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Taylor Swift, pop star and nice person who once gave a girl $90 for Chipotle, is attempting to trademark a series of phrases from her most recent album, including, "Nice to meet you. Where you been?" "I could show you incredible things" and "Party like it's 1989." At first glance, this is terrifying. Can we no longer explicitly greet people, show them incredible things or party in the way of the late '80s without Taylor Swift showing up in a police uniform fashioned into a crop top? (Also, how does Prince feel about all of this?)
There's a lot of outrage. Including a metal protest song featuring a man yelling "this sick beat" (one of the phrases involved in the case). It does seem like the sort of unprecedented thing -- according to The Guardian, no artist has ever done this before -- that has major potential to shift the landscape of free speech. And yet, we have to look at this with regard for the way the industry has changed. Our pop stars are functioning in a marketplace that no longer yields revenue primarily from album sales, and a digital landscape in which simple phrases (even really innocuous greetings) have the power to go viral.
Just in case it's not (depressing) common knowledge at this point: Album sales, in terms of physical CDs and general music purchases, has seen rapid decline since 2009. Much of this is due to accessibility, something that Swift was hyper-aware of in breaking up with Spotify back in November. "1989" debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Charts and sold over 1 million copies, numbers that Forbes argued could make it the last platinum album ever. Whether or not Swift breaks down that barrier with her next effort, the diminishing numbers can't be ignored. There remains a need for revenue outside of simply recording music.
Then we have the factor of virality. The way songs, hashtags and phrases are spread across social media has a major impact on branding. When those items enter the pop culture vernacular, they not only increase awareness of a particular song but provide opportunities to profit off those songs outside of recording and performance. As Rihanna once said in regard to song-writing strategy: "Tweet, retweet, trending topic."
That potential for exposure gives things as simple as "Welcome to New York" tremendous marketability. If Forever 21 churns out a pajama set reading "Cause We Never Go Out Of Style," what are they really profiting from? Sure, there are people who would buy their rapidly disintegrating separates regardless of what words were printed on them in a factory in China. But the reality is that the virality of the term can be attributed to Swift and she deserves to profit from that in some way. That's what's really being targeted here -- third parties attempting to take advantage of the spaces she's carved out. There's no other way to combat that at this point.
That said, there are obvious caveats here. The whole thing feels like a few steps away from us having to pay Tay $5 every time we experience heartbreak and / or romance-related emotions. What's more interesting than condemning the apparent greediness is looking at the mantle Swift has come to fill. In a mess of pop stars battling for agency and authenticity, we have in Swift a powerful business woman willing to fight for what she believes is rightfully hers. We are in need of a practical solution for the way reduced sales and digital dispersion have altered the music industry. The answer there is probably not calling dibs on catchphrases, and Swift's bound to make a few more mistakes in her quest for full ownership of her brand. But ultimately a woman with these instincts
is a fascinating and important addition to the landscape of pop stardom "Could Show You Incredible Things™."
Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca