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Taylor Swift, Walgreens, and me

“One guy wanted to buy the cardboard stand-up,” the clerk said. “He comes back and checks on it every other day.”

Taylor Swift has taken the conflation of pop culture and commerce to a whole new level.
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

“You’ve got quite a Taylor Swift display there,” I said to the Buddy Holly-bespectacled clerk behind the counter at my neighborhood Walgreens the other night.

“It could be worse,” he said.

I guess. There was no one else in the place, so we both paused for a moment to take in the sight that greets customers walking through the door of every one of the 8,030 Walgreens stores around the country: 

A cardboard stand-up of mini-skirted Swift propped up in front of shelves stuffed with Swift T-shirts, CDs, notebooks, folders, and, tucked behind the swag as almost an afterthought, her new CD, “Red.” 

“We haven’t sold many CDs or shirts, but we’ve sold a few notebooks,” said the clerk, in refutation of the trend that has made “Red” the biggest-selling CD in recent chart history. “One guy wanted to buy the cardboard stand-up. He comes back and checks on it every other day.”

It was Terrence McKenna who said “culture is your enemy,” but rarely has pop culture and commerce been so blatantly shotgun-wed as it has been with “Red.” Before its Oct. 22 release, “Red” was the subject of an Obey-like media blitz that started with magazine covers and talk-show appearances (“That song was about me, wasn’t it?” David Letterman asked Swift after she performed the bloody love-lust-longing title track on “The Late Show” ), and escalated into full-on corporate synergy mode when “Red” was released with retail tie-ins to Starbucks and Target and sold at Walmart, Walgreens, and, yes, Papa John’s Pizza.  

Ugh. By now we’re supposed to be used to a certain cheapening of music, or at least we’re supposed to be over the romance of how we once discovered and purchased music

But by any show-biz lights, “Red” has been revolutionarily aggressive (and gross) in its campaign to get casual music consumers to buy it.

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“She knows how to play the game,” as one veteran songwriter said to another about an up-and-coming ingénue on “Nashville” this week, and I get it. It’s nearly impossible for original songwriters and musicians to sell millions of records on the merits of their music alone any more, so ambitious superstars-slash-willing stooges like Swift are sold like soap. Whether or not the marketing affects how the music is heard is up for debate but to be sure, when Mojo Nixon sang “Elvis Is Everywhere,” he could’ve been describing this unprecedented Taylor Swift moment – and that doesn’t even include “Red”’s next level of omnipresence toward boosting holiday sales and further world domination.

Me, I was an unsuspecting Walgreens zombie when I caved into the Swift boat on my way to the Christmas decorations, toiletries, and over-the-counter drugs. I bought the T-shirt as an impulse buy – like chewing tobacco or mints – and even asked the woman behind the counter to stop me, save me from myself, that I would never wear it, that I didn’t need it, that I suspected I was being suckered, etc.

“Why wouldn’t you buy it?” she said, incredulous as she scanned my items. “Taylor Swift is America’s sweetheart.”

She said it a little too scripted, like the bosses had told her to say so, or like she was one of the “associates” at the Walmart Shareholders Meeting in June, where Swift told host and fellow corporate shill Justin Timberlake and other gathered workers of the Walmart world, “I really love to go to Walmart because my band and my band and I love to go there … because they have everything we need. Candy, ‘Law and Order’ DVDs, and cat toys. The associates always help me find what I need and they’re always so helpful.” 

At Walgreens, I waited a week to buy “Red,” and when I did it was Big Brother-mystical. On cue, as I stood in line with my toothpaste and CD, a voice came over the store speakers. Instead of the “Welcome Walgreens shoppers” lady, it was Taylor Swift herself.

She was following me.

“Hi, I’m Taylor Swift, and I want you to buy my new CD, ‘Red,’ ” she said, as I forked over my money, eyed the cardboard stand-up, and resigned myself to spending New Year’s Eve with corporate America’s sweetheart.