Forever 21 is a company known for being cheap—in regard to the price point of its clothing and the marketing stunts it pulls online. On September 2, 2019, Ariana Grande and her Florida corporation GrandAri, Inc. filed a complaint for damages against Forever 21 and Riley Rose, a beauty company started by the daughters of Forever 21’s founders, for the unauthorized use of Grande’s name, likeness, and persona in social media marketing campaigns (Grande-Butera v. Forever 21). The complaint alleges that Grande had been negotiating with the two companies to partner in advertising some of their products, but the negotiations fell through when their monetary offer was “insufficient for an artist of her stature” (Id). Afterwards, Forever 21 proceeded to post unauthorized photos of her on its Instagram account, and even hired and advertised a look-alike model who was styled similarly to the way Grande looked in her popular “7 Rings” music video (Id). According to Loyola Law School Professor Jennifer Rothman, Forever 21 posting actual photos of Grande on its Instagram is likely much more legally problematic than using a similarly styled model—in the latter situation, they could argue their protection under the First Amendment to mimic popular trends, even if they were popularized by Grande (The New York Times). I find this second type of appropriation, which rests in more of a legal grey area, to be much more culturally revealing.
Thousands of young women and girls do in fact model themselves after Grande. Grande is not the first person to wear a long slicked-back high ponytail, but she has made the look into a millennial touchstone that is representative of her identity as a musician and public figure. Although Grande’s style is relatively basic and ubiquitously trendy, the complaint alleges that an Instagram user in Forever 21’s targeted demographics would almost certainly “immediately associate” Grande with the image of the similarly styled model (Grande-Butera at 9). However, does Grande have enough ownership over her style that she should be legally entitled to millions of dollars in damages?
No one, except the company’s lawyers, is really jumping at the opportunity to defend Forever 21 here, but the existence of this complaint reveals an interesting duality in which musicians, especially pop stars like Grande, exist simultaneously as artists and profit-creating corporate products. As her complaint states, “[t]he importance and influence derived from social media marketing to consumers in today’s market cannot be overstated…Paying influential celebrities with large social media followings such as Ms. Grande is the modern-day equivalent of buying television ads 20 years ago” (Id. at 7). Nowadays, musicians are not solely driven to create music for purely artistic reasons, or even to sell records. These may be partial motivations, but at the heart of popular music in the 21st century is the drive to turn creative art into influence, and then monetize that influence through external means. Musicians must achieve and maintain public popularity in order to get paid. Artists can not only gain popularity through their music, but also through other unrelated avenues. In my opinion, Grande is driven to defend her image in this complaint, not only because she risks allowing herself to be devalued as a musician, but also more importantly because she risks allowing herself to be devalued as a corporate product. “The music business is no longer just about the music,” says Ken Abdo, an entertainment lawyer who was involved in the dispute over Prince’s estate, “it’s more than ever about aesthetic, lifestyle, and influence surrounding celebrities” (Pitchfork).
The sheer level of damages that Grande’s lawyers claim—a minimum of $10 million—reveals the value that a few Instagram posts can have for a musician. Complicating matters, Forever 21 has since filed for bankruptcy, although it has no plans to go out of business (Business Insider). Regardless of how the lawsuit ends up shaking out, its existence is further evidence that musicians’ power to monetize themselves is now much less rooted in music than it is in the sale of their image and persona to corporations.