Taylor Swift won an acrimonious battle to perform her old songs live at the American Music Awards. It may be a sign she’s winning the PR war over her catalog as well.
On Sunday night, Swift was honored as the AMA’s artist of the decade, where artists are nominated for streaming, social media and touring stats and prizes are voted on by fans. But many fans tuning in did so to see the latest twist in the heated battle between Swift and the amalgam of music and private equity interests that commandeered her back catalog. That battle has pitted Swift against Scott Borchetta, the man who founded her former record label Big Machine, and his new partner Scooter Braun, the mega-manager behind Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and others. Braun, with funding from the private equity firm the Carlyle Group, bought Big Machine Label Group and most of Swift’s master recordings, prior to her switching labels and singing with Republic Records.
“The fact is that the last year of my life had the most amazing times and the hardest things I’ve gone through, a lot of things that haven’t been public,” Swift said as she accepted the award for artist of the year, her second speech of the night. “I wanted to thank you for being the thing that’s been constant in life. This industry is really weird.
“For people who do what we do, you feel like your stock is either up or down, people like you or don’t,” she continued. “The people who hang in there for you are the ones who you’ll never forget. Fans who have hung in there for 15 years of me doing this.
“It’s been a lot of really complicated …" she added, trailing off at the confusion over what to say about a situation in the front of all her fans’ minds today.
Swift’s fight to control her back catalog is byzantine to say the least. But a threat from Swift to re-record her old albums to undercut Braun seems to have sufficiently alarmed Braun as to raise the specter of forbidding her from playing her old hits on the telecast.
Swift wrote on Tumblr that the sale of Big Machine left her longtime foes in the position of “controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity.”
Braun denied the threat, but Swift’s pained public posts about the ordeal earned support from a huge array of stars and politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who used the occasion to attack private equity firms like the Carlyle Group. Swift’s pleas sent fans on a campaign to free her from any impositions from Braun and his group. (Braun has since said that he’d been harassed and threatened with doxing.)
Swift’s allusions to the matter were one of a few punches up at power brokers from female artists at the AMAs. Billie Eilish wore a flame-bedecked shirt stating “No Music on a Dead Planet,” an affirmation of the climate change activism she’s pursuing on her current arena tour. Halsey chided awards shows — perhaps referring to the Grammys, which snubbed her this year — saying, “These trophies were supposed to be some kind of validation for the soul-crushing and heartache-inducing work put into writing a song and bringing it to life. And to be honest with you, I really believed that fairy tale.
“But the truth is I am older now and I’m also an artist and apparently I’m doing OK. But most of these awards really aren’t what they seem at all,” she said.
Similarly, Kesha introduced her church-themed performance of “Raising Hell” with New Orleans bounce legend Big Freedia by saying “Welcome to our Sunday Service,” an unmistakable ding toward Kanye West’s similarly titled amalgam of heartfelt gospel music and right-wing televangelism. Kesha, like Swift, also played a song co-owned by a man she loathes: “Tik Tok,” her breakout single, was produced and released by Dr. Luke, the producer she has accused of sexually assaulting her (he denies the claims, which have played out in court for years).
“All that matters to me is the memories I’ve had with you guys over the years.”
Before receiving her artist of the decade honor, Swift was introduced by Carole King, who said she “is one of the only modern pop artists whose name appears as the sole songwriter in her song credits. Her lyrics resonate across the generations. Her songs touch everyone, her impact around the world is extraordinary.” And, in perhaps a subtle allusion to her current predicament, King added that “the best is yet to come.”
Swift’s medley was indeed a walk through her career growing up alongside her fans, but to hear those songs in this context, it almost seemed as though she’d been preparing for industry combat her whole life. She started with “The Man,” from her new album “Lover,” and its lyrics about mistreatment and being undermined by men were clear as a bell: “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can / wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.”
She then walked through the decade of hits — “Love Story,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Blank Space” — which had Billie Eilish singing every word in the aisle, and ballet stars Misty Copeland and Craig Hall dancing alongside her onstage. But she saved particular relish for “Shake It Off,” in which she castigated the “liars and dirty cheats of the world” with an unmistakably acidic flourish. The AMA crowd was hers, and they seemed to know to whom those words were addressed.
She didn’t overtly address the dispute in her first acceptance speech of the night, instead taking the occasion to tell King, “When I fell in love with music, I realized how marvelous it was that an artist could transcend so many changes and phases in people’s lives. You taught me that was a possibility.
“All any of us want is to create something that will last,” she added. “All that matters to me is the memories I’ve had with you guys over the years.”