There’s a place Taylor Swift wants to take you. She calls it the Reputation Room on her current tour, but the space has gone by other names in the past — Loft ’89, Club Red, T-Parties. This cushy, thematically decorated private room has been the final destination for megafans who stand out to her team during concerts by way of extreme cosplay and enthusiasm in order to land a meet-up with their favorite artist.
It’s a democratic way to offer a perk typically reserved for VIP ticket holders or friends of the label, but your chances of squeezing in are slim… unless you happen to be one of the critics covering the tour. After her most polarizing album yet, last fall’s Reputation, Swift utilized the same charm offensive for critics that she trots out for her most loyal fans. In addition to the meet-and-greets, Swift has included screengrabs of positive press coverage on her Instagram story following each show — from the national outlets on down to college newspapers — with thank you’s superimposed.
This isn’t a new practice: She included pull-quotes from the more favorable Reputation album reviews surrounding its release, no doubt thrilling some writers with the possibility that their words — which they’ve slaved over, and dredged from their souls as Taylor did “All Too Well” — might be personally consumed by the biggest pop star in the world. Fandom and criticism have grown closer in recent years, so this is a natural progression of how certain music journalism norms have eroded. But what about when the journalists are eager participants, instead of bystanders?
This isn’t the first tour where Swift has invited the critics to say hey, either, but it’s made all the more strange by the vaguely anti-press rhetoric baked into the Reputation rollout. At every site of this tour, her show was introduced by a video clip mashing up audio of TMZ-caliber talk shows speculating about her every public move, before she launched into “...Ready For It?” The literally scorching, snake-filled spectacle that followed never really cohered into an extension of that introduction video — probably all the better it didn’t.
Swift hasn’t been criticized for no reason. Her silence during the 2016 election was roundly slagged, given all the pro-woman rhetoric she’s made part of her brand. Last November, her team attempted to silence PopFront, an obscure pop culture blog for writing a post alleging that Swift was an alt-right sympathizer with lyrics openly courting a neo-Nazi audience. It was a stretch, but PopFront quite literally had a Twitter following that would fill up less than one stadium section. Nonetheless, her lawyer William J. Briggs II sent a threatening cease and desist notice to writer Meghan Herning, at which point the ACLU jumped to Herning’s defense. (The blog still lives on the site, unaffected by Briggs’ letter.)
These tactics, while not unheard of among fellow pop A-listers, stand in stark contrast to the folksy, friendly aura Swift tends to give off when interacting with fans and writers. Ilana Kaplan, a freelance writer who reviewed one of her East Rutherford, New Jersey tour stops for L’Officiel, met Swift in the Reputation Room at the show, after coordinating with her PR team. “She was really warm and welcoming,” Kaplan said. “It was really casual, and it came together because I was a fan who had written about Taylor before and had wanted to meet her for a long time.” Kaplan wasn’t alone on the Reputation Tour — Uproxx’s Caitlin White and Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos both posted photos with the pop star this summer, and chose not to comment for this story. (Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield also posed with Swift, and did not reply for comment.)
Conceding some truths — that nothing anyone can write will topple Taylor Swift, even her own undoing by way of crossing the Kardashian-West family — might make it a little easier to rationalize writing from the fan’s perspective. With Swift, though, the access she’s granted to writers blurs journalistic standards. The photos and meet-ups can exist independently from positive coverage, but it’s easy to see how her team might believe there is an irrefutable correlation between the two. And with more and more spaces available to offer positive coverage, pop stars now hold more leverage than before when it comes to rescinding access after a bad review. As arguably the most popular musician in the world, there’s no way for her to collapse this distance while keeping everyone’s role separate and intact. (It echoes Beyonce’s strategy of sending flowers and thank-you notes to journalists who’ve written positive coverage.)
Things have changed a great deal since she clapped back at an unnamed critic, and really anyone who showed her anything less than pure decency, on Speak Now’s “Mean.” The relationships have grown cozier and sometimes more fragile. One reporter was given explicit instructions from her editor to land a selfie with Swift, which turned into paparazzi fodder when Swift grabbed her hand as they walked along a Manhattan street. Just more than a year after 1989’s release, former NME deputy editor Eve Barlow detailed Swift’s attempts at courting press and gaining credibility. Barlow suddenly became a part of her world, after sending a string of positive tweets about one of her London shows. This morphed into chatting with Swift at the same swanky L.A. bars she frequented with Calvin Harris. But everything dissolved when a mildly negative review ruffled some feathers in the Swift camp, and she was removed from the guest lists of Swift events and shuttled out of her universe.
To Swift’s credit as a media manipulator, none of this appears to meaningfully intersect with the fans decked out in Swiftie cosplay. When I attended a recent tour stop in Pittsburgh, it reaffirmed that her popularity hasn’t flagged whatsoever amongst her diehards. It was a world in which Reputation is held on equal footing as Red and 1989 and Fearless, because it is Taylor Swift music performed live — the only thing that matters. The nearly sold-out stadium and extravagant homemade dresses — made of fabric from the Reputation cover’s newspaper pattern, one with objects taped on representing each track on the album, and even Tide Pods repurposed as Tay-Pods — proved that critical narratives tend not to matter in the real world.
But antagonizing the press and negative coverage can have its extraneous effects. Social media allows the most vicious of fans to descend on anyone who levels soft criticism at their favorite artist. Nicki Minaj recently dabbled in some of these intimidation tactics, after writer Wanna Thompson tweeted that she’d like to see Nicki pursue a new direction. A two-pronged attack followed from Minaj and the Barbz — Minaj personally called her “ugly” in a direct message, and her fans filled Thompson’s inbox with hateful messages, including photos of her 4-year-old daughter. Thompson ended up losing her internship at an entertainment blog when the dust had settled.
Noisey editor-in-chief Eric Sundermann, who met Swift at a meet-and-greet during the Red Tour, sees Swift’s press soirées as the state of entertainment journalism writ large and a natural extension of her ascent through the country music industry, where traditional media appearances are viewed as an essential part of the playbook. Her on-again-off-again nemesis, Kanye West, engaged in an even more absurd version of this practice, flying Sundermann and other select journalists to Wyoming in private jets for a Ye listening party. “That was a bit of a lightning rod in terms of this discussion that we’re having. I think my justification for going on that flight was that it was an extremely bizarre cultural moment that I felt like I should witness as a writer,” he said. “And I completely knew going into it that I’m not going to be able to write about this album critically, I’m not going to attempt to write about this album critically. What I’m going to do is write about how weird this whole thing is and how artists have so much money now.”
Swift also has so much money, and that anyone on her team still cares about what people write about her is definitely weird. Sundermann went back and forth a few times about whether she still takes criticism on a personal level. “Maybe she’s really in her feelings about all of this. I mean, why does Grimes get in fucking twitter fights about Elon Musk? No matter how famous you are or how much money you have, there seems to be this core human desire to prove that you’re right or good.”
I’ve thought this iteration of Swift existed on the same plane as Disney or Marvel or the Yankees — a largely unassailable force that will fill seats no matter the level of criticism levied her way, who also takes thorough inventory of how that adoration can turn into dissent. This should inherently make her less relatable than the teenaged dreamer who could excavate heartbreak and turn a phrase better than anyone in music. But I’m not sure if that’s true — at the end of the day, me, Taylor Swift, the mother-daughter team wiping tears away throughout “Long Live” at last month’s show, and everyone you know just want to be liked.