The afternoon of August 18, 2017, was just like any other Friday afternoon. It was sorta nice out, people were checking out of their daily grind because Summer Fridays; the call of the weekend is palpable at this time of year. Then Taylor Alison Swift went dark. Gone were her Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr profiles; her website was a, well, blank space waiting to be filled. For an artist whose public image is so tangled-up with the music she releases, Swift’s abrupt social media blackout was a Moment™.
Social media has lifted the rug up from under celebrity culture. If you’ve ever tweeted at someone famous or commented on something they posted, you know this full well. Gone are the days of sending fan mail; press releases are becoming archaic—why send out a release if an artist (or their social team) has already been teasing the new material over their respective channels? Interviews and profiles are here to stay, but the immediacy social media provides in communicating their ideas to their audience is unparalleled. Social media is the direct line of vision to an artist’s brand; change anything about it, and you’ve got a new era on the horizon.
An updated profile picture is fine and dandy, but going dark is a total image rehaul. In Swift’s case, it signifies the beginning of her Reputation era, the one that apparently seeks to flip, reverse, and reclaim the brand she worked so hard to create, one that the public has since turned on. The whole snake thing? She saw that, cleared her entire social media presence, and came back a week later as a snake, venomous and with a penchant for talk-rapping. The 1975 did something similar in May 2015, sparking speculation the band was breaking up when really, they were simply riling up the people and readying them for their next album cycle. Going dark is arguably the easiest promotion an artist with a cult-like following, like Swift and The 1975, can get.
Going dark exposes the seedy underbelly of celebrity, too. This is, perhaps, the second reason artists go dark: privacy protection. Just this past July, Ed Sheeran “quit” Twitter for a minute because his Game of Thrones cameo put him on the receiving end of nasty trolls. Twitter, after all, is the fastest and most direct way to slip into an artist’s periphery. Back in October 2009, Miley Cyrus did something similar to protect her privacy, as well as that of her fiancé Liam Hemsworth. Lady Gaga went dark on Twitter in July 2013 to focus on her recovery from hip surgery. Justin Bieber, too, went dark in August 2016 as a result of feeling the pressures of overexposure. All these celebrities have returned, of course, but with decidedly more restraint and, perhaps, a bigger social team.
What about Rihanna, though? Rihanna would not be Rihanna if @badgalriri did not exist on Instagram. Sure, her Twitter account provides a host of truly incredible updates (“FUCK U SATAN!!! Fuck right off!!!!!”), but Rih’s give a phuck attitude came to life on Instagram. Her unfiltered account not only confirmed that she was the coolest, it changed the game in terms of celebrity brand exposure. Then, one fine day in May 2014, @badgalriri disappeared. Yes, Instagram initially suspended her account because she was freeing the nipple, but Rih’s decision to let her account sit inactive after Instagram lifted the suspension was a cause for riot. What’s Instagram without Rihanna posting pictures of blunts and memes of herself? A truly dark place, let me tell you. Come November, though, the high goddess of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent returned and all was right with the world. Rihanna didn’t go dark because she was rebranding or because it was some privacy thing. Rihanna went dark because she felt like it.
Kanye West did something similar in May 2017. Gotta respect that creative process, bro!
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Social media, in that sense, confuses that space because it puts a celebrity in the room at all times while also serving as a billboard of sorts. Going dark is a way of controlling their narrative, protecting their image and brand while, at the same time (and depending on their motive), ensuring the public keeps that brand on their minds by speculating over why they went dark. Or, in Rihanna’s case, it’s simply a thing to do just ’cause.