When my journal article about Taylor Swift’s articulation of authorship during her transition from country to pop was held up in editorial for a lengthy period (a not uncommon occurrence in academic publishing), I thought it meant it was too late: in the time I was revising the article, Swift started an entire new album cycle with Lover, and when the article finally came out in March of this year she had just released her documentary Miss Americana on Netflix. I wrote a blog post reflecting on how my argument connected with those new developments, thinking that this would be the only necessary addendum until 2021, when Swift would (given past precedent) begin her next album cycle.
Needless to say, this all changed on Thursday, when Swift gave fans 16 hours to process the news that her next album cycle was starting at midnight with the release of folklore, her eighth studio album, recorded remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. While a music video for “Cardigan” effectively frames it as the “lead single,” there is none of what we expect from a traditional album release in 2020: no trickle of advance singles, no lyric video/music video staggering to game the charts, etc. But what buildup we got from Taylor was nonetheless instructive, designed to frame this record and a new songwriting collaboration—with The National’s Aaron Dessner—both within her previous music and as a new form of creative process reflecting our current circumstances. It’s the next chapter in what I wrote about, and needless to say I dropped everything to immerse myself in both the album and, more importantly, what it says about the idea of Taylor Swift as an artist.
There’s no doubt that Folklore will go down as a definitive media artifact of this pandemic, the first “major work” to be entirely produced and released in social isolation, but its relationship to Swift’s authorship is less clear. Although one could argue it is easily one of her most cohesive and uncompromising albums, Folklore is nonetheless defined by contradictions: intimate but impersonal, isolated but collaborative. The result is a record that, despite making no grabs at tabloid headlines or Billboard dominance, says a whole lot about how Taylor Swift considers her place within the music industry, and how it’s built around embracing those contradictions in order to retain the hard-fought appearance of controlling her own destiny.
When Taylor Swift debuted her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” it came with an intriguing link to “ticket info.” And so while I was listening to the single, I started digging around on Swift’s website looking for information about a tour that logically won’t be starting until sometime next year. And then I stumbled across this video, which explained why there was such an early mention of tickets.
At first, I presumed the video was simply a way for Taylor to announce that she was following the lead of other artists and using Ticketmaster Verified Fan, a new service designed to help combat ticket bots that keep real human beings from seeing shows at face value. But as the video continued beyond the explanation about the evils of ticket bots, the video takes a turn.
A “new way of buying tickets?” Perfect!
A “better way of buying tickets?” Wonderful!
A “fun way of buying tickets?” Uhhhh…what?
And then it’s made clear that “Taylor Swift Tix” is not just about making sure that bots don’t buy all of the tickets: instead, it allows you to login and “have the opportunity to participate in unique activities that advance your spot in line.” And these activities are not just fun games that help you kill the time: as evidenced in the video, they are inherently commercial ativities, including pre-ordering her album, buying merchandise from the record, and streaming the single’s lyric video.
These are all things that the most devoted Taylor Swift fans would likely do anyway. But by “game-ifying” the concert ticket purchasing process by way of the transactional economies of the music industry, Swift is doing something she was fundamentally not “made” to do: while the move to a Verified system is a positive one, the other choices create clear incentives for her wealthiest fans, and sacrifice any type of egalitarian system in favor of a shrewd financial gambit that is 100% gross and 1000% genius.
When this week’s final Billboard Hot 200 album chart is released, either the 51st installment of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series or Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the soundtrack to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will be the best-selling album in the United States. If Awesome Mix Vol. 1 makes it to the summit, it will be the first soundtrack from a summer film to reach No. 1 since Mamma Mia! in 2008, and the first for a non-musical since Bad Boys II in 2003.
This would be a significant accomplishment with or without No. 1, particularly given the fact that the various songs that make up Awesome Mix Vol. 1 are readily available to stream on services like Spotify, or on YouTube. There is no single to drive sales of the album, as the film’s jukebox-style soundtrack relies entirely on songs from the 1970s. And while some Twitter conversation among colleagues made a connection back to K-tel—and we could think about Time Life as well—in regards to the album’s appeal to a nostalgia for music of this period, there’s also a wide audience of younger audiences who may not be familiar with some of the songs used in the film. But those audiences are often imagined as those who stream music on YouTube or Spotify, and who could simply create their own playlists featuring the songs from the film without needing to pay out for the album.
Given this, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack offers an interesting case study of how these platforms are being activated by labels like Hollywood Records, and how this jukebox soundtrack is being branded—if not “sold”—in spaces that won’t be counted by Billboard’s album chart.