Music

Taylor’s Version: How Taylor Swift is reclaiming her art.

Words by Pui Kuan Cheah

Illustration by Shafia Motaleb (@artsyfifi)

One of the biggest news that engulfed the music industry, and subsequently transformed the way musicians dealt with their records and labels, was the dispute between Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun over the master rights to her first six albums (recap: that’s 2006’s Taylor Swift all the way to 2017’s Reputation). This was in fact devastating to hear, given all of Swift’s continued success, only for her to not have complete control over her masters.

Illustration by Shafia Motaleb (@artsyfifi)

The root of it all

For those not in the know, a master is essentially the original recording of an audio – in this case, the song recordings that are used everywhere from CD albums to film/TV soundtracks, as summed up by PopSugar UK. In Swift’s case, her masters were owned by Big Machine Records, and ownership transferred over to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings LLC when they acquired Big Machine. Swift had also left Big Machine for Universal Music Group when her contract with the former ended in 2018. It was a lengthy case with two sides to the story, which Cosmopolitan summed up in detail here. What seemed to be the breaking point though, was when Braun sold the masters to a buyer in a hefty $300 million deal – done without Swift’s knowledge and of no gain to her.

This is around the time she announced to the world that she was in the process of re-recording all of the music from the older albums above, much to fans’ delight. It was also a bold step for her, because what guarantee was there that people would listen to her re-recordings, versus the originals? Their fate lay a lot in fans’ hands. What the world was about to witness in the coming years was the comeback of Taylor Swift’s older eras – nostalgia at its finest for those who lived through the firsts. 

Swift’s ripple effect in the industry

Swift’s determination to gain ownership of her work has already had repercussions within the music industry, in a way ensuring musicians don’t have to go through what she has. One recent example being Olivia Rodrigo, who you will likely know as the teen singer who exploded onto the music scene this year. 

In an interview with The Guardian, it was briefly mentioned that Rodrigo “has retained control of her master recordings” – a lesson learned from Swift, who Rodrigo has often cited as one of her inspirations. If anything, Swift has provided a cautionary tale for a new generation of up-and-coming artists like Rodrigo, to keep them wary of such details that may have been overlooked or brushed off before. As if Swift wasn’t big enough already, this has elevated her status and influence even greater. 

Fighting against a patriarchal industry 

Taylor Swift has also signalled a pushback against an industry that has been and still is, dominated by men. Despite there being plenty of established female singers and musicians like Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Adele and Billie Eilish, the mechanisms behind the scenes still signal an imbalance.

Published by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in early 2019 was a report investigating just this. Sifting through 700 popular songs from the period of 2012-2018, from Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart, it showed a glaring gender divide in many areas, including producing and songwriting. 

Across all artists (individuals, duos, and groups combined), only 21.7% were female – that’s less than a quarter. In an even tinier fragment, 2.1% of producers were female. It is as though females are invisible in the industry when you compare their numbers to the males.

This imbalance can indeed lead to how women are seen and portrayed in the industry, and barriers are created making it harder for them to progress. The report also delves into a more qualitative approach, asking respondents about the challenges they faced as female songwriters and producers. Results concluded that many problems would be faced – sexualization, skills and abilities being dismissed or dumbed down, and a ‘boys club’ environment that led to exclusion and erasure. Thus, it can be seen here that much of the industry is controlled by men, but Swift has managed to fight against the existing system.

The re-recordings, and their legacy

Looking at “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)”, there isn’t much difference to this version when compared with the original 2008 copy. To the average ear, the sounds are pretty much identical. Perhaps the most distinguishable difference, and that is to be expected, is the maturity in “Taylor’s Version”. To remind us all of just how long Swift has been in the industry, the original “Fearless” was released when she was just 18 years old, and at the time of the re-recording release, she’s 31 years old. 

What we have in the 2008 version is a more nasally, youthful sound, while the 2021 version reflects a more grown-up Taylor, having seen more and done more. She’s obviously improved her vocal technique over the years and honed her skills, and that’s definitely reflected. 

A bittersweet takeaway from the re-recorded album is seeing how much Swift’s life has changed all these years and examining the lyrics of certain songs – these have many different meanings as we sit in the future of 18-year-old Taylor. The world has seen Swift grow up over the course of her career, and “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is like opening a time capsule…

Say what you will about Taylor Swift and her music, one thing we have seen here is clear: she has admirable tenacity. Rather than writing new music and releasing new albums like her peers, she has and is spending time laboriously re-recording every track from her past, just so she can proudly call her work entirely hers. 

The hype that surrounds these “Taylor’s Version” albums are powerful, to say the least. “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” made a statement as the biggest first-day debut for an album on Spotify in 2021 with 50 million streams. Even though this record was broken later in the year, it’s still a glorious feat considering the album isn’t really new, except for the Vault tracks. “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is bound to be a hit as well, given the immense hype and hysteria that has risen from Swifties for the past few months. 

Taylor Swift has continuously shown herself to be a musical force to be reckoned with, and “Taylor’s Version” is the latest signifier of that. It is a phrase with such loaded history behind it and is indeed Swift writing her own version of her story. 

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