How Taylor Swift & Madonna Revamped Their Images, Because Career Reinvention Is Different Now Than It Was In The Past
So much has been said about how Taylor Swift has transformed the music business over the years that it's easy to forget just how much Swift herself has change since her career first began. Back in 2006, when Swift burst onto the scene with her self-titled debut, she was a wide-eyed country singer with curly hair and a "who, me?" attitude. Today, any shred of that old insecurity is gone; Swift in 2015 is a confident and seasoned pop star — one of the most successful musicians in the world. It's been an incredible transformation to watch, but it's also been an impressive one.
Because, in the age of Twitter and long-lens paparazzi, it's difficult for anyone, let alone one of the world's biggest stars, to change his/her image. What you were when you first became famous is often what you still are ten years later, even if you make every effort to convince the public otherwise. Just look at Ariana Grande (always considered wholesome), or Miley Cyrus (how "shocking" her not-Disney like behavior is), or any other star who's attempted to change their image over time. It's practically impossible, unless you're Taylor Swift.
In the nine years since she first became known, Swift has managed to transform her public image from teenage ingénue to boy-hating spitfire to independent superstar, with a dozen other labels easily fitting in-between. Everything about her — her attitude, her music, her look — has been revamped more times in the last few years than most celebrities do in their lifetimes, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, it's worked. The Swift of today is loved for entirely different reasons than the Swift of 2012, or 2009, or 2006, and it's easy to imagine that, even just a year or two down the line, the singer's image will be entirely new.
What makes Swift's constant changes so interesting is how, exactly, she's managed to achieve them. All stars in today's world have access to social media and paparazzi, but Swift has taken advantage of these tools in ways most of her peers have not, allowing her to revamp her image with a speed and completeness the others lack. When she wants to change something up, she simply goes to one of her channels — Twitter, Tumblr, the liner notes in her albums — and does it. It's remarkably simple, and yet no other star does it in such a successful way.
In fact, the only celebrity who can even come close to the singer's regularity in transforming her image is a star who, for most of her career, never even had access to the tools Swift so frequently employs: Madonna. Like Swift, Madonna has gone through many iterations over the course of her career, from rebellious newcomer to boundary-pushing pop star to subdued romantic to Golden-Globe winning actress to a dozen more versions of herself. Even today, 33 years after the release of her first single, the changes keep coming.
Unlike Swift, though, Madonna's transformations have been based far more in her music and live performances than in her presence on social media or relationship with the paparazzi — they had to be, considering her stardom came before the Internet even began. Even still, the similarities between the two stars' career trajectories is undeniable; the only major difference is the methods they used to make the changes happen.
Let's compare how the 25-year-old Swift and the 56-year-old Madonna have revamped their careers, because the journey to changing your image is different now than ever before.
Taylor: First country, then country-pop, and, now, just pop. Swift has reinvented herself several times through her music, but she’s never strayed far from the two mainstream genres.
Madonna: Practically every album is a new version of Madonna. In the course of her career, she’s done everything from disco (Like a Virgin) to R&B (Bedtime Stories) to EDM (MDNA).
Taylor: Not much about Swift's performance strategy has changed over the years, except for size. She’s all about the gorgeous spectacles, intimate banter, and celebrity guests. At awards shows, her performances have ranged from awful ("Rhiannon" with Stevie Nicks) to great ("All Too Well" at the 2014 Grammys), but rarely have they been surprising. As for her music videos, they've always been fun to watch, but they’ve never been groundbreaking. Whatever Swift's public image is at the time, her videos reflect it — most notably in 2014’s rumor-blasting “Blank Space.”
Madonna: Madonna’s crazy, controversial live performances have been the key element of her reinventions. From the wedding set of “Like a Virgin” to that kiss with Britney Spears at the 2003 VMAs to everything that happened on her aptly named Reinvention World Tour in 2004, Madonna’s live shows are always filled with the unexpected. Music videos, too, were a major part of her changing image. For much of the singer's career, her videos overshadowed the actual songs, and whatever image she chose to present in the clips — sex, glamour, feminism — became what she was known for at the time. When she wanted to change up her perception, all she had to do was make a new video, and it was done.
Taylor: Swift's appearance change has been a slow process; it took her six months just to prepare for cutting her hair. Over the years, she’s quietly transformed from a curly-haired country girl in cowboy boots to a flirty fashionista to the elegant, crop-top superstar she is today, all while keeping her belly button (mostly) hidden from public view.
Madonna: Fashion is a huge part of Madonna’s legacy, and the sexual, feminine outfits she popularized back in the ‘80s — lace tops, fishnet stockings — are still in high-demand today. Now a mom in her ‘50s, she’s toned down her image in recent years, but her pop-punk roots are still seen in many of her outfit choices.
Taylor: Swift's social media presence has been a huge part of her reinvention success. She joined Twitter in 2008 (fun fact: her first tweet was a shout-out to Justin Bieber), and, in the years since, has used it and other platforms for everything from promoting her music to joking with fellow stars. Just look at how she used Tumblr to connect with fans and promote her “independent, friends-first image” of the 1989 era — with social media, Swift knows what she’s doing.
Madonna: Like many non-millennial stars, Madonna’s social media presence is less about showing her personal side and more about promotion. It certainly works, but it’s not key to any type of reinvention, other than the fact that, at 56, she’s trying to connect with younger fans on their level.
Taylor: Paparazzi were huge when Swift got famous, but they’re an even bigger presence in stars’ lives now thanks to social media. She used to be more carefree about them — always maintaining a clean image, but also happy to date A-List celebrities and get photographed — but now, as their main target, she’s less willing to give them the info they want. Instead, she writes about them (“The Lucky One”) and messes with their plans (Belly Button-Gate!), wisely taking advantage of their relationship.
Madonna: Although she certainly dealt with photographers and headlines in her youth, paparazzi only became a major part of Madonna’s life in the last decade or so, as they did for most celebrities. Because of this, Madonna’s early transformations were easier to make, as it was only she — not paparazzi or websites — who told fans what she was and what she wanted them to see.
Taylor: Swift's friendships and relationships have been major elements of her reinventions. Back in her country/ingénue phase, she befriended Disney stars like Selena Gomez, idolized musicians like Faith Hill, and dated G-rated celebrities like Joe Jonas. As she left country for pop, she went for higher-profile but still “nice” stars: Emma Stone and Jake Gyllenhaal, for example. Now, as a superstar, she goes for fellow A-Listers like Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and — surprisingly — Kanye West.
Madonna: Madonna has always been an individual, not one to cling onto other celebrities. Despite marriages to major stars like Sean Penn and collaborations with musicians like Miley Cyrus, Madonna has never relied on anyone but herself when making an image change.
Taylor: Swift has delved into acting — Valentine’s Day, anyone? — as well as fragrances and modeling, but her main pursuit has always been music.
Madonna: Although best known as a singer, Madonna has succeeded as an actress as well, winning a Golden Globe for Evita. With that and several other films, plus work as a designer and director, she expanded her audience and changed her image up in a major way.
Images: Getty Images (4); Isla Murray/Bustle (2); TaylorSwift/Instagram; Warner Bros; Buena Vista