As an entertainment marketing student this semester, I wrote a brand analysis paper on any brand of my group’s choosing. We considered companies like Apple and products like the Tesla electric cars, but in the end felt that Taylor Swift was the best choice. Apart from being one of the most successful musical artists of all time, Taylor Swift has become the voice of a generation that touches thousands with her songs and personal stories. Her continued success has defied conventional marketing theory and can only be appropriately analyzed through entertainment marketing theory. Below, you can read a semester’s worth of work that culminated in this in-depth brand analysis of America’s favourite star: Taylor Swift. Enjoy!
This entertainment marketing paper is coauthored by: Angelina Chikhalina, Yash Diwadkar, Xabi Aguirre Fernandez, Monique Lim, Mihai Podariu, and Kia Pourkiani. The authors are students at the Schulich School of Business. This brand analysis is a culmination of the authors’ journey from everyday brand consumers to informed and analytical entertainment marketing students. The authors extend thanks to Professor Markus Giesler for his inclusive teaching and willingness to share the secrets of entertainment marketing.
What is the recipe for the perfect music brand? Findings from a 2-month long investigation of the Taylor Swift brand suggest that there is no longer a clear path. The variable nature of the music industry, mixed with the changing consumer demands for new music and fresh artists, has impaired the use of traditional marketing concepts. Instead, artists like Taylor Swift find success through tailoring modern entertainment marketing concepts to fit their own personal development and that of their fans in order to not only remain relevant, but to also thrive in this new environment. In this paper, we will be utilizing entertainment marketing theories to depict Swift’s departure from the traditional brand maintenance recipe. We analyze her use of a personal recipe of equal parts Myth Markets and Woman-of-Action Heroine, with a hint of Actor-Network Theory and a dollop of emotional branding.
As a young girl, Taylor Swift touched the lives of thousands of teenagers through her music, reaching out to them through common themes of love and growing up. As a teenager, Swift made a mark on the music industry through various accolades alongside a growing fan base that were loyal to a fault, ready to protect their idol from criticism and the villainous Kanye West. As a woman, Swift tackles issues of gay rights and self-image, taking a stance on the empowerment of both oneself and women and the LGBT community. As a brand, Swift has reshaped the face of the music industry by overturning conventional marketing theory and instead making use of entertainment marketing concepts; all the while showing the world what a love-struck teenager can really accomplish with heart, grit, and entertainment marketing theory. Through key use of theories such as the Woman-of-Action Heroine and Myth Market models, Swift has succeeded in an industry that has been facing potential over-saturation and declining sales. Her emotional branding techniques as well as Actor-Network Theory application are the key factors to her growing success, and explain the critical success of each album. These theories are the key to understanding her growth, both personal and as a brand.
The First Steps of a Brand
Taylor Swift’s childhood laid the foundation for her to develop a distinguishable brand image. Swift grew up in an upper-middle class family on an 11-acre Christmas tree farm in West Reading, Pennsylvania, while spending her summers at the family’s lakeside New Jersey home (“Taylor Swift Biography” par 1-4). Swift’s early-life experiences allowed her to have the very stories her broader audience would relate to, setting the stage for her future career based on diary-like music (Brown 165). Her farm-based upbringing allowed her to connect with her country fans, while her experiences at the family’s summer home in the city would inspire her transition to pop.
Swift’s father worked as financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, while her mother stayed at home to take care of Taylor and her younger brother, Austin (“Taylor Swift Biography” par 2-3). Swift’s parents were notably supportive of her entertainment career; from a young age, Swift was singing at local fairs and performing the national anthem at sports events, as well as modeling for brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch. Furthermore, her parents would take trips with Swift to New York and Nashville, where she would take singing lessons and meet with record labels, thus paving the way for her landmark songs of personal growth (“Taylor Swift Biography” par 5-6).
A 13-year-old Swift impressed an executive at an RCA Records showcase and took her first steps towards becoming the brand we are all familiar with today, earning her an artist development deal. After the deal, her father moved to Merrill Lynch’s Nashville office to support his daughter’s blossoming career. Swift’s parents were careful to never pressure their daughter but instead provided her with enough freedom to gain the experiences that a normal girl would have, which would incidentally be the very core of her musical success (Pastorek par 2-3).
After three years with the label, Swift left RCA Records because the label wanted to her to wait until she was 18 to release her first album. Swift noted that she felt she was ‘running out of time’ to capture the teenage years of her life, an emotion that others would relate to.
Taylor Swift: The Beginnings of a Star & Brand
After performing at a Nashville country music showcase, a 16-year-old Swift gained the attention of Scott Borchetta, a DreamWorks Records executive who was launching his own independent record label called Big Machine Records (“Taylor Swift Biography” par 4). Although the decision to sign such a young artist was scrutinized by his peers, Borchetta signed Swift as one of the first artists on his label.
Swift immediately started writing her self-titled debut album, Taylor Swift, with the album featuring country lyrics about romantic relationships, as well as drawing on Swift’s personal struggles as a high school freshman. The album was marketed towards, and relatable to, a previously undiscovered segment of the country music market: teenage girls. Swift’s young age and lyrics made her more relatable to younger girls than anything else available. The album sold 5.5 million copies, generated five platinum singles, and was generally well received by her teenage listeners and critics alike (“Taylor Swift Biography” par 5). This ensuing success of the album and her subsequent brand can be described through the Myth Market Model, with Swift’s debut album demonstrating the beginnings of her ability to bridge the gap between her listeners’ current identity position and their desired cultural ideals.
While Swift’s album was well received and set the stage for her development in the myth market, Swift’s image at the time was that of the girl next door, positioned as cute, pure, and emotionally vulnerable. She had begun to establish herself as teenagers’ cultural ideal, but had not yet become the resolution of every teenage girl’s ideological contradiction between being both a sweet girl next door and a tough rebel, or in other words, a woman-of-action heroine. However, Swift did foreshadow her rebellious side in the song Picture to Burn with lyrics stating, “as far as I’m concerned, you’re just another picture to burn… there’s no time for tears, I’m just sitting here planning my revenge”. Swift’s ability to provide relief through identity myths would grow through her next album, Fearless.
Fearless: The Development of a Cultural Ideal
Taylor Swift’s second album, Fearless, was also highly successful, selling 8.6 million copies worldwide (“Taylor Swift Tops 20 Million…” par 3). Similar to her self-titled debut album Taylor Swift, Swift wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on Fearless, and continued to use a very honest, almost diary-like writing style to capture the ups and downs of love and life. The success of Fearless can be explained by a continued development of the Myth Market Model (Figure 1: Structure of Taylor Swift Myth Market Model).
According to this model, each person has their current state (referred to as the “citizen’s identity position”), and a cultural ideology to which they aspire. Since one’s current state and ideal state are generally not the same, a cultural contradiction ensues, which is exhibited through anxiety or desire. Identity myths, such as music, films, and more are sought out by consumers to help alleviate this tension (Figure 1). Many people, and teenagers in particular, often have a current identity position plagued with feelings of being misunderstood, alone, or like an outsider. Seeing themselves as the “Ugly Duckling” to a certain extent, teenagers will seek an ideal state characterized by belongingness, understanding, and love, with the natural disconnect between the current position and the ideal resulting in contradiction and associated tension. Swift, who pens heartfelt songs about her breakups and feelings of rejection in “You’re Not Sorry” and “Forever & Always”, her experience of loving someone who loves someone else in “You Belong with Me”, and her optimism about love prevailing despite adversity in “Love Story”, has become the carrier of identity myths that helps teenagers to alleviate the tension that comes from the gap between one’s current state and ideal state. Through her music, Swift positions herself as a person who can relate to the cultural contradictions that people face in their interpersonal relationships, helping them feel that they are not alone, nor crazy for feeling the way they do. She provides listeners with the sense of acceptance that they long for. Swift positions herself as a much needed friend through her music, providing relief through relatable identity myths in the form of her songs. She makes it clear that this is her goal, stating that although she wrote most of the songs for Fearless while she was on tour, she avoided including songs about being on the road, or songs about being a singer, as she did not want to alienate her fans by singing about such unrelatable things (Graff par 4, 11).
Critics have taken note of this, and have commended her for presenting herself as “a big sister rather than a big star”. For instance, Swift’s “Fifteen” serves as a cautionary tale to teenage girls by relaying her own experience of devoting too much of herself to a boy, who only ended up changing his mind (Erlewine par 1). Fans have articulated this as well, with users on Taylor Swift fan forums noting that her music is like therapy, and that they love that she writes all of it herself (Brown 161). They have also noted that they love Swift because she understands what girls are going through. One fan even said, “I would do anything to meet her someday and tell her how much she means to me and how much she’s helped me through” (Brown 161). It is the transparency and relatable nature of her song-writing that separates her from other teenage stars, creates a loyal fan base that is second to none, and thus demonstrates her brand as the necessary identity myth for fans to frequently consume in their struggle to attain a cultural ideal.
In Fearless, more so than in Taylor Swift, Swift manages to simultaneously showcase both a “girl next door” and a “teenage rebel” in her songs. This is an evolution beyond her debut album where she only depicted the girl next door in some songs while using others songs to highlight a rebellious side. In the song “Fearless”, for example, she writes: “In a storm in my best dress. Fearless”. The imagery of her “best dress” highlights the pure girl next door, while the notion of her being “fearless” in a figurative storm showcases the rebel. Similarly, the music video of “You Belong With Me” directly contrasts the two teen images by showcasing her transformation from a girl next door who struggles against the rebellious girlfriend, to a confident girl who wins the boy (both girls are played by Swift in the video). By successfully depicting a mix of both ideals even more seamlessly than she did in her previous album, Swift evolves to be the teenager’s ideal as a Woman-of-Action Heroine, and people have felt driven to consume her music and connect with her brand in their pursuit for heroic femininity. This is exemplified by fans who feel that “she’s got an image based around being a good girl and still being fun. I think that’s good for girls to look up to (Brown 174)”. This level of entertainment marketing application only increases on her next artistic album, Speak Now.
Speak Now: The Successes of a Teenage Brand Icon
Her next album Speak Now, released in October 2010, continues on Swift’s use of entertainment marketing theory through its exemplification of strong emotional branding. Swift showcases herself as someone who has big hopes for the future yet still idealizes the past. For instance, her song “Mine” portrays the perfect romantic relationship, despite its ups and downs. Through her songs in this album, Swift appeals directly to her fans’ emotional state, as well as needs and aspirations. Due to the fact that her consumer demographic is young and spends a great deal of time contemplating about finding romantic love, much like her, the lyrics in her songs successfully trigger an emotional response in her fans. These “Swifties” then begin to act as brand ambassadors to their friends and family, thus portraying her as even more relatable and the ideal brand to consume. This emotional attachment with her brand is comparable to a feeling of bonding and love, much like one would feel towards their best friend or dream boyfriend, which is precisely the brand that Swift has cultivated.
More so, Taylor Swift continues on her path to Woman-of-Action Heroine-hood by continuing to showcase her resolution of teen image contradictions through her music. One song that makes this especially vivid is “Dear John”. This song incorporates both sides, the girl next door and the rebel, but more so than in Fearless, Swift begins to craft her own resolution to these ideological contradictions. In “Dear John”, Swift begins by portraying herself as the kind-hearted girl next door who is hurt by a romantic interest who mistreated her, singing, “Wonderin’ which version of you I might get on the phone tonight”. Later in the song, she showcases her strong rebellious side through the lyrics, “Well I stopped pickin’ up, and this song is to let you know why”. Through these lyrics, she depicts herself as both a gentle person to sympathize with, as well as someone who will not be taken advantage of. She is both a good girl and a rebel, not having to sacrifice one ideal for the other. This continued exemplification of the two teenage ideals showcases her true understanding of what many teen girls are going through, and allows them to feel understood and attain a sense of relief through consumption of the Taylor Swift brand.
Swift managed to effectively alleviate some of the tension between teenager’s ideal selves and actual selves, and this wide scale relief is evident in album sales growth. In the first week, over a million copies of the Speak Now album were sold. However, Swift did not stop at using her identity myth to sell her music. She also tied this identity myth to other products. For instance, in October 2011, Swift, alongside the Elizabeth Arden Company, released her first fragrance, Wonderstruck, as a reference to the song Enchanted from the Speak Now album. This fragrance leaves teen girls feeling “wonderstruck, blushing all the way home”, which builds on the strong emotional brand tied to the pursuit of love and being a regular teen girl. In interviews, Swift spoke of how “a fragrance can help shape someone’s first impression and memory of you, and it’s exciting to think that Wonderstruck will play a role in creating some of those memories” (Vena par 4). This fragrance is evidently another step in emotional bonding with the Swift brand.
However, her songs at this stage in her music career stereotyped her artistic persona as one defined by her relationships with men, limiting her ability to truly embrace the Woman-of-Action Heroine she had begun to represent to teen girls. The genre of her music, and her brand image, revolved around how great or horrible boys are. With this in mind, the key question was whether Swift was limited to teenage experiences and audiences, or whether her ability to channel her generation’s identity would extend into adulthood (Keefe par 5-8). The theme of personal growth can be seen in this album, indicating her intention to grow her brand alongside her generation. As she is speaking about more mature themes in her love stories, like dysfunctional relationships, she extends her fan base beyond the teenage girls into mature women who similarly deal with anxieties and a desire to reach a cultural ideal (Sheffield par 3). Swift is tailoring entertainment marketing theory to her own brand even more deeply, particularly as she begins to express her identity myths and Heroic Femininity position with a new style of music: pop.
Red: The Evolution of a Mature Woman of Action
Taylor Swift’s album Red (2012) was one in which she touches on her signature themes of love and heartbreak, which she does from a more mature perspective while also exploring other themes such as fame and the pressure of being in the limelight. The title for this album was inspired by the “semi-toxic relationships” that Swift experienced during the process of conceiving it. In 2010, Taylor had dated Jake Gyllenhaal, and many of the songs on Red are said to be about their romance, including the hit single “All Too Well” (Levack par 17). She felt the emotions that are her source of inspiration for this album as “red emotions” due to their intense and tumultuous nature. Swift’s album, and its name-sake song “Red”, portrayed the theme of love in its many forms through lyrics that depict her various emotional struggles and points of growth, with feelings such as “loving him was blue…missing him was dark grey…loving him was red” (Sieczkowski par 2,4). Swift used the colours as a form of imagery, but more importantly, to create a stronger emotional impact on the audience through her album. While still drawing on themes from her previous teen albums, Swift shows more depth in the development of these themes and a more experienced and mature perspective (Stewart par 8). She has expressed that dysfunctional relationships can provide a lot of inspiration, and shows her maturity beyond a love-struck teenager into a more experienced woman.
While past albums have spoken to myth market models or emotional branding, this album is characterized by its signature use of the Woman-of-Action Heroine model (Figure 2: Structure of Taylor Swift Woman-of-Action Heroine [Red]).
By resolving through her music the two polar opposite images of the modern teenager, the girl next door and the rebellious teenager, she has created an image that is the ideal of young women: the Taylor Swift. By singing about love in her relationships as well as being a country girl, she shows the girl next door, whereas combatting the “intense” and “toxic” part of the relationships turn her into a tough woman that rebels against the norm. More so, Swift’s reconciliation of the two ideals is depicted through more modern pop songs that discuss dealing with breakups maturely and moving on in life. These are themes that transcend the traditional boundaries of the two images, allowing Swift to position herself as the successful result of overcoming these contrasting images and thus being the ideal Woman of Action Heroine. She has positioned herself as a “big sister” rather than an obnoxious star, and has followed up on this attainable Heroine by actually reaching out to her fan base on social media as well as in real life, creating the image of a smaller gap between teenagers’ current and ideal state of becoming Swift.
As mentioned above, Swift’s increasingly mature tone is matched with an increasingly pop-based influence, highlighting her metaphoric move from the country girl next door to the mature pop artist. This transition from country to pop is mirrored by her own growth in regards to the Woman-of-Action Heroine she depicts, moving from a more teenage image contradiction to one of the young adult becoming a woman. By beginning to move the Heroic Femininity model alongside her own personal growth and struggles, Swift’s success can be strongly explained by her use of modern entertainment marketing concepts.
That Swift would move from country and become a pop star was something beyond any discussion among the music world, the only question was how the transition would take place and what the final result would look like. She was no longer a young and emerging country singer, but a transitioning pop star speaking of more mature themes to a still young audience. Any artist that has tried in history to make this kind of transition did it by making choices of subject matter, of outfits, of attitude towards fans, of performances, and so on (Roberts par 1,3,7). Consequently, Swift was in a position of growth from both a personal and artistic sense, with the two merging together as seen in her open book-style albums. Red is undoubtedly a transitional album, showing both Swift’s process of growing up beyond her love-struck teenage years, and her development into becoming the new ideal for a now 20-year-old generation (Caramanica 2,4,). In the daily process of pursuing Heroic Femininity, Swift’s audience could connect with her because her listeners understood the newfound struggle between a familiar ideological contrast of the girl next door versus the rebellious teen, and the evolution into a new ideological struggle that Swift had yet to fully embody. This transitional period mirrored that of her fans, thus narrowing the gap between them and their idol (“Red Musical Analysis” par 1, 6). This age-related transitional period spoke to fans in regards to their growth from girls to women, students to working adults, and love-struck teens to mature grown-ups.
The album has received generally positive reviews from music critics, was a huge commercial success, and has been noted and praised for Swift’s versatility and her experimentation with new music genres, straying away from country sounds. It was also a huge global success, becoming Swift’s first chart-topper in the UK, and also topped the album charts in Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. With such wide scale success, the obvious question was: how would Swift’s next album continue to make such an impact?
1989: The Empowerment of a New Type of Personal Brand
The modern girl for the modern age is no longer a girl. Taylor Swift’s 1989 brings a new sound to her image and further develops her brand through an official pop and modern electronic sound. As the Man-of-Action Hero is the resolution to man’s identity crisis, Swift has become the resolution of an empowered women’s generation. Continuously singing on the conflicts relevant to her age, Swift moves beyond the ancient home-maker and independent working woman images and creates her own Heroic Femininity. That is to say, the current generation of teenagers witnesses the two previously mentioned cultural contradictions in their parents, but are increasingly torn between a new young adult reality and an ideal resolution grounded in a prior generation’s beliefs. These two roles are very much outdated in our current generation, with teenagers no longer being as conflicted between the homemaker and the independent working woman, but instead finding conflict in new images. Swift’s 1989 is the ultimate brand confirmation through songs such as “Blank Space” that laugh at her previous hopeless romantic image and instead position her as the modern Woman-of-Action Heroine.
As Generation Y ages, the exposure to media-infused ideals between the pure studious girl next door and the party-hard rebel lose their impact with Gen Y’s entry into their 20s. Now, Generation Y faces new conflicting ideals: the empowered hipster social activist and the mainstream media follower (Figure 3: Structure of Taylor Swift Woman-of-Action Heroine ).
Swift has already become Gen Y’s teenage Woman-of-Action Heroine through her music, contrasting the pure studious teenager in “You Belong With Me” with “I Knew You Were Trouble” ’s pure girl gone rebellious. This ability to live through every teenager’s contradicting self-images yet still find personal success marked Swift as the ideal resolution to the two mutually exclusive teenage images. Now, 1989 positions Swift as the brand that bridges the gap between Gen Y’s current reality and ideal states, utilizing modern sounds to signify her relevance and authority in resolution of the modern 20 year old’s conflict. Songs such as “Welcome to New York” tackle issues of gay rights and equality and further cement her empowering social activist side. “Blank Space” parodies her media-inspired image of a hopeless teen girl trying to chase down mainstream media-created romance. Harkening back to her resolution of conflicting teenage self-images, “Style” directly highlights the 20-year-old’s earlier conflict between a consistent pure image with a more rebellious teenage identity, further strengthening Swift’s credibility to resolve the new identity crisis. “Shake it Off” ultimately resolves the conflicting empowered individualist and mainstream follower images by showcasing a music video of Taylor Swift being her own quirky self and ignoring other’s criticisms. This highlights that the resolution is to make your own judgements regarding where to stand up against the norm and be yourself, or more specifically the Taylor Swift-inspired version of yourself, which is possible only through the everyday consumption of the Swift brand and 1989.
As can be seen above, Swift greatly adheres to the American-Inspired Man-of-Action Hero model as her brand is purely American-inspired and seeks to resolve the contradictions of the Western young adult. Swift’s redefining of the classic Heroic Femininity has propelled her to achieve even greater success for 1989, reaching 4.5 million album sales as of March 8th, 2015 and solidified her as music artist royalty. However, Swift departs from traditional marketing theory regarding the importance of brand consistency. Traditional marketing theory implies that a transition from her established country brand to one of pop would harm her brand image and deteriorate her market appeal (Petridis par 1-2). However, Swift’s growth into the pop market has only been met with commercial and critical success, and it is obvious that traditional marketing theory is out of touch in this case. The Actor-Network Theory, on the other hand, does an excellent job of explaining the success of her move to pop and highlights how Swift’s transition has been a carefully executed move based both on her own artistic growth and modern entertainment marketing concepts, particularly in regards to the four “moments” of translation.
Swift had developed a brand focused predominantly on country roots, achieving widespread success at the American Country Music Awards, and touching country fans nationwide. Red marked the introduction of stronger pop influences in her music, but still featured her brand-classic country roots (McCormick par 2). 1989 is self-described by Swift as her “first documented official pop album”, deviating strongly from her previous brand and receiving criticism prior to its release that Swift was selling out to mainstream meaningless pop (Sheffield par 1-3). In terms of problematization, Swift established 1989 as the next step in her career of self-expression and gave it more meaning by stating that it was the most personal album yet due to its 80s pop influences from her birth year (Figure 4: Structure of Taylor Swift Actor-Network Theory ).
This statement requires interessement from industry professionals, which Swift readily developed. To successfully establish 1989 as a non-generic and meaningful pop album, Swift did not feature guest verses from the likes of Pitbull or Drake, which already gave the album a distinction from mainstream meaningless pop. Instead, she partnered with just two world-renowned pop producers, Max Martin and Shellback, and spent over two years on the album to really pour her heart and soul into it (Sheffield par 1,2). This length of time, direct personal involvement, and short producer credits are the ultimate advocates of the personal nature of the album and its distinct avoidance of fast-turnaround meaningless pop albums. Her personal friends such as Lorde and Ed Sheeran, who similarly write meaningful pop songs, praised this album and joined the interessement (Sheffield par 2). Later, leading pop critics from Rolling Stones magazine and other such publications praised the album and added further interressment (Figure 4).
For the next step, Swift deviated from the Actor-Network Theory in regards to enrollment, utilizing her dedicated fan base instead of a plethora of celebrities to reshape 1989 and her brand through its transition to pop. Similar to avoiding wide scale artist and rapper features, Swift would actively look for fans on social media and privately invite them to her home for secret album listening parties (Chandler par 12). As fans witnessed this incredibly personal side of both Swift and 1989 by entering her private home, they became the strongest brand advocates of 1989 and were held up by others as the epitome of fandom (Figure 4). This created a desire to connect with Swift by purchasing her 1989 album and getting close to her through listening to it and loving it (Hernandez par 9-12). Her own fans were highly representative of the brand and thus ensured the strongest mobilization. Through this personal twist to entertainment marketing theory, Swift mobilized her fan base and reshaped both her own musical brand as well as that of 1989, marking her as the first artist to sell one million or more copies of an album in a week-long period for three albums (Figure 5: First Week Album Sales).
This wide-scale commercial and critical success is dwarfed by the increased fan following that Swift has gained, allowing her to remove her music from streaming service Spotify and to rely on iTunes and physical album sales (Linshi par 1-4,6). This move has been complemented by artists worldwide and may position Swift as the musical figurehead of her generation. This increased success can be attributed to her incredible brand that resonates with an entire generation, as catalyzed by her Woman-of-Action Heroine role and her personalized approach to the Actor-Network Theory.
Taylor Swift has gone from love-struck teen country singer to pop idol that speaks on the issues that affect an entire generation. This transition would not have been possible through traditional marketing concepts. This success may only be traced and explained through such models as Myth Markets and the Woman-Of-Action Heroine model from entertainment marketing theory. While Swift’s personal and artistic growth is far from over, it is abundantly clear that her future will continue to place her as a cultural ideal, and will add her brand to the myth library that all marketers should draw upon. Her story is quintessentially the American success story, but Swift has put her own personality on this tale and shaken off her previous criticism, making room for her to grow as both an empowered woman and cultural ideal with style.
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