Taylor Swift’s latest controversy reveals a dark truth about the music industry

Like many pop stars, Taylor Swift performs empowerment. Her songs — from her triumphant 2012 breakup anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to 2014’s brush off to the haters “Shake It Off” to 2017’s “Look What You Made Me Do” — often portray her overcoming obstacles and self-actualizing. She’s in control of her own image, her own narrative, her own sexuality and her own art. That’s part of why pop stars are so inspiring and so appealing to so many — they seem to be free.

This week, though, Swift has been talking less about freedom and more about her exploitation. She wrote an impassioned post on Tumblr, denouncing music executives Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun after Borchetta’s Big Machine Records label — which released all Swift’s album’s through 2017’s “Reputation” — decided to sell Big Machine, including Swift’s back catalog, to Braun.

That’s part of why pop stars are so inspiring and so appealing to so many — they seem to be free.

Swift’s accusations, and the counter claims are numerous and complicated. But basically the pop star is angry because she created her music and her albums, and she believes she should be the one who owns them. Instead, a man who Swift thinks doesn’t have her best interests at heart owns her work.

The idea that Swift should own the product of her work is an argument that makes powerful intuitive sense. And yet, it’s contrary to the working experience of virtually everyone under capitalism. Swift’s disagreement with Borchetta highlights the way in which work can be an alienating experience. It also helps to explain why in most cases, for most people, that alienation isn’t seen as unjust, even when it should be.

In her Tumblr post, Swift says that Borchetta is selling the “music I wrote on my bedroom floor and video I dreamed up and paid for from the money I earned playing in bars, then arenas, then stadiums.” Pop star Halsey put the case even more succinctly in a tweet where she said that Swift “deserves to own the painstaking labor of her heart.”

Swift and Halsey are both describing, in pop terms, the Marxist idea of alienated labor. Karl Marx believed that under capitalism, workers lose control of their labor, which is wrested from them and turned into products and objects that benefit others. “The object which labor produces — labor’s product — confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer,” Marx explains. Swift created albums — “Fearless,” “Red,” “1989” etc. Those albums are her labor. That labor is packaged and commodified so others can enjoy it — but also exploit it. Braun can even sell it without her consent. Her labor should be hers, but under capitalism it becomes someone else’s. That’s alienation.

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Swift’s plight is so visible, and so visceral, because we think of work in the arts as uniquely fulfilling, according to Matt Stahl, author of “Unfree Masters: Popular Music and the Politics of Work.” Poets, painters, movie directors and pop stars are idolized in part because they perform unalienated labor. They express their genius, and their ideas authentically, for their own satisfaction and their own profit.

Those albums are her labor. That labor is packaged and commodified so others can enjoy it — but also exploit it.

“Pop stars like Taylor Swift are narrating their story on behalf of all the people who learn from it and grow with it and identify with it,” Stahl explains. And that means those stars “have, if not within their grasp then within their imaginings, the possibility of overturning the relationship of exploitation.”

The catch here is that most people not only don’t own their labor but aren’t in a cultural position to even imagine owning it. Swift can say, “I should own my albums,” and it makes instant sense. But if an assembly line worker said, “I should own my cars,” or a Walmart employee said, “I should own my store” they’d receive substantially less public support, presuming they could even find anyone to listen.

In fact, Stahl points out, pop stars themselves exploit the labor of others. Swift talks as if the albums she created are hers and hers alone. But what about the other musicians who played on them? Guitarists, drummers, keyboardists, video directors and mixing engineers all made artistic contributions to Swift’s albums and videos. They honed their skills in their own bedrooms on their own time and invested their own money in their own careers.

And then their labor goes into the product that is Taylor Swift albums, and their names and contributions are forgotten. Swift “is an employee who’s being exploited for the term of her contract,” Stahl says. “And similarly she’s an employer who gets to alienate the label of all those people who do the technical, creative, and interpretive services that help her do a record or a tour or a video.”

The point here isn’t that Swift is a hypocrite, or that she shouldn’t have control over the product of her labor. Rather, the point is that everyone should have control over the product of their labor. We may notice the injustice in the case of Swift, because we see pop stars and artists as uniquely free. When that freedom is impinged upon, it seems wrong. And it is wrong. But if we want it to be right, we need to free a lot more people than just Taylor Swift.


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