From Nashville to New York: The Rise and Rise of Taylor Swift
Last month, American popstar Taylor Swift became the first ever artiste to claim every slot in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The remarkable feat was a result of the release of Midnights (Republic Records) – the 32-year-old’s 10th studio album in a career spanning about two decades, and a first in the survey’s 64-year history. Swift overtook Canadian rapper, Drake, who until recently held the record of nine top 10 singles (September 2021). Before him, in 1964, the world’s favorite Liverpudlians – The Beatles – managed to find eight out of 10 spots.
In a career spanning 10 albums, numerous concerts, and an extremely loyal fanbase of ‘Swifties’, anything concerning Taylor Swift, musical or not, is news. So her 10th album, like her 8th studio album – the Grammy-winning Folklore – is finding much attention in the international pop-verse and putting her on the top of the pecking order. Like always, Swift is harmonizing about her life in Midnights, with each song harking back to an incident in her life. Her earnest writing, sometimes overtly simple but relatively inventive, has managed to find a home in people’s hearts. The ideological shift from basic love songs to ones with perspective — taking up the music-industry war to fight for her songs; her falling outs with people, her current relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, the many bouquets and brickbats that have come her way, Swift has it all in Midnights.
It’s also interesting how musically Swift has constantly adventured. The Pennsylvania-born singer-songwriter moved to Nashville in her teenage to find herself and did spectacle-style live shows there, “living for the approval of strangers,” becoming “someone who has built their whole belief system on getting people to clap” for her. as she says in Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s documentary on her. She crossed over to high-gloss pop soon, becoming one of its biggest names. She picked up the Grammys and other awards, drawing constantly from her life, and layering them with personal references, but it’s the pandemic-fed Folklore that finally had the grown-ups tuning in. The reason is its tunes – a stripped version of the gloss that catapulted her into the indie aisle, popular with cultivated indie rock listeners. But amid all this there were feuds with artistes, eating disorders, political awareness, love and loss, and the most significant factor — age. Swift matured as an artiste and that showed in her music.
From the folk-ish sound of her last two albums — Folklore and Evermore, Midnights returns Swift to electronic pop and the sound harks back to the kind one heard in 2019 in Lover, with its sugary synths, prominent basslines, and a lot of beats on a drum machine. Its chummy, unreserved approach to her life and its people, is what makes Midnights interesting. “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism, like some kind of congressman?” Swift croons in Anti-Hero, the track that’s topping the charts, social media, and the airwaves as of last month. Soon enough, she owns it, “I’m the problem, it’s me,” she reflects. Then there is Midnight Rain, likely about a past relationship wherein Swift opens in an artificially pitched-down tone that’s nowhere near her voice. “He wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain. He wanted a bride, I was making my own name. Chasing that fame. He stayed the same,” she croons. There is also the spiteful Swift in Vigilante Shit and Karma. The former comes with lyrics, ‘I don’t dress for friends, I dress for revenge’. While the first seems to target Kanye West and his ex-wife Kim Kardashian here (the long feud between West and Swift began when the rapper interrupted her during her VMA acceptance speech and screamed that “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time” followed by calling her ab***h in his song Famous and Swift calling him out as a misogynist), the latter seems directed at Scooter Braun, the owner of Ithaca Holdings and music manager for West, Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato among others. Braun bought Big Music Records (who owned Swift’s first six albums) and sold her masters to another company, Shamrock Holdings, for a reported $300 million in 2019 at a time when Swift had been trying to buy her music for a long time. But when Braun sold her songs to Shamrock, her team could not even enter the talks.
What’s even more compelling in the story is how Swift didn’t let this incident just slide. She decided to re-record the six albums, called them the Taylor version, and asked her fans to buy those instead, as every time the old one is played, Braun makes money. This was a significant step in the corporate music industry that makes very controlling contracts for younger artists. In 2021, she wrote on her Instagram, “Artists should own their own work for so many reasons… But the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work.” A lot of artistes say a lot of things, but rarely does one see an artiste take the effort of rerecording more than 130 of her old songs and re-releasing them. When she asks her fans to stream her versions instead of the older ones, they do that — a great influence to have, to be able to turn the tables and actually have people listen to you.
In Midnights, Swift sings, ‘Spiderboy, king of thieves… my pennies made your crown’, aimed at Braun. It sticks. One of her first re-recordings, Fearless (Taylor version), went on No 1 of the Billboard Charts in April 2021. This was not just a marketing strategy done right, this was Swift showing the finger to the corporate world, implying that there is always a way. She didn’t always register wins though. In her moment of political awakening — where she had called out to her fans to come out to vote and not choose Republican Marsha Blackburn in her home state of Tennessee so that they don’t put “a homophobic racist in office”, “Trump in a wig”, the state saw a massive young voters registration hike. Blackburn won’t still. But what it brought to the fore was some strong political opinion from a pop artiste, things one is not used to. Swift is a master of the game at the moment. She’s served Midnights with poise and without bitterness, showng the world that she hasn’t forgotten, that she’s still capable of rising and, most importantly, choosing how she lets others affect her. One will need to see which way she spins for her next one. For now, the playing field belongs to Taylor Swift,