconda.” It just feels… right. Once Minaj famously rapped, “I’m a brand bitch, I’m a brand.” She’s not the only one.