From “stolen lullabies” to “Taylor’s Version”: Gender & agency in the popular music industry
By Neha Dhaliwal
In June 2019, Taylor Swift took to social media to explain her outrage and disgust to find that the rights to the master recordings of her first six studio albums had been sold without her knowledge. Music executive Scooter Braun and his Ithaca Holdings had acquired Big Machine Label Group — the record label that found its start after signing 16-year old Swift in 2006. By this time, she had already left Big Machine to work with Republic Records in a partnership that gives her full ownership, starting with her seventh studio album, Lover (2019). Simultaneously, she was actively trying to buy the rights to her work but was never offered an appropriate deal. Since then, she has been in an ongoing battle for ownership. In November 2020, it was announced that Scooter Braun had sold her masters for $300 million to Shamrock Holdings in a deal that allows him to continue to profit from her music. Swift’s career exemplifies how the vulnerability of singer-songwriters is commodified by powerful executives, who seek profit from the creative output of successful artists. In response, Swift is re-recording each album to gain ownership and control of her life’s work, starting with her 2008 album, Fearless, for which she earned her first Grammy Album of the Year award. The carefully-titled Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was released on April 9th, 2021.
Taylor Swift’s battle for ownership exemplifies how gender and power interact to produce distinct experiences for female singer-songwriters. In her 2019 speech accepting the Billboard Music Woman of the Decade Award, she explained that she was denied the chance to own “the music I wrote. The videos I created. Photos of Me. My handwriting. My album designs ”. Similarly, on Tumblr she stated, “I had to make the excruciating choice to leave behind my past. Music I wrote on my bedroom floor and videos I dreamed up and paid for from the money I earned playing in bars, then clubs, then arenas, then stadiums”. This shows the emotional implications of commodifying an artist’s very vulnerable work. These thoughts are best illustrated through some of the lyrics in her two 2020 albums. On track five of folklore, “my tears ricochet”, she compares this experience to an excruciating divorce:
And I can go anywhere I want
Anywhere I want, just not home
And you can aim for my heart, go for blood
But you would still miss me in your bones
And I still talk to you (when I’m screaming at the sky)
And when you can’t sleep at night (you hear my stolen lullabies)
In this context, “home” can be understood as Big Machine Records or simply the belonging and safety that her own music provides. Her “stolen lullabies” are her songs which she understands have been taken from her unjustly. These lyrics show how she feels exploited, by actors like Scooter Braun and specifically Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta, whom she worked closely with from the very start of her career. In this song, she also digs at these actors by saying “you wear the same jewels that I gave you / as you bury me”. These male executives have used her and abused their positions of power but continue to profit from her creations. These lyrics convey a deep sense of betrayal and hurt over all of her work being commodified. A similar sentiment is conveyed in “it’s time to go”, a bonus track from evermore:
15 million tears
Begging ’til my knees bled
I gave it my all, he gave me nothing at all
Then wondered why I left
These lyrics seem to be directed towards Scott Borchetta in particular, who signed Swift as his very first artist at Big Machine — which now holds a roster of over 20 influential country musicians. After years of dedication to him and his label, Swift has still not gotten what she feels she deserved. Therefore, the re-recording process is an assertion of female and artistic agency within this space defined by masculinity and capitalism. The second verse of “it’s time to go” helps us understand how agency plays a role in this battle:
Now he sits on his throne in his palace of bones
Praying to his greed
He’s got my past frozen behind glass
But I’ve got me
Here, she digs at Scott Borchetta and how her success has provided him with money and a platform. The lyric “he’s got my past frozen behind glass” illustrates the pain that comes with the lack of ownership over her creative products. She has an intimate connection with this art, and these songs represent the years of memories she has shared with her fans. The most critical lyric is “but I’ve got me”, as it shows the power of artistic knowledge — something that executives do not have. This is also a clever reference to “ME!” (2019), the lead single off of Lover and the first single that she owns the rights to. In her announcement for Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Swift stated:
The artist is the only one who really *knows* that body of work. For example, only I know which songs I wrote that almost made the fearless album. I’ve decided that I want you to have the whole story, see the entire vivid picture […] That’s why I have chosen to include six never before released songs on my version of this album. […] These were the ones that it killed me to leave behind.
Through this, she is exercising her creative knowledge and bringing fans deeper into her life. This reaffirms her relationship with her fans by letting them in on secrets that were once just hers, so that they can see “the entire vivid picture, the whole story”. This shows how she was held back previously and gets to do it her way, for both personal fulfilment and the enjoyment of her fans. The element of secrecy and surprise, and a seamless blend of the old and new, brings excitement and nostalgia and keeps fans engaged. This was shown through the successful release of “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” in February 2021, where Swift brought her mature voice and smoother sound on her 2008 classic hit.
So, we can understand Swift’s decision as both a personal quest for freedom and control and a strategic commercial action. Swift has demonstrated this in several ways. She has chosen to recreate her album designs in new ways which mirror the originals but represent growth and maturity. Additionally, the use of “Taylor’s Version” on every single song title and album title, rather than “remastered” or “2021” is significant. In each title, she affirms her ownership over this art, as her name is on every single track. Considering her experiences, we can understand this choice as a statement that goes beyond money, but the chance to assert her own power to do things again, her way.
Ultimately, Taylor Swift’s efforts to reclaim her art are valuable because they raise awareness and set precedents. Since 2019, she has been vocal about ensuring new artists don’t fall into the same exploitative contracts that she did. For example, new pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo, a long-time fan of Swift’s, has learned from this issue and is currently signed with Geffen Records in a deal that allows her rights to her masters. Thus, Swift has been able to utilize her power and influence in productive ways, not only to express her own agency, but to benefit other artists as well.
So please, If you’re going to be singing along to You Belong With Me in your car this summer, make sure it’s Taylor’s Version!