After attending three of Taylor Swift’s five sold-out shows at Staples Center, there are several elements that likely will stay with this writer for some time: the sheer boldness of her show-opening performance of “Welcome to New York” against a striking black-and-white Manhattan skyline backdrop, the intimacy she could establish in the vastness of a sports arena during a midshow solo acoustic segment and the effervescent joy of her concert-closing rendition of “Shake It Off” that felt fresh despite its ubiquitous presence last year.
But more than those performances, what became crystal clear was the deep bond she’s created with fans since day one, something she’s nurtured largely through a savvy use of social media.
@JacobsPiano I HAVE to give you a hug for that beautiful piano medley you did! Please come to a show on my tour and say hi to me? My treat.— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) August 19, 2015
On the face of it that’s hardly rare. Most pop musicians regularly use social media as part of their career strategy.
When you see the way this connection plays out at her concerts, you realize that Taylor Swift owns it. The difference between Swift and most others who turn to Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and other social media platforms is that the majority see them as promotion and marketing tools. They alert fans when a new single is available, when the new album is coming or when their concert tour will hit your town.
Swift, born in 1989 and part of a generation that has come of age using social media as naturally as breathing, recognizes that it’s a two-way street. She has brilliantly created a level of conversation with her followers that most other entertainers can only dream of.
Rather than being content with the knowledge that millions of fans are watching her every move, Swift has made it abundantly clear that she is paying equal attention to what her fans are doing: their wants, needs, joys, fears and dreams, and she incorporates that awareness into an ongoing dialogue with them.
Film clips projected on screens flanking the Staples’ stage before each night’s shows displayed how she singled out numerous fans over time for special attention, surprising them with Christmas or birthday greetings, her own merchandise, invitations to backstage meetings, and occasionally, surprise visits to their homes.
When fans subsequently share these encounters via YouTube or Twitter posts, the message to millions of other fans is “This could happen to you too.”
Several weeks before the release of her “1989” album last fall, she told The Times how she “stalked Tumblr and Instagram to see what people were saying,” then extended invitations to select fans through intermediaries to a “special Taylor Swift opportunity” that turned out to be one of her “Secret Sessions” listening events at her homes in Beverly Hills, Nashville, New York and Rhode Island.
Their photos and tweets from these events helped build word-of-mouth excitement among fans, which contributed to her third straight first-week sales that exceeded 1 million copies when the album landed.
It was more than crafty marketing: Swift exhibited real excitement in sharing her new music with about 40 young fans who sat on the floor of her living room, walking them through the genesis of each song before giving them an early listen to the album.
At Wednesday night’s show, during one of several long monologues between songs — which morphed each night, indicating she was not reciting a well-rehearsed speech — she broached the subject of self-esteem.
As fluent in the language of social media as others may be in German, French or Urdu, Swift told her audience, “You are not someone’s comment; you are not someone’s post on Instagram,” addressing the widespread bullying and use of social media by those she described in “Shake It Off” as the “haters [who are] gonna hate.”
When Lakers star Kobe Bryant showed up Friday to unveil a championship banner with Swift’s name on it recognizing her 16 lifetime sold-out shows at the venue, Swift credited fans. “This is not my doing,” she said, “this is all because you bought tickets to sell out these shows.”
Remote-controlled lighted bracelets were also taped to every seat in the arena, which activated during the show and amplified the lighting design by triggering them to shine in time with various songs. "I didn't want to look out into a sea of darkness, I wanted to be able to see every one of your faces," Swift explained.
Filmed interviews between songs focused on several of her celebrity friends—actress Lena Dunham, pop star Selena Gomez, supermodels Karlie Kloss and Lily Aldridge, actress-model Jaime King, and her childhood friend Abigail Anderson.
Those segments could easily have stopped with testimonials to how much fun it is hanging out with their superstar friend. But many of their comments addressed the idea that people — especially the women and girls who make up the vast majority of Swift’s fan base — should support one another, resist social pressures to belittle or bully others, and otherwise focus on building one another up rather than tearing anyone down.
Swift demonstrates that success and celebrity are a means, not an end, and that she has a vision of how to use her fame constructively. Her showdown with Apple over the roll-out of its Apple Music streaming service is an example of a celebrity thinking beyond self-interest to do what she can to improve situations she thinks should be improved.
She encouraged, even challenged, her fans to look for their own opportunities to make a difference. “Don’t let your life be defined by others,” she said on opening night. “You can define what your life stands for.”
There’s been considerable debate about whether Swift has abandoned her roots in country music in making the bid for a broader sound and the wider audience that might come with it, in shifting to pop production, which became evident in a big way on her 2012 album “Red” and has fully blossomed with “1989.”
Musically, yes—there’s nothing remotely “country” sounding on “1989.” But the salient career advice she received while learning her craft in Nashville is still glaringly apparent.
“Take care of your fans,” country artists say, almost as a mantra, “and they’ll take care of you for life.”