Photo by Paolo Villanueva. Used with permission under Creative Commons – Attribution license.
Taylor Swift’s album, 1989, is a remarkable achievement. In just 13 songs, Ms. Swift hasn’t just proven that she’s completed her transition from country artist to pop superstar, she has shown us just how much she has grown up as a person. She’s a smart woman in the next phase of her life, experiencing life and love in a big city, and she’s put her personal journey on full display. 1989 is the work of a highly ambitious and major talent. I know every sonic inch of that album. And I hate it. This hater is gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.
So if I hate 1989, why am I so familiar with it? What’s the point in knowing so much about something that is so insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply ignore what you hate?
I know this album because I should: I work in advertising. Taylor Swift’s latest album is a huge part of the current pop culture zeitgeist, and it speaks to an enormous group of people. It doesn’t matter that I don’t like it — I should know about it and the people it affects. How can I possibly fight consumer indifference if I’m indifferent about what makes them who they are?
This is a question everyone who works in advertising should pose to themselves: If we don’t know what’s going on right now, then how can we apply anything but old-fashioned thinking to our work? We can either make the choice for our work to remain relevant, or we can watch ourselves become ineffective dinosaurs.
I’m not saying we have to become students of every new song, film, book, tech, trend, app, fashion or idea that establishes itself as part of the new cultural landscape. But we can’t pretend these things don’t exist or that they haven’t somehow changed the world we live in. It’s imperative that we know what has captured people’s attention. A few examples:
I’m married with two young kids. Dating websites and apps are the last thing I need in my life. But by reading articles about them and talking to younger people about them, and I have developed a solid understanding of how they have changed the way people approach companionship, relationships and romance.
I’ve never been a fan of pop music or country. I was raised on rock and roll, damn it! But I don’t cover my ears when our agency’s open-source speakers are commandeered by someone with a serious fascination with Garth Brooks. I don’t leave the room when people are talking about the latest Coldplay album. Instead, I listen. I engage. I may not like what I’m hearing, but I learn to understand the appeal. And sometimes, I discover I like something I wouldn’t have given a chance otherwise. Insight is the gift of perseverance.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand the point of emoji. The tech gods granted us QWERTY keypads on our phones, why wouldn’t we just use our words? But the rate at which they pour into my messages meant I couldn’t ignore their popularity. So I gave them a shot for a little while. I still don’t like them, but I get it now. To ignore them would be to ignore the way people communicate, which would be a remarkably poor decision, considering my entire profession is based on communicating.
Reality TV, Pinterest, Snapchat … none of these hold much interest for me personally. But professionally, they’ve been godsends. Their existence keeps me from living like a cultural hermit, and the insight they’ve given me makes me a better communicator. Be wary of anyone in the ad industry who thinks they can do their job without understanding how the world around them is changing. You can’t make people care about something if you don’t know how to talk to them.
As for Taylor Swift and 1989, I’ll probably always hate that album. I just can’t get past the naiveté and emotionlessness of it. But considering what the album has taught me about the current state of the modern consumer … well, you can tell me when it’s over, but the high was worth the pain.