Swift’s latest project is even more interesting than the imaginary motherhood album she pinned her hopes on
This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
This is embarrassing for me to admit as a feminist, because as a feminist I know that nothing is more sacrosanct than another woman’s reproductive choices. Even to broach the issue is just asking to be hauled up before the court of microaggressions for the crime of conspiracy with the patriarchy, and so I practice a studiously neutral approach to other people’s gravidity — with the shameful exception of Taylor Swift.
When it comes to Taylor Swift, my attitude is approximately that of a Tudor courtier sniffing around the queen’s linens. Come on your highness, crack on with the progeny. This is clearly terrible of me, yet here I am, brooding on the possibility of Swiftlets, compelled to explain how I got to this place.
One of the pleasures of being a Taylor Swift fan is the way she laces her real life into her music
It started respectfully enough, at least. One of the pleasures of being a Taylor Swift fan is the way she laces her real life into her music, and has done so since her debut as a teenager. Her first single, “Tim McGraw”, is sung from the perspective of a girl whose boyfriend is going to college.
She knows this is their ending, but hopes he’ll remember her fondly: “When you think happiness / I hope you think that little black dress / Think of my head on your chest.” But, as she’s explained in interviews, the girl and her boyfriend aren’t just deftly sketched archetypes: they are actual Taylor Swift and her actual senior year boyfriend.
And this breadcrumb trail goes on throughout her work. The “Abigail” she mentions in the song “Fifteen” — the redhead who became her best friend, and later “gave everything she had / To a boy who changed his mind” — is a real person. When she references “two paper airplanes flying” in “Out of the Woods”, you can take it as confirmation that the song is about her relationship with ex-One Direction singer Harry Styles: the two wore matching paper-plane pendants when they were together.
Obviously the more famous you become, the more fame becomes the most significant fact of your life. By her sixth album, Reputation, Swift’s main subject was, well, her reputation, which had received a pretty public trashing in 2016. The charges varied (one particularly insane article called her “the most dangerous type of white woman”, which is at the very least a bit dismissive of Rose West), but they could all be collected under one general heading: Taylor Swift, people said, was calculating.
Her seeming frankness, the likeable glimpses she permitted into her life — it was all a cover for her relentless mercenary streak. Haters swarmed her social media posts with snake emojis. So she became the snake. The lead single from Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do”, was less interesting than its video, which features a black-clad Taylor standing on top of a heap of her vanquished past selves. The message was unsubtle but compelling: if the world made her the bad girl, she would play the part.
“Well this is very fun,” I thought at the time, “but what is she going to sing about next?” And here lies the origin of my fixation on Swift’s uterus. The problem was compounded by the fact that, while part of Reputation’s charisma is that it sounds like Swift in full prowl (“In the middle of the night, in my dreams / You should see the things we do, baby,” she coos on “…Ready For It?”, a belligerent electro declaration of lust), it’s really an album-length statement of devotion to her boyfriend Joe Alwyn. Taylor Swift with no more breakups? Bring on the baby, fast.
Four years later, there is no baby. But Swift’s latest project is even more interesting than the imaginary motherhood album I pinned my hopes on. In 2020, rights to the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums were sold to an investment company.
In a statement, she presented this as a violation: “This just happened to me without my approval, consultation or consent.” In classic Swift style, though, the personal and the business overlap. The sale made her recordings into an asset that she could not exploit.
She’s an authentic professional, a professional authenticist
That is, it would have done if she had allowed them to be exploited. But because she owns copyright to the songs, she was able to forbid all uses, meaning that streaming and sales were the only revenue sources left to the investors. Her next move — deliciously calculating — was to rerecord her music exactly as it originally sounded, effectively destroying the value of the purchased masters. What fan would choose a version their idol has denounced over a replica without the baggage?
In April, the first of the “Taylor’s version” albums arrived: a perfect imitation of her own Fearless from 2008. It’s hard to overstate how precisely she’s copied herself. Occasionally I can believe that there’s a slight softness to the more mature vocals, the sound of someone who has learned to meet the limits of her voice with grace; but shuffling between the two recordings, I can rarely keep track of which is which.
Is the re-recording process about the money or the art? Trick question: with Swift, the two go together. She’s an authentic professional, a professional authenticist. For a songwriter whose subject has always been herself, to immaculately re-inhabit her own teenage self is the kind of avant-garde gameplaying with identity David Bowie would have been proud of. If it makes financial sense as well, that just makes it pure Taylor.
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