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Why Taylor Swift is the media’s favorite subject — even when the story isn’t about her

Taylor Swift smiles at Sunday’s Golden Globes.Michael Tran/AFP/Getty Images

Oh, how quickly the conversation turns to Taylor Swift whenever there’s a lull in the cultural discourse.

Swift, one of the biggest American superstars of her time, is continuing her complete domination of our attentions with blockbuster toursrecord-breaking album drops, prized appearances at NFL Sunday night match-ups and, of course, the Golden Globes.

It’s no wonder that news outlets and companies drop her name into headlines, interviews, branded content and products in an attempt to ride her moment of mega-fame, from Heinz condiments to news stories about stingrays. CNN isn’t immune to Swift fever, either: Data journalist Harry Enten reported late last year on the odds of Swift and her boyfriend Travis Kelce staying together.

But the issue is: Sometimes the stories don’t even tangentially involve the Grammy winner.

Shoehorning Swift into stories even when she’s not the subject has become something of a pastime for content creators during her extended run as perhaps the most famous woman on Earth. And even when it rankles those suffering from Swift fatigue, it still gets people talking.

It’s good business to mention Swift, even when the story isn’t about her

Bond Benton, an associate professor in communication and media at Montclair State University, has studied the effect of mentioning Swift in media stories. (That this topic merits academic study is just more testament to its power.) His research so far, he said, shows that “the presence of Swift in any media content will increase visibility of that content.”

Case in point: A September post from CBS News about a 400-pound stingray “nearly the length of Travis Kelce … Taylor Swift’s rumored beau.” Though nothing else about the story of the Connecticut sea creature involved the “Cruel Summer” songstress or her NFL star boyfriend, she was name-dropped twice within the story. The post alone was viewed nearly 3 million times on X as of Monday.

“While I’m sure there’s interest in a unique stingray, the 2.8 million views reported on X likely were driven by the integration of Swift into the story, however awkward the inclusion,” Benton said.

Benton said there’s almost a “memetic” quality to the way Swift is presented online that invites fans and haters alike to debate and dissect her. No matter how they feel, though, they’re talking about her — and further elevating her status.

“It’s a ritual drama that is ‘Taylor’-made for high levels of online visibility,” Benton said. “And it’s entirely predictable that figures looking to get their message out would utilize this.”

All the weird places Swift’s name has ended up

Fans at a Kansas City Chiefs game ponder the question that nearly every NFL broadcaster has asked at one point during the 2023-2024 season: “WHERE’S TAYLOR?”Harry How/Getty Images

Even when Swift isn’t in the room, she’s still often top of mind — and she’s ended up in some unlikely places.

She showed up in Heinz’s limited-edition release of “Ketchup and Seemingly Ranch,” a condiment inspired by a post from a Swift fan account that, based on a photo of Swift at a Chiefs game, suggested that she’d eaten a chicken tender with ketchup and “seemingly ranch.” Suddenly (and briefly), Heinz was hotter than a barbecue. (CNN has reached out to Heinz about the product.)

Companies have long capitalized on famous spokespeople (even inadvertent, unpaid ones, like Swift) to secure support from consumers. History’s biggest stars, like Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson, were once shilling high-luster shampoo and Pepsi, respectively. Now, companies are hedging their bets on America’s sweetheart.

“No one is attracting a larger audience than Swift at this moment,” said Kate Blanton, an instructor at the University of South Carolina who’s teaching a course on Swift’s public persona.

She really is everywhere: Her “Eras” stadium tour is the highest-grossing tour ever, and the movie version recently became the highest-grossing concert film of all time. She was named Time’s Person of the Year in 2023. She was Spotify’s most-streamed artist of 2023, and last year became the only living artist to see 10 of her albums chart simultaneously on the US Billboard 200.

Because Swift is such a reliable attention-grabber, Benton noted, outlets will report on anything remotely related to her. Several outlets reported Travis Kelce’s conspicuous absence from the Golden Globes despite the fact he had his own very obvious commitment: playing against the Los Angeles Chargers the very same day.

While the tiniest details of celebrity life are always good conversation fodder, with Swift it can become a huge marketing opportunity. After photos from one of Swift’s well-documented girls’ nights went viral, Page Six and Parade both published detailed accounts of what Swift and her compatriots ate for dinner, along with glowing commentary from restaurant staff.

Some writers and creators will mention anything barely related to Swift as long as they can finagle a way to include her. After a Taiwanese presidential candidate briefly name-dropped Swift in a debate, the Independent wrote a story around her surprising (and very limited) involvement in the country’s politics. CNN has reached out to the Independent for comment.

Other famous people are asked about Swift almost constantly. For W. magazine’s awards-season issue, journalist Lynn Hirschberg tasked actors Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman and Da’Vine Joy Randolph with reciting “Blank Space,” a 2014 song rereleased this year on Swift’s rerecording of her Grammy-winning “1989.”

Semi-obscure politicians are even getting in on Swift-mania, because when she’s mentioned, people pay attention. In December lawmakers in Pennsylvania, where Swift was born, declared 2023 the “Taylor Swift era” on her 34th birthday.

And Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly capitalized on Swift’s relationship with the Kansas City Chiefs tight end by tweeting a photo of herself with a CD of essential Swift songs that her young staff made for her. Sensing an opportunity, a number of media outlets, including CNN, wrote stories on Kelly’s Swift name-drop.

Even when Swift fever annoys people, it’s working

The Swiftian barrage can needle consumers who feel she’s oversaturating their news feeds. After she attended a Kansas City Chiefs game in the fall to support her boyfriend Travis Kelce, the NFL changed its banner photo on X to a triptych of her emotive reactions. Even head coaches of rival teams, like the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, faced Swift questions at a pre-game press conference.

The NFL has seemed to dial back its Swift mentions after the frequent and giddy coverage early in the season. And Kelce, for his part, said in October that he thought the NFL was “overdoing it” with its Swift references.

Still, even negative reactions put more eyes on the offending coverage, Benton said, subtly nodding to Swifties’ recent focus on football: “Fans of the singer celebrate every placement in the media as though it’s a score in a sporting event.”

Taylor Swift looks on during a game between the Las Vegas Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs on Christmas Day 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Benton said the media seems to be somewhat in on the joke when it comes to shoehorning Swift into random news stories.

“Certainly, placing Swift into a story will generate more views, but it looks as though doing so in a particularly ridiculous way will cause the content to enter into the tapestry of ‘Weird Taylor Swift Inclusions’ that now almost seem like competitive escalation,” he said.

And because Swift’s millions of fans are already searching for new tidbits about the star, the media is just “tapping into that activity,” Blanton said.

Where will we find Swift next — ads for seasonally adjusting your tire pressure? In a punny headline about a fossil discovery? In another tweet from a state politician whose younger staffers want to expand their social reach?

Most recently, Swift wound up a topic of discussion at the Hollywood Reporter’s annual Actress Roundtable. Moderator Rebecca Keegan asked “Maestro” star and Oscar hopeful Carey Mulligan which of Swift’s “eras” she’d be.

While Mulligan ultimately chose “Folklore,” she was visibly confused by the question, which requires quite a lot of Taylor Swift knowledge to understand, let alone answer.

“What does that mean?” Mulligan asked.

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