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Writing About Writing About Taylor Swift's Writing

Everyone's writing about Taylor Swift writing for the Wall Street Journal.
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Taylor Swift. (Photo: paolov/Flickr)

Taylor Swift. (Photo: paolov/Flickr)

The Wall Street Journal celebrated its 125th anniversary with an op-ed by a 24-year-old. Taylor Swift, the faux-country, feeling-feelings ingenue, penned a 1,182-word article under the paper's "Leadership" banner. In it, she argues, passionately, that the music industry is not, as you may have heard, dying. The piece is full of sentences like this: "In my opinion, the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace."

Swift, who has sold about a billion albums and is one of the biggest stars on the planet, is not unqualified to take on the subject. While it's not a great piece of criticism, she does raise some interesting points that only a person with her experience and stature could.

An op-ed by Swift, who has 41.7 million Twitter followers and as many haters, is one of the surest viral bets on the Internet.

Were there reactions? Of course. Swift is loved and lovingly insufferable. (Best evidence here, an Instagram post—with 501,000 likes—of her screaming for joy while sliding down a Slip 'N Slide that shouldn't illicit such a reaction.) Soon after the WSJ put Swift's essay online, Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal hit publish on a piece titled "Taylor Swift Wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, and It's Filled With Fascinating Insights." He basically cut and pasted her lines in between single lines of his own text setting up the "fascinating insights." Cool. As of Friday morning, his story had more than 300,000 pageviews. Being the first to comment on another publication’s work is never a bad thing in this day and age of Google News. (I should note here that I used to work at Business Insider and continue to think they are incredibly good at what they do.)

The Wire produced a piece called "The Most Taylor Swift Lines in Taylor Swift Wall Street Journal Column." Vulture offered up a quick story, topped by the straight-laced "Taylor Swift Wrote an Op-Ed About the State of Music in the Wall Street Journal." Vox jumped into explainer mode, offering evidence that Swift both "doesn't know how people value music" and "is right about how valuable she is" under the headline "Taylor Swift Doesn’t Understand Supply and Demand."

Gawker's Caity Weaver went with "Taylor Swift Complains About Shit-Ass Garden in Wall Street Journal" before spending 902 words, of which nearly 400 are Swift's, breaking down the essay. On Gawker's not-secret but certainly not well-known staff-discussion blog, Disputations, Adam Weinstein postedthat Swift's document was zero-percent plagiarized. His post has roughly 6,500 views, many more than most Disputations posts.

What do you notice about these pieces, aside from the extreme lack of unity in headline conventions? (Get it together, Internet publications of the world.) They are all so typical of their individual publications. Anyone with a modicum of familiarity with the outlets would be able to place each article correctly in its respective place if given the chance.

None of this is new. Slate's predictable counter-intuitiveness produced an entire legion of "Slate Pitches," the joke being that the site's editors would eat up the ridiculous narratives and takes. But something struck me about the Swift stories, how every publication produced its own predictable take.

It makes sense. A site's reach grows larger when a person comes to said site and finds a reason to stay. What's the best way to make them stay? Produce more of the content that they came to see in the first place. (There’s a reason any long-lasting publication has its own voice and style.) An op-ed by Swift, who has 41.7 million Twitter followers and as many haters, is one of the surest viral bets on the Internet. Nothing is 100 percent, but you had to believe that her story would be widely read. By extension, pieces about her piece had a better chance of getting that famous BuzzFeed "social lift" because of the interest in the material (or, at least, the singer). As a result, you get hundreds of pieces that read like they were directly cribbed—but not plagiarized—from the style manual of whatever publication ran the post. (Pacific Standard's style: “bemused skepticism.” See: the headline.)

Internet publishing used to be about individual voices; now, it's about small groups nailing a collective tone, which is the only way to produce enough content to grow on a massive scale.

Then, of course, the endless cycle moved on. There waspotato salad to churn, another opportunity for the virality that would keep people coming back for more.