Taylor Swift Bent the Music Industry to Her Will

In late November 2019, Taylor Swift gave a career-spanning performance at the American Music Awards before accepting the statue for Artist of the Decade. (Swift was perhaps the perfect cross between the award’s two previous recipients, Britney Spears and Garth Brooks.) Clad in a cascading rose-colored cape and holding court among the younger female artists in attendance — 17-year-old Billie Eilish, 22-year-old Camila Cabello, 25-year-old Halsey — Swift had the queenly air of an elder stateswoman. After picking up five additional awards, including Artist of the Year, she became the show’s most decorated artist in history. “This is such a great year in music. The new artists are insane,” she declared in her acceptance speech, with big-sister gravitas. That night, she finally outgrew that “Who, me?” face of perpetual awards-show surprise; she accepted the honors she won like an artist who believed she had worked hard enough to deserve them.

Swift cut an imposing adult figure up there, because somewhere along the line she’d become one. The 2010s have coincided almost exactly with Swift’s 20s, with the subtle image changes and maturations across her last five album cycles coming to look like an Animorphs cover of a savvy and talented young woman gradually growing into her power. And so to reflect on the Decade in Taylor Swift is to assess not just her sonic evolutions but her many industry chess moves: She took Spotify to task in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and got Apple to reverse its policy of not paying artists royalties during a three-month free trial of its music-streaming service. She sued a former radio DJ for allegedly groping her during a photo op and demanded just a symbolic victory of $1, as if to say the money wasn’t the point. Critics wondered whether she was leaning too heavily on her co-writers, so she wrote her entire 2010 album, Speak Now, herself, without any collaborators. In 2018, she severed ties with her longtime label, Big Machine Records, and negotiated a new contract with Universal Music Group that gave her ownership of her masters and assurance that she (and any other artist on the label) would be paid out if UMG ever sold its Spotify shares. Yes, she stoked the flames of her celebrity feuds with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian West, and Katy Perry plenty over the past ten years, but she’s also focused some of her combative energy on tackling systemic problems and fashioning herself into something like the music industry’s most high-profile vigilante. Few artists have made royalty payments and the minutiae of entertainment-law front-page news as often as Swift has.

Within the industry, Swift has always had the reputation of being something of a songwriting savant (in 2007, when “Our Song” was released, then-17-year-old Swift became the youngest person ever to write and perform a No. 1 song on the Billboard Country chart), but she has long desired to be considered an industry power player, too. A 2011 New Yorker profile of Swift circa her blockbuster Speak Now World Tour noted that she initially intended to follow her parents’ footsteps and pursue a career in business, quoting her saying, “I didn’t know what a stockbroker was when I was 8, but I would just tell everybody that’s what I was going to be.” In an even earlier interview, she fondly recalled the times in elementary school when she stayed up late with her mother, practicing for school presentations. “I’m sick of women not being able to say that they have strategic business minds — because male artists are allowed to,” she said this year in an unusually candid Rolling Stone interview. “And I’m so sick and tired of having to pretend like I don’t mastermind my own business.” Of course, she still spent plenty of time sitting at her piano or strumming her guitar, but in that conversation she painted herself as someone who is also “sit[ting] in a conference room several times a week,” coming up with ideas about how best to market her music and her career.

And so over the past decade, Swift’s face has appeared not just on magazine covers and television screens, but on UPS trucks and Amazon packages. Her songs have been featured in Target commercials and NFL spots, to name just two of her many lucrative partnerships. That New Yorker profile also found her to be uncommonly enthused about the fact that her CDs were being sold in Starbucks: “I was so stoked about it, because it’s been one of my goals — I always go into Starbucks, and I wished that they would sell my album.”

“Taylor Swift is something like the Sheryl Sandberg of pop music,” Hazel Cills wrote recently in Jezebel. “She has propelled her career from tiny country artist into pop machine over the past few years with little shame when it comes to corporate collaborators.” Such brazen femme-capitalism will always be a turnoff to some people (“the Sheryl Sandberg of pop music” is even less of a compliment in 2019 than it was when Lean In was first published), but it’s undeniable that it has helped Swift maintain and leverage her status as a commercial juggernaut more consistently than any other pop star over the past ten years.

In the 2010s, with the clockwork certainty of a midterm election, there was a Taylor Swift album every other autumn. (Yes, there was a three-year gap between 1989 and Reputation, but she all but made up for it with the quick timing of August’s Lover.) The kinds of pop superstars considered her peers did not stick to such rigid schedules: Adele released two studio albums this decade, Beyoncé released three, and even Rihanna — who for the first three years of the decade was averaging an album a year — eventually slowed her roll and will have released just four when the 2010s are all said and done. The only A-plus-list musician who saturated the market as steadily as Swift did this decade was Drake.

Still, Drake’s commercial dominance was more of a newfangled phenomenon, capitalizing on the industry’s sudden reliance on streaming and his massive popularity on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. Drake might be the artist who rode the streaming wave most successfully this decade, but — with her strategic withholding of her albums from certain platforms until they better compensated artists — Swift was often the one bending it to her will. And she could do that because she didn’t need to rely on it solely: Somehow, against all odds, Taylor Swift still sold records. Like, gazillions of them. When Swift’s 2017 record, Reputation (some critics thought it was a critical misstep, but it certainly wasn’t a commercial one), moved 1.216 million units in its first seven days, Swift became the only artist in history to achieve four different million-selling weeks. And, of course, all four of these weeks came during a decade when traditional album sales were on a precipitous decline. At least for those mere mortals who were not an all-powerful being named Taylor Alison Swift.

“Female empowerment” has been such an ambient, unquestioned virtue of the pop culture of this decade that we have too often failed to take a step back and ask ourselves what sort of power is being advocated for, and if its attainment should always be a cause for celebration. Is “female empowerment” any different from the hollow, materialistic promises of the late ’90s “girl power”? Is “female power” inherently different or more benevolent than its default male counterpart? Maybe this feels like such a distinctly American hang-up because we have not yet experienced that mythic, oft-imagined figure of the First Female President, and have thus not had to contend with the cold reality that, whoever she is, she will, like all of us, be inevitably flawed, imperfect, and at least occasionally disappointing.

As she’s grown into her own brand of 21st-century American pop feminism — sometimes elegantly, sometimes gawkily — Swift seems to have come to a firm conviction that female power is essentially more virtuous than the male variety. This was a side of herself she celebrated in her AMA performance. Swift opened her medley with a few fiery bars of “The Man,” her own personalized daydream of what gender equality would look like: “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can,” she sings, “wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.” She wore an oversize white button-down onto which the titles of her old albums were stamped in a correctional-facility font: SPEAK NOW, RED, 1989, REPUTATION. Plenty of the millions of people who scrutinize Swift’s every move interpreted her choice of outfit and song as not-so-subtle jabs at Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta and the manager-to-the-stars Scooter Braun, with whom Swift is still in a messy, uncommonly public battle over the fate of her master recordings. (The only album title missing from her outfit was “LOVER,” which happens to be the only one of which she has full ownership.) She has framed the terms of her battle with Borchetta and Braun in strikingly gendered language: “These are two very rich, very powerful men, using $300 million of other people’s money to purchase, like, the most feminine body of work,” she told Rolling Stone. “And then they’re standing in a wood-panel bar doing a tacky photo shoot, raising a glass of Scotch to themselves.” Though she is herself a very rich, very powerful woman, she reads their message to be unquestionably condescending: Be a good little girl and shut up.

It is true that many record contracts are designed to take advantage of young artists, and that young women and people of color are probably perceived by music executives to be the marks most vulnerable to exploitation. But it is also true that Swift signed a legally binding contract, the kind that a businesswoman like herself would have to respect if it were signed by somebody else. Braun, who has been asking to have these negotiations in private rather than on Twitter, claims to have received death threats from her fans.

Even as she’s grown into one of the most dominant pop-culture figures in the world, Swift sometimes still seems to be clinging to her old underdog identity, to the extent that she can fail to grasp the magnitude of her own power or account for the blind spots of her privilege. “Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,” she sang on Speak Now’s Grammy-winning 2010 single “Mean,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that, compared to 99.99 percent of the population, she already was. The mid-decade backlash to Swift’s thin-white-celebrity-and-model-studded “girl squad” — none of which was more incisive than Lara Marie Schoenhals’s hilarious parody video — took her by surprise. “I never would have imagined that people would have thought, This is a clique that wouldn’t have accepted me if I wanted to be in it … I thought it was going to be we can still stick together, just like men are allowed to.”

“Female power” is not automatically faultless, and can of course be tainted by all other sorts of biases and assumptions about class, race, and ***ual orientation, to name just a few more common pitfalls. Swift’s face-palm-inducing 2015 misunderstanding with Nicki Minaj revealed this, of course, and plenty of people felt that her sudden embrace of the LGBTQ community in the “You Need to Calm Down” was a clumsy overcorrection for her past silence. Maybe she would have gotten where she was quicker if she were a man. But it would take a more complicated, and perhaps less catchy, song to acknowledge she might not have gotten there at all had she not also enjoyed other privileges.

Art has its own kind of power — sneakier and harder to measure than the economic kind. The reason Taylor Swift has been worth talking about incessantly for an entire decade is that she continues to wield this kind, too. “I don’t think her commercial responsibilities detract from her genuine passion for her craft,” a then-17-year-old Tavi Gevinson wrote in a memorable 2013 essay for The Believer. “Have you ever watched her in interviews when she gets asked about her actual songwriting? She becomes that kid who’s really into the science fair.”

After so much industry drama, much of the lived-in, self-reflective Lover is a simple reminder that Swift was and still is a singular songwriter. Yes, this was the decade of such loud, flashy missteps as “Look What You Made Me Do,” “Welcome to New York,” and “Me!,” but it was also a decade of so many quieter triumphs: the pulsing synesthesia of “Red,” the nervous heart flutter of “Delicate,” the sleek sophistication of “Style,” the concise lyricism of “Mean,” the cathartic fun of “22,” the slow-dance swoon of “Lover.” But like so many of her fans, and even Swift herself, I still find the most enduringly powerful song she’s ever written to be “All Too Well,” the smoldering breakup scrapbook released on her great 2012 album Red. “Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well,” she sings, an innocent enough lyric that, by the end of the song, comes to glint like a switchblade. In a decade of DGAF, ghosting, and performative chill, remembering it all too well might be Swift’s stealthiest superpower. She felt it deeply, can still access that feeling whenever she needs to, and that means she can size you up in a line as concisely cutting as “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.” Forget Jake Gyllenhaal or John Mayer. That’s the sort of observation that would bring Goliath to his knees.

“It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they do not hear a voice that connotes authority,” the historian Mary Beard writes in her manifesto Women & Power, “or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it.” At least in the realm of pop music, Swift has spent the better part of her decade chipping away at that double standard, and teaching people how to think about cultural power a little bit differently. She sprinkled artful emblems of teen-girl-speak through her smash hits (“Uhhh he calls me and he’s like, ‘I still love you,’ and I’m like, ‘This is exhausting, we are never getting back together, like, ever”) and did not abandon her effusive love of kittens and butterflies in order to be taken seriously. As an artist and a businesswoman, she made the power of teen girls — and the women who used to be them — that much more perilous to ignore. Because they’ve been there all along, and they remember all too well.

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