I was reading a New Yorker article about Taylor Swift's masterfully orchestrated rise to fame (again, apologies that it is not publicly available). The key seems to be authenticity.
Laughing all the way to the bank
Swift is sometimes called a twenty-one-year-old 2.0--the girl next door, but with a superior talent set. She has an Oprah-like gift for emotional expressiveness. While many young stars have a programmed, slightly robotic affect, she radiates unjaded sincerity no matter how contrived the situation--press junkets, awards shows, meet and greets.***The car door opened, and Swift got out to chants of "Tay-lor! Tay-lor! " Easing herself onto the sidewalk, she proceeded to the base of the stairs, and struck a pose before a phalanx of cameras: a sultry, fierce expression, one hand on her hip, her eyes narrowed, her head cocked back. She seemed to age ten years.***She is in the midst of her second world tour, and every show begins with a moment in which she stands silently at the lip of the stage and listens to her fans scream. She tilts her head from side to side and appears to blink back tears--the expression, which is projected onto a pair of Jumbotron screens, is part Bambi, part Baby June.***"Swift is a songwriting savant with an intuitive gift for verse-chorus-bridge architecture that . . . calls to mind Swedish pop gods Dr. Luke and Max Martin," Jody Rosen wrote in Rolling Stone. "If she ever tires of stardom, she could retire to Sweden and make a fine living churning out hits for Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry."Like Parton, Swift writes autobiographical songs, a technique that, in the Internet era, is a clever marketing device.***Swift is tolerant of her fans' interest in her love life, as she is of gawkers who approach her on the street. "It's human nature!" she told me. While she doesn't talk about dating in interviews, she helps amateur sleuths along, using capital letters to spell out coded messages throughout the lyrics in her liner notes that indicate which boyfriend the song is about. Swift has an affinity for codes and symbols. Onstage, she shapes her fingers into a heart--"I did it at a concert one time, and people screamed, so I just kept doing it," she said--and appears with her lucky number, 13, written on her right hand in Sharpie. More recently, she has been scrawling lyrics, such as U2's "One life, you got to do what you should," on her left arm; deciphering the references has become another fan activity. Swift's ability to hold her audience's interest reflects, in part, a keen understanding of what fuels fan obsession in the first place: a desire for intimacy between singer and listener. She told me that the best musical experience is "hearing a song by somebody singing about their life, and it resembles yours so much that it makes you feel comforted." Her Web site includes video journals and diary-like posts to her online message board, which Swift does not outsource. Her fans, who call themselves Swifties, respond with passionate testimonials--"i would drink her bathwater"--and confessions about their own crushes: "Jake. Jake.Jake. Jake. I can't say it enough. I just love the sound of his name."
Swift's aura of innocence is not an act, exactly, but it can occasionally belie the scale of her success. She is often described using royal terminology--as a pop princess or, as the Washington Post put it recently, the "poet laureate of puberty." In the past five years, she has sold more than twenty million albums--more than any other musician. And, in an era of illegal downloading, fans buy her music online, too. Swift has sold more than twenty-five million digital tracks, surpassing any other country singer, and she holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling digital album, for "Speak Now." Forbes ranked her as last year's seventh-biggest-earning celebrity, with an annual income of forty-five million dollars--a figure that encompasses endorsements, products (this month, she releases a perfume with Elizabeth Arden, which is estimated to generate fifty million dollars during its first year of sales), and tickets. Her concerts, which pack both stadiums and arenas, regularly bring in some seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars a night.I do a lot of consulting. Each time I show up at a new place, everyone is suspicious of me, looking for reasons not to like me or see me as a threat. It takes a while to build up a rapport with them. At first I am very straightforward, efficient, and professional. I don't want to seem presumptuous, but nor do I want to seem overly available, as if they are on my same level. Because I am talented at what I do, they quickly start respecting me. People become interested in me as a person--what makes me so good at what I do. They develop little crushes on me, which I feed with the selective disclosure of more and more personal information--that I am a musician, that I have a unique background, little stories in which my modesty prevents me from name dropping, but from which it is apparent that I have unexpected credentials/experience/connections. I am never explicit about anything, I make people work for it--draw their own (unavoidable) conclusions, which makes the information seem all the more authentic and valuable to them. Less is more, but I also don't want to seem standoffish. As long as they ask, I will disclose some interesting tidbit to continue to whet their appetite for M.E.
Now if I had shown up on the first day of my consultancy touting my credentials, talking about my personal life, nurturing people's crushes, it would be disastrous. Every once in a while I forget and make a joke too early, show familiarity too soon, and have to immediately back off again with a renewed period of neutrality, but I've gotten better. Now it's like cooking an old familiar recipe.