Look What She Made Me Do: Notes on my scholarly journal article about Taylor Swift

Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 1.13.01 AMThis week, I’m thrilled to say that Communication, Culture and Critique has published my article “From ‘Mine’ to ‘Ours’: Gendered Hierarchies of Authorship and the Limits of Taylor Swift’s Paratextual Feminism.”

Abstract

This article analyzes paratextual strategies deployed by Taylor Swift in her transition from country to pop in the context of her articulation of her authorship as a female songwriter. This was a transition complicated by the gendered hierarchies of pop music, wherein male producers carry significant discursive weight. The article frames the “Voice Memos” included with her 2014 album 1989 as a form of paratextual feminism, reiterating the authenticity she developed as a country star and pushing back against claims her collaboration with male producers like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder threaten her autonomy as a female voice in the music industry. However, the article goes on to consider how these and other paratextual feminisms are inherently tied to neoliberal values of post-feminism, demonstrating that their potential as a gendered critique of the media industries is limited by the lack of actualization within Swift’s broader star text and industry practice.

The article—which is trapped behind the paywall of academic publishing, but if you’re interested reach out and I’ll do my best to get you access—was nearly six years in the making. It began with my observations during her 1989 album cycle in 2014, which I developed into a 2016 conference paper focused on the “Voice Memos” included with the deluxe version of that album. But the subsequent years—her controversial silence during and after the 2016 election, a tumultuous reputation album cycle—provided new context for that analysis, testing how the feminism of her efforts to assert her authorship of her own songs while collaborating with male producers during her transition to pop music failed to manifest within other areas of her career.

As the paper entered into the final stages of peer review last summer, Swift entered into her latest album cycle for Lover, and I spent a lot of time lamenting that I was past the point where I could address everything that was happening (a peril of scholarly publishing). I was never afraid that my argument wouldn’t be relevant, as all scholarship must ultimately “stop” at a certain point and create a foundation for further analysis. But a lot has happened in Swift’s career in the six months or so after the article finished the peer review process, and I want to take a bit of space here to identify a few instances where the article’s argument connects with the discourse surrounding Swift’s recent activity.

One of the article’s central arguments centers on how Swift’s 1989 voice memos function as a defense against claims that her partnerships with major pop producers like Max Martin and Shellback or Ryan Tedder threaten her authorship, which did emerge around the release of 1989. However, they haven’t necessarily disappeared in the intervening years. Just look at this 2019 Buzzfeed article, which highlights a social media controversy around Malaysian singer Elizabeth Tan’s comments marginalizing Swift’s role in her songwriting process in deference to the “team” (specifically citing Max Martin, although she forgets his name). Swift’s battle over her role as the author of her songs continues, and it is notable that she backed away from her collaboration with Martin and Johann Shellback on 2019’s Lover in favor of continuing her work with the more indie-minded Jack Antonoff (who was, helpfully, Taylor’s friend before he was a mega-producer) and Lorde collaborator Joel Little. The longer she becomes entrenched within pop as a genre, the more her singer-songwriter reputation developed during her country career becomes threatened by the presumption that her process is just like the other pop stars Tan lists during her podcast appearance. The fact that all those artists are women once again underlines how much more likely it is for female pop stars to face this challenge, compared to their male counterparts, and how Swift will never entirely “escape” this discourse as long as she lives within this generic space and continues to collaborate with producers like Antonoff and Little (or, as rumored, recent Grammy winner Finneas).

While the situation around Swift’s authorship has mostly gone unchanged, her political stance has obviously become a more significant part of her career, which was most recently documented with the Netflix film Miss Americana. I was able to briefly acknowledge her political awakening beginning with the 2018 midterm elections and continuing with her support of the Equality Act in 2019, but her interviews around the release of Lover were very much her effort to articulate why she didn’t engage politically sooner, which was then captured on film by Lana Wilson and her team. There was the suggestion that growing up in country music in the wake of the Dixie Chicks made it harder to come forward; there was her belief that she couldn’t truly speak about LGBTQ rights because she “didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of,” a dubious yet telling claim.

In the article, I discuss the challenge to Swift’s position within the #MeToo movement as a reaction to the inconsistency of her advocacy, and the Lover album cycle and the documentary collectively represent an effort to even out her place within those conversations. I would argue that Miss Americana does a lot to address initial concerns that Swift’s activism was a calculated—rather than personal—choice: the scene where she is defending her decision to engage politically to her father, going through Senator Marsha Blackburn’s votes in support of policies that directly impact her as a woman, is a reminder of the authenticity afforded by that kind of documentary lens. There’s still a lot to unpack in her activism that I wish I had been able to get to, but I am hopeful that my work can serve as a foundation for other scholars considering the latest era of Swift’s relationship with social causes.

But as much as I wish the paper could have accounted for those developments, the third piece of this puzzle is the part I wish there had been room for, but it was clear from the early stages of developing the article that there wasn’t. When I presented on this topic initially in 2016, I placed Swift’s efforts to center herself in the male-dominated narrative of pop music authorship in conversation with her efforts to position herself within debates within the music industry, specifically her public battles with Spotify and Apple Music over artist royalties. My interest in these debates was how Swift was consciously positioning these as personal battles (as I wrote about for Antenna at the time), despite the fact that they were technically negotiations between the services and her record label, Big Machine, run by Scott Borchetta. Through a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Swift made streaming music a personal issue, meaning that it was Borchetta who had to be asserting himself in the press to emphasize his own role in the process, working to try to boost his company’s value to prepare for a pending sale that wouldn’t come for another 4 years.

At the time, I framed this as an example of the way Swift was able to successfully position herself as having agency over her own career, despite the fact that Borchetta was making every effort to attach himself to her fight in the press. In the end, this section of the argument was cut due to the limited space afforded by a journal article, but this narrative took on further life when Swift chose to leave Big Machine behind beginning in late 2018, signing a deal with Universal Music that very publicly involved a condition related to the company’s shares in Spotify and artist compensation. In her first major deal made independent of her former label, which began with the 2019 release of Lover, Swift focused her attention on the rights of artists—it wasn’t an explicitly feminist position, but it came with the baggage of her dynamic with Borchetta, who remained in control of her master recordings. And it was that fact which exploded last summer, when Borchetta sold Big Machine records to Scooter Braun, prompting a scathing Tumblr post from Swift.

The gist was that Swift argued she had not been given a fair shot at purchasing the masters herself and had not been told that Braun was the one purchasing the company, which she responded to strongly due to his role in her very public battle with Kanye West, who he was managing at the time. But underpinning all of this, I would argue, is the feeling that Swift’s identity as an artist was always done in spite of Borchetta’s influence, with his control over his career as the man who signed her the missing piece behind, among other things, her lack of political engagement. And Swift chooses to frame this explicitly within the lens of her role as a woman in the music industry, writing that “when that man [read: Borchetta] says ‘Music has value,’ he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it.” It’s the thread connecting Swift’s battle over authorship with her battle for ownership, and subsequently positions much of her career as a struggle against the powerful men who control the music industry and profit off of the work of female artists like herself.

This came to a head just last month when Swift released the video for “The Man,” the fourth single off of Lover, in which she dons prosthetics to play the eponymous man in what is her most political song to date. The video contains references to her battle with Braun and Borchetta, which continued throughout 2019 as they allegedly threatened to withhold her songs for a career-spanning performance at the American Music Awards. At the AMAs, Taylor—her songs having been cleared after she went public about the behind-the-scenes squabbling—began by performing “The Man” in a white shirt adorned with the names of all the albums to which Braun now owns the masters, Fearless emblazoned on her back as she turns to the camera (pictured below). And while Miss Americana doesn’t document this period of her career, the larger themes of defying the men involved in managing her career to do what she felt was important personally were echoed by the film’s use of her music being wrapped up in the fight over rights for the AMAs.

Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 12.47.41 AMSwift’s reaction to Braun’s purchase of Big Machine was deeply personal, and surprisingly candid after a period during the release of reputation where she largely eschewed these kinds of public statements. And when you combine with this the intimacy of Miss Americana, and her continued advocacy for artists in her contract with Universal, it points to an effort by Swift to position herself as an ally to artists much as she seeks to be an ally to the LGBTQ community, creating the conditions under which the feminism I identify in my article could extend to other areas of her career more readily.

Whether this manifests as meaningful feminist activism remains an open question, and I am still waiting to see if she will begin working more actively with female producers, but what began (I argue) as a set of choices during the Red and 1989 album cycles that asserted her authorship has evolved into a much larger set of questions about Swift’s career, the future of the music industry, and the political future of the country. And how she chooses to address those questions in the future—the planned rerecording of her songs to impact the value of the Masters to Big Machine and Braun, for example—will ultimately determine her place within the discourse around contemporary celebrity and feminism, which I’m hopeful that other scholars will take up in the coming years.

Acknowledgments

  • Special thanks to the editorial staff at Communication, Culture, and Critique, and to the anonymous reviewers whose feedback immensely improved the article (and special thanks to the reviewer who insisted the title not be changed).
  • My thanks to Alyx Vesey for her early encouragement exploring this topic, and to Ryan McNutt and Allison Page for reading drafts at different stages of revision.

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