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Malcolm Gladwell on the Taylor Swift phenomenon

By Amy Uy Published Sep 07, 2023 4:54 pm

Addressing a crowd of business owners at the recent SM Supermalls Tenant-Partner Summit at the SMX Convention Arena, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell talked about the phenomenon that is Taylor Swift. Most of us know Taylor Swift but first, who is Malcolm Gladwell?

To the unfamiliar, Malcolm Gladwell shot to fame in 2000 when he wrote The Tipping Point, a book that advanced the concept of “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” The book became a phenomenon, hitting bestseller lists and was followed by other titles including Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and more that earned Gladwell the honor of being one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Malcolm Gladwell is the man behind bestselling books like The Tipping Point and Blink. 

In his talk, Gladwell refreshed our memories of his book as he told the story of how Martin Luther King, Jr. somehow set the tipping point for the civil rights movement through the Birmingham riots of 1963. From his prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, King penned a letter advocating peaceful protests to fight for civil rights. The letter stirred sentiments that inspired hundreds of young African-American students to stage demonstrations in Birmingham where, on May 2, 1963, many were arrested. The next day, King anticipated that the police would again be there to quell the march and had asked TV journalists and news photographers to be at the scene. It was there that newsmen captured the infamous photos of children being hosed down and attacked by police dogs. Those images sparked global outrage and kindled a wave of protests and events leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Times may have changed since King but Gladwell’s ideas on the “law of the few” and the key elements of a connector who spreads the word, a knowledgeable maven, and a convincing salesman are still relevant in today’s social media age when influencers can push messages to go viral in an instant. But the face of today’s influencers has changed, according to Gladwell. Today’s generation is no longer compelled to follow or heed the call of an established authority.

Malcolm Gladwell delivers a talk during his Manila visit.

He illustrated this by relating how over a month ago, Kai Cenat, a 22-year-old YouTuber, called on fellow New Yorkers to show up at Union Square Park on the promise of free PlayStation 5 consoles. On the street near his office, Gladwell overheard a 13-year-old boy asking his mom if he could go to Union Square Park on that day. Curious about the boy’s insistence, Gladwell went and was blown away at the sight of the mammoth crowd at the park.

Of course, being an unorganized event, things got out of hand, and Cenat was eventually arrested. But how Cenat, an ordinary guy with not much clout, was able to lure a crowd, mostly young people, to a park where not much really happened is a feat that showed three significant behavioral shifts among the young:

  1. They value more the concept of a network, of connecting with like-minded others, over that of abiding by a hierarchy. Cenat was just a young man who acted alone but whose personality resonated with the young crowd.
  2. They find that the more spontaneous a call is, the more attractive it is over a disciplined or structured one. Cenat made the call on Twitch, which didn’t require a fee to send a message across. Neither did his followers have to pay for tickets to be at the park. There was no reason or excuse not to show up. 
  1. They prefer things to be decentralized, or to not be governed by a central authority. There was no big event organizer or brand behind the event. There were no rules. 

So, how does Taylor Swift fit into all of this? Not that he is a “Swiftie” but Gladwell found parallels to the Cenat incident to explain Swift’s popularity. First, he noted that Swift’s fan base oddly mirrored the economic, social, and political demographics of the U.S. Fifty percent of American adults said in a survey that they were her fans, half of whom were millennials, half were male and half, female. Half identified as Democrats and the other half were politically independent and Republicans. Half made over $50,000 (P2.8 million) annually while half had an income below that amount, and so on. With such a demographic base, Swift enjoys a huge following that shares several common backgrounds and craves the same cultural experiences.

In his talk, Malcolm Gladwell looked into how Taylor Swift has become one of the most famous and successful singers in the world.


Almost half of those in the survey also said that Swift is “relatable.” Much like those who heeded Cenat’s call to Union Square, Swift’s fans are devoted to her because her music is inclusive and because they see something of themselves in her. Her followers see joy in connecting with someone they identify with. And being among fellow, like-minded Swifties gives them the opportunity to be part of something big.

Gladwell’s illustrations and new insights are worth pondering for those of us in the audience that day. They somehow explain the phenomenon of how “armies” get formed to follow certain pop groups, why people flock to events or to “viral” restaurants, why certain leaders are elected into office, or why there’s such a thing as FOMO or fear of missing out.

His talk helped make sense of the new world we live in and offered a fresh framework to guide us in our pursuits as business owners. Social media and emerging technologies will no doubt continue to change how we send out and receive messages, and the ways we choose who/what to listen to and follow. But overall, what Gladwell’s talk made clear that day is that what drives beliefs, values, and actions among today’s generation is a consuming desire to connect with those of their own kind. In being part of a bigger whole, people feel seen and heard. They belong, they count, they matter. To them, therein lies power. And it is up to us in organizations and institutions to strive and ingeniously tap into that.