Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift will perform at Alibaba’s Singles Day countdown gala on Nov. 10, following other U.S.-based performers like Mariah Carey and Pharrell Williams in recent years.
In terms of the promotional opportunity, it’s a logical move for Swift, who headlined Amazon’s first-ever Prime Day concert in July leading up to the release of her latest album, Lover, in August. And, citing an article in Forbes, Alibaba noted Lover sold more than 1 million physical and digital copies in its first week in China alone, making it the country’s best-selling international album of 2019.
Alibaba sold $30.8 billion in gross merchandise volume during Singles Day 2018. It’s kind of a big deal. What’s more, 2019 marks the 11th 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, as Singles Day is also known, and so Alibaba expects millions more consumers will participate.
But while prior galas have included international talent like Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, David Beckham, Maria Sharapova and Kobe Bryant, the 2019 roster—or least the roster that had been released as of Nov. 8—seemed to skew more local, including performers like G.E.M., Hua Chenyu, Ju Jingyi, Li Ronghao, Luo Yunxi, Jackson Yee, Zhang Jie and Zhang Yixing.
By way of comparison, at this point in 2017, Alibaba had already announced Jessie J, Maria Sharapova, Luis Figo, Riverdance and Blue Man Group as gala talent.
It was not immediately clear if Alibaba had trouble recruiting stars from outside China or if it made a conscious decision to focus more on homegrown talent this year. A representative for Alibaba had no on-the-record comment about Swift and did not respond to additional questions about the gala.
But the timing is at least interesting, given U.S.-China relations this year, including but not limited to tariffs, protests and a pro-Hong-Kong tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, which, according to The New York Times, resulted in broadcasts of NBA games being pulled from Chinese airwaves; “substantial” financial fallout for the NBA; a request from the Chinese government that Morey lose his job; and accusations from U.S. politicians that the NBA is bowing to the Chinese government so it can continue to make money in the world’s biggest market.
An April 2019 report from Gartner on cancel culture—in which brands are called out on social media and/or boycotted for a range of issues, including sexism, racism, homophobia and abuse—noted the phenomenon is growing in China. There, however, Gartner said it is taking on local characteristics, such as calling on brands to “conform with ideas the [Chinese Communist Party] deems politically correct.” So far this year, both Mac Cosmetics and the Gap, for instance, have faced backlash for omitting Taiwan from maps of China.
“With awareness of their global purchasing power, Chinese consumers are likely to continue to become increasingly assertive online when they’re dissatisfied with global brands,” the report said. “Globally contentious topics will likely pose major challenges to brands—for example, apologies related to controversial geopolitical conflicts could favor China while alienating customers in other markets.”
Noting he wasn’t aware Swift has made comments one way or the other about Hong Kong, Rob Shepardson, co-founder of the agency SS+K and co-chairman of the agency M&C Saatchi New York, asked, “Is that supporting China’s policies?”
“That’s the debate and I suspect it will give supporters and opponents a chance to further their own agenda, if they can be clever,” he continued. “Otherwise I suspect it will be a non-event for her brand, other than that she will make a ton of money.”
And that’s why Swift may actually have more to lose than gain here.
For his part, Colin Finkle, founder of branding resource the Brand Marketing Blog, likened Swift’s performance to rapper Nicki Minaj’s decision to pull out of a concert in Saudi Arabia following public backlash.
“Granted, Minaj is not Swift and Saudi Arabia is not China. Swift’s event is put on by a private company, if that is a thing in China, and Minaj’s concert was put on directly by the crown prince,” he said.
But she’ll still likely see some negative publicity that will impact her brand.
“Will it be career-ending? No way,” Finkle said. “But she will make a sacrifice of losing some fans in her base in middle America to service her fans in China.”
Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali, on the other hand, said she doesn’t think most Swift fans care.
“I don’t think there was even a backlash when she endorsed an anti-Trump candidate in the last election,” she added. “The backlash in China seems to be against companies anyway and they are the ones that are most nervous, not really American consumers.”
Then again, Amanda Jacobsmeyer, an account executive at media company InkHouse who describes herself as “someone who is Extremely Online in the Taylor Swift fandom,” said Swift fans have expressed concern on Tumblr about the performance.
That includes one fan who, citing concentration camps and police brutality, wrote, “I’m glad Chinese fans in China are getting this opportunity but I hate that yet another influential figure is ignoring what’s going on in this country.”
Another fan said people in Hong Kong don’t feel safe going to China because of bag and phone checks at immigration and asked Swift to add concert dates in places like Singapore or Japan.
Furthermore, Jacobsmeyer said Swift has recently been more visibly political, so much of her liberal fanbase now expects her to hold the same values when it comes to supporting issues like the protests in Hong Kong.
“It doesn’t appear to be nearly as big of an issue with fans as her involvement with Amazon for Prime Day or her now cancelled performance at the horse race in Australia, but it is something a vocal minority of fans are advocating against,” she added. “In this respect, I think she does have a bit to lose when it comes to her dedicated fanbase, even if the average American consumer isn’t paying attention to it.”