Musing On Music #10

by Hannah Weiss

What are we really listening for?

Songs and scandals share one thing in common – both are stories. And through them, an artist is made.

In the past week, two popstars have recently made headlines – but not for their music. Justin Bieber, performing at the Summerburst Festival in Stockholm, refused to sing Despacito live, claiming that he simply did not know the lyrics. And Katy Perry, in an interview promoting her new album Witness, apologised to supposed arch-enemy Taylor Swift in an attempt to put their ongoing feud to rest. It goes without saying that singers are often celebrities first and foremost, and musicians second, but these two stories form an interesting juxtaposition of popstar scandals, as Bieber is shamed for a lack of appreciation of his own music, while interest in Swift and Perry’s dispute peaked with the number-one hit song Swift chose to write about it.

The outfits, disputes and relationships of both Bieber and Swift are popular gossip column fodder and both can be said to have used this to their advantage. Although Bieber undoubtedly damaged his previous image as a squeaky-clean teen idol with his antics from 2012 to 2014, involving drug-related DUI charges, a monkey lost in Germany, and infamous bucket incident, he also paved the way for the next stage of his musical trajectory. 2015 saw his album Purpose achieve the critical acclaim previously denied by music pundits and gave Bieber the opportunity to present himself to the world as a new man. By somewhat riding on the coat-tails of EDM producers Diplo and Skrillex to tropical-house success, he helmed a new trend and staked his name to good music rather than controversy. Nonetheless, as his recent near-miss from a fan’s water-bottle proves, it could be argued that audiences enjoy Bieber’s songs in spite of the behaviour of the artist who sings them.

In contrast, Taylor Swift has made her career with an interesting combination of courting only positive press – #Squad selfies with power women, so-called Swiftmas gifts to ardent fans and a refusal to compromise her good girl image – with a musical catalogue built on tantalising revelations about her personal life. Although Swift refuses to comment specifically on the people she names and shames, this tactic only serves to fuel the media flames surrounding her friendship feuds and relationships. There are enough clues hidden in the lyrics for her to need not say anything outright, and so she maintains the illusion of integrity while flinging those who wrong her in the proverbial frying pan. Many artists, including Perry, have faced severe backlash on social media for angering Swift. As proven only too clearly in the video for Bad Blood, Swift has both a squad of ‘it’ girls and an army of fans at her back, and woe betide your Twitter and Insta should you go up against them. While Swift deals only in the positive vibes and inspirational messages suited to her role model stature, her supporters feed the gossip machine for her.

It is in this way that Bieber and Swift, while coming from opposite sides of the scandal spectrum, use their notoriety to both power their respective careers and fuel their musical output. Bieber’s comeback album and surrounding promotional campaign was aptly titled Purpose: The Movement and no song depicts his redemptive, born-again stance better than Sorry. How better to pacify the irate mothers of teenyboppers than with a direct apology, via one hella-catchy hit song?  And what is a review of Swift’s latest album without a track-by-track breakdown of who each song is rumoured to be about?

And from this comes the question – what are audiences listening for, when they stream the latest pop songs? Is it merely a musical pick-me-up, light and easy on the ears? Or are we also using an artist’s output to assess them as people – or at least form an opinion of the image they project? For in the same way that we assume a more autonomous indie artist or rebel rock band will use their sound to send a message, pop does the exact same thing to curate its singers’ images. There is a saying – all publicity is good publicity. Bieber used infamy to shed his constrictive teen idol image and seek bigger and better musical pastures that would allow him to grow as an artist. Swift harnesses her notoriety to sell albums, and in doing so creates a catalogue of love songs her listeners can relate to.

Is this manipulation of events and public images right? Perhaps not. But it is inevitable, as audiences identify with the songs they love and want to know the story behind them. The music industry fulfils this need by creating compelling narratives around the lives of the artists we admire. Their scandals mirror the ups and downs of listeners’ lives, and their music is a way to understand it all.