How Taylor Swift is Leading the Way

How Taylor Swift is Leading the Way

Of all the reasons that Taylor Swift deserves to be Time magazine’s first ever musician Person of the Year, none are bigger than her smashing victories over misogyny and the music business’s malign way of swindling artists and stealing valuable intellectual property.

The particulars of her creative predicament are well known. Once a shy, teenaged country music artist who played banjo and sported pigtails, Swift’s first six albums (Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and Reputation), were recorded for her then-label, Nashville’s Big Machine Records. The master tapes to those recordings became the property of controversial artist manager Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber, Kanye West) when he bought Big Machine in 2019. Swift’s efforts to buy back her masters were unsuccessful when Braun countered that Big Machine would sell her the masters of the first six if she would agree to give them ownership of the masters of her next six albums. Crucially, Swift owned the publishing rights to all her music throughout this dispute, which gave her the right to re-record those songs any time she chose. In a move that many artists simply could not do artistically—think of Bruce Springsteen re-recording Born to Run in 1985, a decade after its original release—Swift is now systemically re-recording and re-releasing her original albums with the added suffix (Taylor’s Version). This strategy, initially dismissed by Braun as a bluff, not only means Swift owns these new masters, it also enables her to control the licensing of her songs for commercial use, making the original masters essentially worthless. It’s a gutsy and hugely impressive feat by a smart and driven woman determined to earn and re-earn her superstardom on her own terms.

The most recent release of these re-recordings is 1989 (Taylor’s Version), the album that, in its original version, shot her career into the stratosphere. With a shrewd and dedicated team around her, Swift is not only the biggest music superstar on the planet but also one that concentrates on details that matter (and that accumulate $$$), like releasing 15 versions of 1989 (Taylor’s Version) on physical formats, including five coloured vinyl variants, eight CD packages, and two cassettes.

The original 1989 cover

Pop music that can sell oodles of $35 LPs pressed in pastel colors is not to be underestimated. According to the Billboard magazine charts, ably deciphered in The New York Times, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) has now topped the first-week total of the original album, selling 1,653,000 copies in the United States — the biggest opening sales week of Swift’s career — and 3.5 million around the world. It is the largest first week number for any album since Adele’s 25 sold 3.4 million eight years ago. That figure includes 693,000 copies on vinyl, the largest week of sales for that format since at least 1991. It also surpasses Swift’s own vinyl sales record of 575,000 copies for Midnight in 2022. 1989 (Taylor’s Version) also sold 554,000 copies on CD, the biggest weekly number on that format since Adele’s 25. Lastly, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) racked up 375 million streams, the most in a single week for any of Swift’s four re-recorded albums.

Whatever your taste in music, sweet pop music sells concert tickets, generates streams, and, most importantly, keeps young people engaged with and convinced of the elemental importance of music. Tunes like the triumphant, “Welcome to New York”, which leads off both versions of 1989 and has a touch more sparkle and sweep on 1989 (Taylor’s Version), are pop music at its irresistible and inviting best. While the endless angsty struggles of pop music’s obsession with love may seem silly to adults, love songs have always been the unshakable, inexhaustible basis of most popular music. And almost no one writes better love songs these days, especially of the bittersweet lost love variety, than Taylor Swift, who began writing music at age 14. Many of her love songs have a similar arc: while she’s been hurt, she can and will recover. “Clean” from 1989 (Taylor’s Version) is a classic example. It opens amongst the shattered ruins of a failed relationship. “The drought was the very worst/(Oh-oh, oh-oh)/When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst/It was months and months of back and forth/(Oh-oh, oh-oh)/You’re still all over me/Like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore/Hung my head as I lost the war/And the sky turned black like a perfect storm.” But soon enough, she works through it, eventually emerging in a better place, with eyes now firmly fixed on the horizon: “Rain came pouring down/When I was drowning, that’s when I could finally breathe/And by morning/Gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean.”  

The new Taylor’s Version cover

In both its original form and (Taylor’s Version), 1989 is where Swift began to write songs that the women of her generation—she was born in 1989—came to feel spoke to them, empowered them, made them confident and able to overcome. In the song, “New Romantics”, she deftly lays out the frank, street smart zeitgeist of the females of her generation— “We’re so young/But we’re on the road to ruin/We play dumb but we know exactly what we’re doin’/We cry tears of mascara in the bathroom/Honey, life is just a classroom.” And despite the constant painful tussles with romance—many of which come straight out of her personal life—the confidence that’s allowed her to re-build her library of recordings with (Taylor’s Version) installments again blasts through the choruses of “New Romantics”—“Heartbreak is the national anthem/We sing it proudly/We are too busy dancing/To get knocked off our feet/Baby, we’re the new romantics/The best people in life are free.”

While 1989 (Taylor’s Version) replicates the arrangements of the original album, it also includes five unreleased tracks from that era, also re-recorded, that did not make it onto the original album. It may be that the portrait of the artist they presented was judged too wimpy and overly focused on romantic trauma. For example, “Say Don’t Go” is another of her patented wreck ‘n’ ruin love laments: Why’d you have to lead me on? /Why’d you have to twist the knife? /Walk away and leave me bleedin’, bleedin’? /Why’d you whisper in the dark? /Just to leave me in the night? /Now your silence has me screamin’, screamin’.”

In the digital age, Pop music’s one obvious drawback for anyone who cares about the quality of recorded sound is the overproduced, overcompressed, synth-ee, mad scientist-level artificial sonics of most of today’s pop music including 1989 (Taylor’s Version). Naturally recorded or even played, it ain’t. These tracks were built, or more correctly assembled, by a raft of producers, writers, and engineers. But unlike a lot of celebrity music types, Swift’s stardom is still based on music she has either written or co-written. She’s also become a tremendously gifted live performer who brings star power, showbiz polish and a solid singing voice that the glitzy high-tech production cannot overwhelm. Her world traveling stage show—she’s now on the Eras Tour—has evolved into a professionally-organized, money-generating machine that may rake in over $1 billion dollars in ticket sales. The accompanying film of the same name is on track to become one of the most successful concert films of all time. As icing on this ideal cake, there’s Swift’s budding fairy tale romance with NFL tight end Travis Kelce, which has Swifties, her infatuated fanbase, tuning into televised football games hoping to catch a glimpse of her cheering on her man. To remain relevant in this media-saturated age, music needs more stars, and at the moment, 34-year-old Taylor Swift, Time’s 2023 Person of the Year, is leading the way.

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.

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