Taylor Swift: A Case Study on Female Narrative Manipulation

What is your voice worth? Taylor Swift’s is worth $300 million. At least, that’s what Scooter Braun paid for it when he bought her old record label, Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) in June and, with it, the master recordings of her first six albums. This transaction spurred shock and outrage, much of which came from Swift herself. She had been trying for a long time to negotiate with BMLG to buy back her catalog, so she could have the legal rights to her own work. The label refused to offer her the deal, instead giving her the chance to buy back one album for each new one she produced for them. This is a deal that would leave her just as helpless as before, perpetually tied to the company. She walked away dejected, but when she woke up one morning to the news that Braun had purchased her catalog, she couldn’t stay silent. According to Swift, she had received “incessant, manipulative bullying” from Braun throughout the years, especially during a feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in 2016, when her reputation was being dragged through the mud. She claimed this was her “worst case scenario.”

However, the situation grew even more bleak for Swift from there with the approaching American Music Awards (AMAs). The AMAs announced they would be honoring Swift with the award for Artist of the Decade, a monumental award that Swift would be the first woman to receive. She planned to perform a medley of her past hits throughout the decade on the show, but soon she received word that Braun and President of BMLG, Scott Borschetta, were blocking her performance on legal grounds. They claimed that due to the contract she signed (when she was 14 years-old), she was not legally allowed to re-record her music without their permission before 2020 and a televised performance counted as a re-recording. Due to the timeline of this contract, Swift had been planning on re-recording her masters in 2020 in order to regain control of them, but Braun and Borschetta would only allow her to perform old songs on the AMAs if she agreed not to go through with this plan.

Fearing no legal escape, Swift turned to social media to share her side of the story, and #IStandWithTaylor was soon trending. She garnered public support from several other artists, including Selena Gomez and Halsey, and even gained the attention of political figures Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. 

But on the opposite side, just as precedent would suggest, there has been no shortage of backlash. Criticism is nothing new for Taylor Swift. It’s been hurled at her for her entire career. The problem is that this case and these criticisms are drenched and dripping with misogyny.

Scooter Braun is profiting off of the work of a woman, even after actively attempting to undermine her career in the past. This is an instance of a man deciding what a woman is allowed to say and do. Essentially, they own her voice. They are abusing their legal powers to manipulate and control the expression of deeply feminine art that they had nothing to do with creating. Image Credit: Hollywood.com

Now, I understand that many people may read this with skepticism. Certainly, an argument could be made that exploitative legal contracts between artists and record labels are common and don’t only hurt female artists. That’s definitely true, but context matters. The fact that the issue involves two men holding power over a woman makes the conversation inherently gendered because it changes the rhetoric people use to describe the situation.

Quite possibly, the most common criticism Taylor Swift has faced over all 13 years of her career has been that she is “playing the victim.” This rhetoric holds so much power because it basically greenlights victim blaming, arguably one of the greatest hindrances to gender equality. Whenever women speak up for ourselves, people use victim blaming to diminish the impact of our words. This isn’t a part Taylor is playing for attention. Why would anyone adopt the role of the victim? No one wants to be marginalized or made to feel powerless. No one wants their vulnerability broadcast before the entire world. Women raise our voices because we have to and because despite what any man claims, the problems we face are real. I wish that feminism didn’t need to exist. I wish I didn’t need to spend sleepless nights wondering how my life would be different if I had been born with a different set of chromosomes. But the reality of our world makes it so these late night musings are what I need to stay sane and protect myself in a world that’s not inclined to believe my side of the story.

Imagine you get stabbed. Obviously, you don’t want to die, so you go to the hospital, but when you get there, the staff is outraged. “How dare you disrespect us by wasting our time with this? You’re not even that hurt.” Then, they refuse to treat you, and when you bleed out and die in front of them, they attribute it to unrelated natural causes. That’s what being a woman feels like sometimes. When we draw attention to how we’ve been wronged, and when we ask for help or at least for an equal playing field, the world responds by telling us that we are selfish, ungrateful, attention seekers. In the case of Taylor Swift, in both a literal and figurative sense, her narrative no longer belongs to her. It’s up to someone else to decide when and how her voice is allowed to enter the world. It’s a way of manipulating the female narrative to render a woman’s words entirely ineffective. The most blatant evidence of this comes from a statement released by BMLG reading, “Taylor, the narrative you have created does not exist.”

Why do some men seek to belittle the female narrative, and why is society so threatened by female voices? If a woman points out a problem, it challenges the idea that our society is equal. This is a story that men want to believe because the system works for them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Recognizing the validity of a female voice means recognizing the shortcomings of the system that benefits you. This leads to cognitive dissonance between the self-interest of maintaining your state of contentment with life and the moral imperative to risk that contentment for the collective good. I want to clarify that I’m not blaming men for making the wrong choice in this tradeoff. In most cases, this is not a conscious choice, but rather a natural rejection of the discomfort and uncertainty involved with challenging the status quo. Thus, when a woman points out injustice, there’s a subconscious push to perpetuate the illusion that men exist in society on a moral high ground. The way we should address this subconscious bias is by recognizing that the people with power in society didn’t reach that platform of moral authority on merit, but rather it was built directly under their feet. This power structure makes it easier for men to claim a narrative of goodness and success because it was men who decided what those words mean in the first place.

But words are just words, right? Well, there’s some validity in this claim, but I’d argue it comes from a position of privilege. Where power imbalances exist, if you hold the power in your hands, then words don’t matter. However, words stop being just words when you belong to a marginalized community and when you hold an underrepresented perspective. Suddenly, the words, the stories, the language that those people in power consume matters because it shapes the way they look at you, and thus, the way they make decisions for you. A man’s definition of the word “life” determines whether or not a woman becomes a mother. A man’s definition of the word “no” determines whether or not a woman gets justice or a criminal walks free. A man’s definition of the word “woman” changes everything. It’s the manipulation of these words within the female narrative that ultimately determines the female experience.

This is why the narratives we engage with are so important. No matter what lies people use to try to define your experience, it’s imperative you recognize them as lies. If we don’t explicitly confront problematic language, we internalize it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suddenly, we begin to believe the lies that society feeds us and question our own worth. I can do anything I want with my career, but I don’t have a mathematical mind . . . I’m not getting paid as much for this work, but I do spend more time on responsibilities outside the office . . . I didn’t get the promotion, but that last project was a team effort . . . He shouldn’t have touched me, but maybe I shouldn’t have been in that room in the first place . . . Ladies, we know how each of these stories ends.

This is the psychological weapon used to control women. It tricks us into believing we’re less intelligent, less talented, less capable, less deserving. It hinders us from speaking up, from advocating for ourselves, from advancing in the workplace and from getting the recognition we deserve. 

Even if you hate Taylor Swift’s music, you have to give her credit for one thing. She is fighting back against this narrative manipulation. With all of the insults that people throw at her, she turns them around, adopts them into her own story, and uses them to her own advantage. She won’t sit by idly as people vilify her. She won’t let anyone convince her that her problems don’t matter or that she fabricated them out of thin air. By speaking up about her legal battles, Taylor Swift is reclaiming her narrative and harnessing the power of her words over her fanbase to fight for her right to choose her own destiny.

Due to public pressure, BMLG eventually caved, issuing a statement allowing Swift to perform her old songs on the AMAs. While this is a major victory, Swift still faces an uphill battle in gaining the rights to use her music in an upcoming Netflix documentary on her life. Whatever happens, the outcome of these struggles will not only change the face of the music industry, but they will reveal a lot about society’s readiness for a new generation of women who know that their voices are priceless.

Alexa, play “The Man” by Taylor Swift.

 

Header Image Credit: Billboard