The Business of Being Taylor Swift

The Business of Being Taylor Swift

Her latest album, Lover, has been heralded as a return to form. It also presents an opportunity to understand the pop star’s many contradictions. 

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Taylor Swift has always had a healthy regard for her side of the story. Ever since “Our Song,” a bit of sparkling banjo-pop that topped country charts over a decade ago and set her on a path to becoming one of the world’s biggest crossover acts, she has made no secret of her fanatical interest in authorship. “I grabbed a pen and an old napkin / And I wrote down our song,” she sings there, noting a writerly instinct that tracks—through explicit references to storybooks, pens, and pages—to 2008’s “Love Story,” 2010’s “The Story of Us,” and all the way to “Death by a Thousand Cuts” from her latest album, Lover (“But if the story’s over / Why am I still writing pages?”).

More broadly, this obsession with narrative agency is the unifying principle of Swift’s career. The majority of her oeuvre is diaristic, concerned with the ebbs and flows of young love. Listeners have long seen traces of themselves reflected in her exactingly rendered romances, as she has repeatedly demonstrated her ability to summon, with a few well-chosen details, the sweltering heat of a new relationship or the sting of a broken one. Vulnerability, in particular, became Swift’s calling card; she often wrote herself the role of the spurned lover—lambasting cheaters, admonishing opportunists, mourning the loss of “casually cruel” partners. Swift may have been heartbroken, but she had the power to articulate that pain on her own terms. In her every endeavor, she was the documentarian, with a built-in audience of millions. Consequently, she presided over the court of public opinion in regards to her own life, and nearly always got the last word.

But Lover arrives at the end of a period in which Swift’s grip on her narrative has become more white-knuckled. Her music has always been grounded in her interior life, but as her influence has grown, she has seemed increasingly out of touch. Her reputation for wholesomeness began to crack, revealing a hunger for profit margins and fan retention. A litany of confusing brand partnerships (Keds, AT&T, UPS, and Papa John’s) concretized her business-first mindset. Now infamously, she avoided alienating, well, anyone by declining to back a candidate in the 2016 presidential election. When white supremacists capitalized on her silence by naming her their “Aryan goddess,” rather than condemn them, she threatened outlets that called attention to the alt-right’s embrace of her music.

Her biggest misstep, though, was in celebrity politicking. During a 2016 spat with Kanye West, she was caught in a lie about whether she had approved the use of her name in a salacious lyric. Facing mass criticism, she withdrew from the public eye. When she returned to deliver her sixth studio album, Reputation, in late 2017, she was still visibly cagey, mostly refusing to speak to the press about it. Reputation was full of breathless love songs befitting the old Swift—the very same that she pronounced dead in the album’s conspiratorial first single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” But they were drowned out by more spiteful tracks and a conspicuous preoccupation with public perception. She was fanning flames that had long ago died down, and she couldn’t have been less subtle about it, starting with the adoption of the snake (the emoji with which West’s fans once ridiculed her) as her mascot.

When she announced the impending release of Lover, Swift did not seem to be on an upward trajectory. “ME!”—the album’s artless-self-promotion anthem of a lead single (“I’m the only one of me / Baby, that’s the fun of me”)—is one of the worst pop songs in recent memory. But as several writers noted, she has launched every album rollout since 2012’s Red with a single that does not thematically or sonically represent the record as a whole. Perhaps more to the point, each of those albums, however critically adored, is something of a mixed bag. On Red, for example, the exquisite relationship requiem “All Too Well” shares space with the cloying “Starlight.” On 1989 the misty romance of “Style” is revelatory; the battle cry of “Bad Blood” is deadweight.

This trend intensifies on Lover, where Swift is alternately at her best and her worst. She primed listeners for the album with “ME!,” setting a bar that she could have easily bunny-hopped over. In several instances, she pole-vaults instead. Swift is a peerless relationship diagnostician: Over time, she has grown comfortable examining her entanglements in a way that values realism as much as fantasy, complicating her traditional narrative modes of happy and together versus sad and apart. “Cruel Summer,” written with St. Vincent, builds a sense of ambient danger that has appeared in her work before (see “Treacherous,” from 2012) into an electric expression of romantic fatalism. Her singing slips into hollering, the synth-driven production surges, and digitized voices slip in and out of the mix. The song—like the blossoming relationship it describes—submits to a delightful state of overstimulation that borders on complete chaos. The stakes and the production value feel similarly heightened in “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” where she examines the opposite end of a relationship. Rather than jump to cast villains and victims, as she often has, she swims in the sense of irresolution accompanying a breakup in which no one is at fault. Roll your eyes at the overblown title, but it’s one of her most genuinely tragic songs.

“False God,” a woozy take on R&B anchored by an unexpected, sensual saxophone riff, is a subtler standout. It dabbles in sex, a relatively new concept in Swift’s catalog. For much of her career, she has presented a good-girl persona, tiptoeing around the topic (when “Treacherous” came out, the lyric “I’ll do anything you say if you say it with your hands” was scandalous, by her standards). She broke this pattern on Reputation, but there was a bit of theater-kid performativity in some of her efforts, like when she instructed a lover to “carve your name into my bedpost.” Here, she tones it down a touch, appropriating the language of worship to play on the tension between her buttoned-up girlhood and her sexually empowered womanhood. In tilting faith toward sacrilege, Swift cleverly integrates her past and present.

Lover is mostly clear of the public image elegizing that defined the Reputation era. One conspicuous exception is “You Need to Calm Down,” its second single. In it Swift is once again referring to snakes and addressing haters, attempting to school them with the titular lyric and a put-on nonchalance. Making matters worse, she likens her experience to the systemic oppression endured by the LGBTQ community, lumping her critics and homophobes together under the umbrella of “shade” throwers. In the song’s star-studded video, she convenes with fellow millionaires, including Ellen DeGeneres and Katy Perry, to aestheticize poverty via trailer park cosplay. The whole thing is, in short, a disaster.

Swift also examines her public image on “The Man,” this time burrowing into how it has been shaped by sexism. For the majority of her tenure in the spotlight, her relationship to feminism has ranged from outright rejection to surface-level engagement. In a 2015 interview with Maxim, she explained that she only recently came around to identifying as a feminist, having not understood how misogyny affected her. In some instances, she had even perpetuated it: On the 2010 song “Better Than Revenge,” she misdirected anger at an ex into a dig at his new girlfriend, singing, “She’s an actress / But she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”

The story of Swift’s feminism is a chapter in the larger story of her political awakening, which picked up last fall when she broke her electoral silence by endorsing a handful of Democrats running in her adopted home state of Tennessee. Since then, she has made a number of efforts to articulate her politics. “The Man” reads like a billboard for her burgeoning advocacy, but the kind of feminism that it espouses is individual empowerment—the least radical variety. Rather than challenge structural inequalities that oppress women across the board, the song concerns itself with a rarefied set of obstacles that she faces from her perch at the top. Certainly, we cannot fault her for writing about herself; it’s her lane. That she wants to overturn the patriarchy so that she can “[flash] her dollars” without judgment, though, should not be interpreted as empowering when it is purely self-serving.

Her critique is sharper on “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” a song that repurposes the familiar Swiftian narrative of high school drama as an allegory of political disillusionment. She is once again the spurned lover, betrayed by not one stupid boy but a whole country run by them (“Boys will be boys, then / Where are the wise men?”). Coproducer Joel Little—whose credits also include “Royals,” Lorde’s like-minded, us-versus-them takedown of the global 1 percent—hangs a trip-hop backdrop to Swift’s lamentation (“American stories / Burning before me”) and punctuates it with satirical cheerleader chants. On older songs, like 2008’s “You Belong With Me,” she fantasized about outsmarting the social order. Returning to high school hallways as a full-fledged adult, her instinct is to reject it outright.

So far, Lover has been widely praised as a return to form. And maybe Swift’s redemption—teed up by Reputation and crystallized by Lover—was, to some extent, designed. She knows as well as anyone the nature of our collective attention span: It’s a topic she addressed in a 2014 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. “My generation was raised being able to flip channels if we got bored,” she wrote, “and we read the last page of the book when we got impatient.” Perhaps she threw a funeral for her reputation because she worried that no one would remember her fight with West—and with public opinion at large—long enough for her to emerge from it victorious.

In any case, power like Swift’s begets conflict. Her latest is with executives from her former label, Big Machine, which was recently sold—along with the master recordings of her first six albums—to music mogul Scooter Braun, who used to manage West and who, Swift said, subjected her to “incessant, manipulative bullying.” Because Braun controls the master recordings, he stands to profit indefinitely from licensing her work. In response, she announced her intention to create new masters of her entire Big Machine catalog.

Her cause is just: Artists obviously deserve to control their work and determine who makes money from it. Swift has been on this beat since 2015, when she withheld 1989 from Apple Music after the newly minted platform announced that it would not make royalty payments on anything streamed during a user’s three-month free trial period (Apple reversed course, and she has partnered with it on numerous occasions since). But this battle with Braun and Big Machine seems to have higher stakes. For one thing, there’s the resource drain to consider: Rerecording six old albums would certainly divert her creative energy from making anything new. But more important, the move threatens to alter the nature of the music itself. Swift’s superpower is specificity. Her best writing operates in freeze frames, homing in on details that capture the unique magic—or devastation—of individual moments in time. Rerecording songs from a decade ago would make those precious moments diffuse. Swift the writer, the documentarian, disappears from her work; the voice on record belongs to Swift the businesswoman instead.

Then again, perhaps such bifurcation comes at the expense of a larger picture. Swift has always been both at once, in the sense that her art is deeply compliant with the conditions that govern contemporary markets. In the 21st century, selfhood—and particularly female selfhood—is a prized commodity, and she has long welcomed the idea that her highly personal songs are extensions of her. This is why the responses two years ago to Reputation and now to Lover have felt like referendums on her as a human as much as on her as an artist. In Swift’s core value proposition, the line between artistry and personhood is blurred.

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