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Taylor Swift and Beyoncé were the real stars of the Super Bowl, proving we're in the age of the upstage

Callie Ahlgrim   

Taylor Swift and Beyoncé were the real stars of the Super Bowl, proving we're in the age of the upstage
  • Beyoncé shocked fans by releasing new music during the Super Bowl on Sunday.
  • Taylor Swift, who also drew focus during the game, announced a new album at the Grammys last week.

Shortly after Usher wrapped his dazzling performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé made a surprise appearance.

Fans had suspected she'd appear in a Verizon commercial on Sunday, but public appearances from the superstar — even if it just means popping up in an ad — are sparing, and thus sensational.

This time, she'd outdone herself; it wasn't a mere cameo. The minute-long ad stars Beyoncé as a woman on a mission, determined to "break the internet" with self-referential lemonade stands and space travel.

It doesn't stop there. At the end of the commercial, Beyoncé declares, "Drop the new music," which sent fans into a frenzy. Clips of Usher crooning "My Boo" with Alicia Keys and singing "OMG" while dancing on rollerblades were quickly washed away by reactions to Queen Bey's shocking revelation.

By the time her website had been updated with her official album announcement, Beyoncé had hijacked the big game (at least, when it came to the internet chatter around it). As she calmly joined the crowd at Allegiant Stadium, two new songs appeared online that tease a thrilling foray into country music. (Longtime fans of "Daddy Lessons," rejoice!)

Of course, the Super Bowl is an advertising opportunity as much as it's a football game. There's a reason a 30-second TV spot costs about $7 million.

But the timing of a stunt from Beyoncé — a famous perfectionist and shrewd businesswoman — is always worth examination. Back in 2016, she stole the show from halftime headliner Coldplay with a surprise performance of "Formation." This year, she managed to capture our attention without ever stepping on the field. "Beyoncé basically proposed at Usher's wedding," one person quipped.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the internet, Swifties were busy documenting every move of their own resident mastermind.

Taylor Swift attended the Super Bowl to cheer for her boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. The cameras delighted in capturing Swift's game-time behavior: hugging Blake Lively; chugging her drink; jumping for joy when the Chiefs scored the winning touchdown. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton and tennis star Andy Murray congratulated Swift before they ever mentioned Kelce. Her name dominated headlines.

Obviously, it's not up to Swift how much attention she draws at NFL games. As she told Time in a recent interview, "I'm just there to support Travis. I have no awareness of if I'm being shown too much and pissing off a few dads, Brads, and Chads."

That may be true when she's off duty. But when it comes to crafting an album rollout — a strategy that's central to the success of her career — it would be naive to think Swift isn't fully aware of her power to dominate audiences' attention spans on command.

Just last week, Swift employed a similar tactic to Beyoncé's when she used her acceptance speech for best pop vocal album at the 2024 Grammy Awards to announce a brand-new album called "The Tortured Poets Department."

It wasn't the first time Swift used an awards show to promote an album; she announced "Midnights" at the 2022 MTV Video Music Awards. But the VMAs are much more focused on the live performances and spectacle than the awards themselves — winners are determined by online polls, after all — and the announcement was largely welcomed as an exciting surprise.

The prestigious backdrop of the Grammys, where Swift was surrounded by peers and hopeful nominees, offered a starker contrast to her own personal fan service. Many critics accused of her stealing focus on purpose.

The most likely explanation is much simpler: This is a marketing strategy, just like everything else in Hollywood. Assigning moral value or malicious intent is a stretch.

Much like the Super Bowl, awards shows are designed as vehicles for promotion; to win is to bulk up your résumé, attract new fans, and make more money. Every acceptance speech is an opportunity to build an appealing brand.

The key difference here is also quite simple: Very few people could pull off this kind of event-conquering announcement, Swift and Beyoncé among them. Actually, maybe it's only Swift and Beyoncé.

In terms of currency, acclaim, and cultural influence, these two women are in leagues of their own. We care what they do and when they do it. Kacey Musgraves also teased a new album during the live Grammys telecast, but nobody accused her of staging a coup, because it simply didn't spark as much chatter.

So if it seems like an artist's announcement is stealing focus, it's because we gave her the power to do so.

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