April 07, 2021
SPRING IS IN THE AIR, and with it the buzz of a new work by that most accomplished execrator of man-children, a musical artist who penetrates deep into the American psyche with ballads of love and loss: That’s right, Taylor Swift is dropping an album. Yes, there is that other icon with a record out, nostalgiste de la boue Lana del Rey, the voice that launched a thousand think pieces, but now is the time to give the author of “Dear John” the intellectual consideration she so richly deserves. It’s a love story—just say yes.
Swift’s newest venture is to revisit an old one: a rerecording of her breakthrough 2008 album, Fearless. You may remember it for contemporary classics like “Forever & Always” and “You Belong with Me,” as well as for indirectly sparking one of the most epoch-defining moments in twenty-first-century cultural history, the “Imma let you finish” imbroglio ft. Kanye West. Like Michael Haneke’s 2007 English-language do-over of Funny Games, Swift’s reprise of Fearless has less to do with art than with commerce. In keeping with music-industry tradition, Swift’s initial six-album contract screwed her out of the ownership of the masters for everything from her eponymous 2006 debut through 2017’s Reputation. The record company Swift first worked with, Big Machine, became enormously valuable during her run, such that it was sold in 2019 for $300 million to the villain of this tale, an adult male who goes by Scooter, with $140 million of that price estimated to be the worth of Swift’s music alone.
Rather than sell Swift’s masters back to the artist, as she had hoped he would, Scooter held tight for a while, then sold them to an investment fund called Shamrock Holdings (owned by a branch of the Walt Disney family, oddly) for $300 million, securing a tidy profit of $160 million over the course of a year and a half by doing, essentially, nothing. An Artforum reader will recognize Scooter for what he is—a flipper. Just like the denizens of galleries and auction houses, the music industry has discovered that the wares at its fingertips could form an asset class; if you’re interested, read up on Hipgnosis, a UK-based company hoovering up music rights and pumping up their value for the profit of its investors in a manner that would fill Stefan Simchowitz with envy.
Swift responded by doing something brilliant and a little strange: She announced that she would create new recordings of the six Shamrock albums, which, as the writer and hence owner of the songs qua songs, she was allowed to do. Every rerecorded track and album will have appended to it the tag “(Taylor’s Version)” so that it may be readily distinguished from the old version on streaming channels and elsewhere. In flustering yet another of her male agonists, this maneuver to reclaim what by ordinary logic should belong to her in the first place reinforces Swift’s complex (lean in?) relationship to both artists’ rights and to feminism. The need to outfox the Scooters of the world has unexpectedly led her into the territory of contemporary art, as she appropriates her own work, turning her persona into a copy of the persona it was thirteen years ago, albeit not to offer a critique of Western metaphysics but rather to fight over enormous sums of money. It’s proof, once again, that postmodernism really is the cultural logic of late capitalism. Like an angel being blown backward in a wind tunnel of cash, Taylor Swift has gusted into conceptual practice with Fearless (Taylor’s Version), her Fountain.
Presumably, the business play here is that the (Taylor’s Versions), embraced by the artist’s famously ardent fans, will render Shamrock’s property practically worthless, at which point Swift will buy the recordings back at a ruthless markdown and fold her originals back into her musical universe in Classic Coke/New Coke fashion. Both parties can probably afford to hold out for a long time, however, which leaves us with some years to go of ontological crisis in the Swift canon. The rerecordings, no acts of mere self-reflection or nostalgia, have an uncanny tinge. Consider the songs on Fearless, a record written by a seventeen-year-old girl. Fans don’t want today’s Taylor giving her Proustian take on “Fifteen”; they liked the original just fine. They want the hits themselves, except bearing Swift’s 2021 COA. There can be no radical reinterpretations, nor can she sepia-tone the past through the present. Theoretically, the optimal result for each rerecording would be that it sound literally identical to the original. Of course, that’s legally impossible, so her task would seem to be to create for each track a new version that hews so close to the old that the difference is almost imperceptible. Perceiving them as different is the first step toward comparing them, and comparing them is the first step toward liking the wrong one, or both, and shunting off a portion of the river of nickels that performance-rights royalties provide.
Even for most pop stars, Swift’s gambit would seem doomed. Would you cathect to an inflectionless, note-for-note reperformance of, say, Drake’s Take Care (2011) in 2024? Yet her true task lies not at all in the realm of music but in the realm of desire. In the real world, it makes no difference whatsoever what the new versions of her songs sound like, so long as she persuades her fans to love them identically to the originals. Here Swift is counting on the vaunted connection between her and her audience, who will have to grant her the powers of a central bank, able to render one thing worthless and endow another with value at will. The nonfungible token of “Forever and Always” is revealed to be fungible after all. This mass hypnosis may very well work. But you could imagine that Swift’s naked fiat risks cracking the clean veneer of emotional realness that her music has always had for her devotees. Play-acting the adolescent version of herself would seem to give the lie to that elusive, intricate quality, the preeminent value in today’s cultural landscape: authenticity. Then again, perhaps fans only ever purely believe in authenticity for the duration of their own adolescence. It seems inevitable that the rerecording project will make plain something we prefer to remain unarticulated about our pop stars: that our attachments to them allow us to remain terminal adolescents, willing to take so much on faith.
No matter how closely Swift simulates her originals—and the first single, the new “Love Story,” is indeed very similar to the old track—the passage of time must register on them in one respect: her voice. The equivalent of a painter’s brushstroke, its mellowing and broadening will always give her away. She can never again sound as exuberant or naïve as she did on the original Fearless. The rerecording project writes in stone a trend toward Swift’s finally, belatedly (like most millennials) becoming an adult. Perhaps prompted by the pandemic to deeply consider human life and its finitude, Swift created her first album for adults last year, dealing with mature concerns like investigating the history of the mansion one has purchased in Rhode Island. Instead of King Lear, we got folklore (I, for one, am perfectly fine with that). Yes, she announced her rerecording plans in 2019, but don’t that let spoil the narrative. Swift has, like all mass-media sharks, always swum forward; now she is forced by commerce to prematurely look back.
Becoming a grown-up, reliving one’s youth in reverie: Each of these is an acknowledgment of death. In Roland Barthes’s unyieldingly relevant Camera Lucida, written while he was in mourning for his mother, the author famously links photography to mortality: “The Photograph . . . represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis).” The ever-precise Barthes recognizes the distinction between the visual and the aural, of course. Music is not the same as photography (and even photography ain’t what it used to be). Yet some of the points he makes would seem to apply to any form of photographic representation or audio recording even today. One that seems most trenchant for Swift’s parenthesizing project is that representations violently displace memory: “One day, some friends were talking about their childhood memories; they had any number; but I, who had just been looking at my old photographs, had none left.”
Overstuffed with semblances, our memory, both individual and cultural, seems more and more tenuous. Can a new version of any old song, almost the same but not quite, rewrite the code of its predecessor? Pop music is a medium uniquely intertwined with our personal histories. When you recall the sting of first hearing Reputation soon after a breakup, its jarring left turn feeling like a betrayal as yet another certainty dissolves beneath your feet, or when that goddamned scarf in “All Too Well” conjures all the times you lost things, the articles of clothing and the years, through a combination of misunderstanding and stupidity—when these memories of yours draw you into their undertow, which version of the songs will you hear?
— Domenick Ammirati