On the Importance of Being Swift

February 23, 2024 22:48

I’ll open with a confession.

I have long been a Taylor Swift fan. From ‘Back to December’ to ‘Out of the Woods’, from Reputation to Folklore, there is a lot to love in Swift. And I would most certainly be keen on attending her concerts – if only I had the time or energy. Or, indeed, the opportunity to do so on my home soil, here in Hong Kong. There is something unrepentantly triumphalist about the way she dealt with Kanye West’s bombastic cynicism, and admirable about her willingness to experiment and engage in bricolage through a diverse range of musical styles. And her personality certainly has helped in enabling her survive in a rather capricious and torturous industry. Yet this is not a hagiography of Swift.

The other day I awoke to a newsflash on The Guardian, titled, “Singapore sought exclusivity deal over Taylor Swift concerts in South-east Asia, Thai PM alleges.” Never have I ever imagined that Swift’s presence would be the subject of (healthy) discontent and quasi-controversy between the governments and fans of two large Asian economies. Nor, indeed, did I anticipate that Swift would very quickly displace the Messi situation to become the talk of town. But then again, these are rather surreal times – indeed, as surreal as the ‘Lavender Haze’ that crept up on Taylor at midnight (yes, this is a song reference).

There are several lessons that we could draw from the evolving contentions. The first is the importance of proactive courting – that is, governments and private partners alike could take a leaf out of Singapore’s book, in being swift and targeted in their engagement with icons whom they know would draw a large crowd. Singapore’s National Stadium has a capacity of 55,000. Swift held six sold-out concerts there. Assuming that only a handful of fans would return for seconds (I could be wrong), that’s akin to over 330,000 fans who had travelled from all over the world – or were from Singapore – in order to see their icon in action.

Yet Singapore also offered more than just a venue. It offered Swift the kind of compensation that few other stars and few other places could match. There was a palpable cognizance that the magnitude and levels of financial compensation do matter – not just in incentivizing trans-continental travel, but also in signalling the demonstrable goodwill that won Swift’s management and advisors over. To be swift in picking out the ‘winners’ and ‘leaders’ of the pack, is indeed a crucial life skill.

The second, is that we should be swift in identifying the niche and need for someone of Taylor’s stature. Now, there are those who are adamant that Swift or no Swift, it really does not matter. After all, they’d argue, there are many a star from Hong Kong whose stage presence, charisma, and musical talents rival, if not exceed those of Taylor’s. The Golden Era of Cantopop was propped up by true icons such as Sam Hui, Paula Tsui, Sally Yeh, and George Lam. For those with more contemporary appetite, there are many an indie Cantopop superstar who have made their name through assiduous hardwork and putting in the shift. These folks are the true talents and pride of Hong Kong that we ought to showcase. Why the fixation over Taylor?

Yet such pushbacks somewhat miss the point. The argument that we should host Taylor is not a judgment of artistic merit or virtue. Nor is it a claim implying that we ought not care about platforming and celebrating non-Western talents and stars, including our very own homegrown sources of pride. I’d be the first to sign up for a Sam Hui concert – he is a virtuosic wordsmith and musical legend whose works have shaped Hong Kong’s cultural scene for over five decades (“Eiffel Tower Above the Clouds” remains one of my favourite songs of all time).

The claim is instead that for an international city, we should be able to attract and platform class-A acts – and it need not be Taylor. For a straightforward (and alphabetical) list of alternatives, consider Adele, Beyonce, Coldplay, Drake, Ed Sheeran (or Ellie Goulding), Florence and the Machine… the list goes on and on. The point isn’t that Taylor is sui generis and irreplaceable, but that it is high time we did something that ventured beyond the ordinary and comfort zone for us. Building hardware with a higher ceiling capacity would of course be useful, but is by no means sufficient. What is needed here is a radical revamp and overhaul in our international cultural outreach – Hong Kong should aspire to become a nexus of diverse cultures in Northeast Asia, just as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore, is for Southeast Asia.

The third lesson is a comment on the present state of play. I trust that folks are not up in arms over Taylor’s gracing us because they love Taylor. Chances are, most of them have barely heard a Taylor song (perhaps “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, and that’s an absolutely smashing hit, at that), or have seen her perform Live (that’s kind of the point, I suppose). The underlying worry is that that we are slipping behind our regional counterparts when it comes to our internationalisation – the cosmopolitan openness and dynamism in our cultural and musical scenes when it comes to external engagement.

And this worry cuts across both East and West. Don’t like Western stars? Don’t think they should come because the “West” is on the way out? Then let’s at least have some proper K-Pop and J-Pop performances here, or folks from Southeast Asia. Blackpink came to Hong Kong in January 2023 – why not have them over again?

Assistant Professor, HKU