For Taylor Swift’s Image, Erosion Is a Danger

March 16th, 2013

John Shearer/Invision, via John Shearer, via Invision, via Associated Press

Taylor Swift at the Golden Globes in January.

Until very recently, it seemed as if Taylor Swift could do no wrong. Since 2006, when she arrived on the Nashville scene with the release of her eponymous album, as a gawky teenager in sundresses and cowboy boots, Ms. Swift has earned accolades (including seven Grammy Awards), upgraded to designer gowns (notably the Elie Saab black dress with sheer thigh panels that she wore to the Brit Awards in February) and perhaps more important, sold records and concert tickets as if they were frosted cupcakes — which, if you paid attention to Instagram, you’d know she bakes with pal Selena Gomez in her Nashville penthouse.

Though her romantic relationships went less smoothly than her career, they still inspired hits like “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” (reportedly about Jake Gyllenhaal) and “Dear John” (as in Mayer, it is widely assumed). She landed endorsement deals with brands including Diet Coke, American Greetings, Keds and CoverGirl. And she was on magazine covers from Rolling Stone, to Elle, to this month’s Vanity Fair.

And therein, perhaps, the trouble began.

Her ubiquity, not to mention her dating history, has begun to stir what feels like the beginning of a backlash (including both a Tumblr account and Facebook page titled “I Hate Taylor Swift,” the latter with 5,912 “likes”).

At the Golden Globes in February, the hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler warned Ms. Swift to “stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son,” who had accompanied his father to the ceremony, and joked that she could use “some ’me time’ to learn about herself.” Ms. Swift counterattacked in her Vanity Fair interview by quoting Katie Couric (who was quoting Madeleine Albright): “ ’There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’ “

The incident quickly became a much-followed story on the Web and Twitter, with Ms. Poehler and Ms. Fey gently chiding Ms. Swift for taking things too seriously and others, like the talk show host Chelsea Handler, suggesting that she was fair game. “They were clearly making a joke just about her demeanor, which is embarrassing,” Ms. Handler told Andy Cohen on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens“ last Tuesday. “I mean, she’s just dated so many men.”

Can Ms. Swift, 23, take a joke? Has she been overexposed? Worse, is America’s reigning golden girl, sweetheart, country-pop crossover star and breakup-song specialist going through a quarter-life crisis?

Ms. Swift, through a publicist, declined to comment for this article. But Scott Borchetta, founder and chief executive of Big Machine Records and the man widely credited with her rise, said he believed the Vanity Fair quote was taken out of context, and voiced confidence in her staying power. “She’s so grounded,” he said. “This isn’t a person who’s going to wake up half-naked, drunk in a car somewhere in Hollywood.”

According to the marketing evaluations company Q Scores, Ms. Swift’s popularity rating, which takes into account familiarity (about 8 out of 10 people surveyed knows who she is) and appeal, peaked in 2010 at 30 out of 100. Presumably, Ms. Swift was reaping the benefits of the Kanye West debacle, when he interrupted her acceptance speech for Best Female Video by barging onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards in September 2009.

But her popularity score has since dropped by a third, to 20 this year, the lowest it’s ever been, though still 4 points higher than the average score (16) in the performer category.

“She’s not doing the kind of numbers that an advertiser would really love to see,” said Steven Levitt, president of the marketing company, noting her trajectory.

CoverGirl has let Ms. Swift’s contract expire. “We routinely evaluate our CoverGirls,” said Paige Cali, a company spokeswoman, adding that she couldn’t divulge further details except that the contract expired recently.

A Women’s Wear Daily article this week stated that Ms. Swift’s magazine covers sell fewer issues than those of her contemporaries, like Adele, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Lauren Conrad, Scarlett Johansson and Zooey Deschanel.

Mr. Levitt pointed out that this year Ms. Swift’s negative Q score, a 21, topped her positive number for the first time.

“It’s not the scores of an extraordinary performer that has substantially more positive than negative, like Tom Hanks or Will Smith,” he said. “There’s almost an equal number that rate her fair or poor. What you can surmise from that is that her rating is a function of age groups. The positive must be coming from younger age groups. A good part of the negative is from older people.”

To quote Ms. Swift’s single about middle school: “Why you gotta be so mean?”

Yet, even for her critics, it would be hasty to write off Ms. Swift. Her fourth album, “Red,” broke sales records in its first week, before going quadruple platinum. She kicked off the album’s corresponding tour on Wednesday, already having sold out several shows. And she got five nominations, including Entertainer of the Year, for the coming American Country Music Awards on April 7.

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