In the late-capitalist hell that is waking life in the year 2015, we’ve all been reduced to a #personalbrand, a public representation of the self to be shaped and managed. This isn’t an entirely new development; past decades have called the #personalbrand an “image” or “rep”, and the notion of “street cred” falls under the umbrella as well. But never before has the active crafting of a persona been so widespread, or rigorously monitored. There was a time when concerns over whether or not a soundbite or public appearance could be considered in accord with one’s #personalbrand (also known as being “#onbrand”) was the exclusive province of celebrities, but the unending personal broadcasting of social media has made low-level celebrities of us all. As such, behavior has followed accordingly. And nobody plays this game better than Taylor Swift.

You can argue that it’s because she’s talented and hard-working and a charismatic performer, and you would not be entirely incorrect. But the reason that Taylor Swift is famous and innumerable nobodies with identical singer-songwriter aspirations continue to labor in obscurity on SoundCloud is because she manages her #personalbrand like a goddamn champion. Swift has tapped into something instantly familiar and yet simultaneously unattainable for her sizable militia of superfans. But with the music video for the remix of her 1989 single “Bad Blood,” unveiled on Sunday night during the Billboard Awards telecast, Swift’s #personalbrand approaches a critical mass. Every bubble must pop, and the four-minute clip captures a starlet’s public persona at a pivotal moment. Swift’s in danger of getting eclipsed by the only celebrity with enough wattage to outshine her: herself. In the “Bad Blood” video, Taylor Swift plays a supporting role to her own fame.

In its unseen meticulous calculation, Swift’s #personalbrand is a thing of wonder. She’s managed to reconcile two diametrically opposed identities into a single sociological object designed to create both feelings of comfort and despair in its intended audience. Swift smoothly glides between dimensions of her public profile, transitioning from dorky BFF to embodiment of womanly poise and back without the flutter of an eye. Swift’s dizzying good looks and chic high-waisted wardrobe have resonated with the average tween-through-early-twentysomething to varying degrees, but what’s made her an idol are the sporadic flashes of her former self.

Swift’s #personalbrand centers her humble beginnings instead of burying them, fully embracing the lanky, romantically inept goof that she used to be, pre-fame. # She’s both the girl you are and the girl you wish to be, inspiring the hope that anybody can make that same leap from one to the next. She presents a distant mirage of beauty, and then extends an open invitation for anyone to join her.


Looks and style alone do not a #personalbrand make, however. Swift eagerly and believably plays the role that the whims of the public (and what I assume must be a very busy PR team) have assigned her, contouring her social-media presence to fit the “impossibly lovely yet still totally approachable” mold. Swift’s cemented her status as every teen’s dream bestie by doing just that with maximum visibility. Here she is unwinding in Maui with the Haim sisters. And here’s Taylor palling around with “Royals” singer Lorde on the beach. And now she’s sharing a hot cup of joe with professional Ron Weasley impersonator Ed Sheeran. Swift clearly places a high premium on the public’s perception of her as a totally cool, casual buddy with whom a girl can hit the malls or just cozy up and binge-watch Gilmore Girls.


However, Swift’s new video for “Bad Blood” shamelessly goes all in on her #personalbrand, extending it to its logical conclusion.

In the four-minute clip, fifteen of Swift’s closest friends get brought in, complete with a super-tough codename displayed clearly onscreen # and a half Matrix/half Avengers outfit. They each get between seven and twenty seconds of screen time, and while there’s no harm in packing a video with celebrity cameos — in fact, it was quite fun when Duck Sauce burned through his address book in the clip for “Barbra Streisand” — Swift and video director Joseph Kahn’s inexplicable insistence on establishing a character and identity for each performer leaves it feeling overstuffed.

I know Swift relocated to New York recently, but even so, why drag Lena Dunham across town to appear as “Lucky Fiori” if she’s just gonna sit in a chair, smoking a cigar, for three whole seconds? Surely Academy Award-nominated actress Hailee Steinfeld has other stuff to do than shoot a nine-second cameo as robot triplets. No video so devoted to narrative can sustain that many characters in a four-minute span. Ultimately, a double appearance from Ellen Pompeo as “Luna” and Mariska Hargitay as “Justice” boils down to performative set-dressing. “I love Grey’s Anatomy and Law and Order: SVU, too!” Swift subtextually squeals. “So I got Meredith Grey and Olivia Benson to hang out with me and be in my video! Isn’t that neat?” #

It’s just Tay and her #squad playing a game of dress-up we modestly-budgeted mortals can only fantasize about. She’s recapitulating her two-tiered persona for an age where womanly empowerment has blessedly become en vogue — in the opening shots, Swift takes a moment to make sure her lipstick is perfect after having dispatched a foe. With a uniform of flawlessly applied winged eyeliner, the cast embodies the principles of both #goals- and #relatable-based personal branding. But there’s nothing more behind it, none of the sincere ache of “Love Story” or the hysterical meltdown of “Trouble.” Even Swift’s recent “Shake It Off” clip, which posited her as the uncomfortable outlier in every musical scene except the one she’s made her own, understood that behind the girl-next-door facade was a singer with a voice packing serious horsepower.

The “Bad Blood” video, in all its slick-n-shiny soullessness, loses sight of Taylor Swift the musician behind Taylor Swift the #personalbrand. The video’s full of people, but devoid of characters. Beyond the #squad lies nothingness.