How Taylor Swift Upended Decades of Music Industry Ageism Through Sheer Reinvention

Published 
December 2, 2022

Image of Taylor Swift by Beth Garrabrant

Taylor Swift is no stranger to being the only woman in a room, having grown up in the music industry. A famously hostile and male dominated business even for the most seasoned vets. Actor/writer/producer Issa Rae, another vet in her own right, was asked about her recent experiences in the music industry, and whether or not it is a conducive environment to producing creative ideas. She replied “Absolutely not. It’s probably the worst industry I’ve ever come across. I thought Hollywood was crazy. The music industry, it has to start all over again. There are lots of conflicts of interest. Archaic mentalities. Villains and criminals! It’s an addiction industry, and I really feel for artists who need to get into it.”

This was hardly the first time someone commented on the frankly mad business practices of the music industry, which can be both exploitative and psychologically draining. Yet, what’s interesting about Rae’s response is that generally the majority of the abuse that the industry levels at artists is directed downwards.

You might expect someone of Rae’s fame and stature to be able to avoid the toxicity through sheer reputation. But, as illustrated by her biography, despite her enormous success in Hollywood, even someone as accomplished as her may find this particular creative industry where prejudice weighs heavy. Issa Rae is not only black, and thus part of the music industry’s perhaps most mistreated community, but she’s also a woman. Crucially, she’s a woman over 30.

Pop artists– specifically female pop artists– are labelled with an expiration date.

For years, people have weighed in on a particular trend in pop-music, which has become so pervasive that it’s now practically the policy for major labels. Pop artists– specifically female pop artists– are labelled with an expiration date. The Guardian’s Nick Duerden wrote in his piece ‘Exit Stage Left’ about how the music industry treats the ageing of both men and women, noting that artists are often left wondering if they’ll even have a job by the time they reach middle-age. As a result of the commodification of female pop stars as sexual objects, which strips individuals of their agency, this attitude of disposability is all the more obvious in the case of women.

However, Taylor Swift, now solidly in her 30’s, has just made an unprecedented achievement. Her last album ‘Midnights’ is dominating the charts and putting up the kinds of numbers that the industry at large had thought were part of the past, belonging to the CD era where albums regularly sold in the millions.

Her artistic sensibilities and business acumen, two things that are often seen as competing forces, have allowed her to sidestep the ‘ageing-out’ process that the industry tries to impose on female pop stars, by never letting them define her as ‘simply’ a pop star.

A driving force to her continued success is her ability to reinvent herself. Taylor Swift is no stranger to media narratives, having been a fixture of the tabloid world since her teens. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of her most enduringly successful artistic and business moves is her continued iteration on her artistic identity reinvention. From country sweetheart to international bionic pop star, to indie-folk auteur and now back again to the world of arena pop, Taylor knows both the speed at which the industry moves and the unquenchable desire to turn female public figures into neatly definable ‘things.’ Her artistic sensibilities and business acumen, two things that are often seen as competing forces, have allowed her to sidestep the ‘ageing-out’ process that the industry tries to impose on female pop stars, by never letting them define her as ‘simply’ a pop star.

Taylor has always known the value of ownership. Take, for instance, her protracted feud with the investment firm Carlyle Group, who acquired the rights to her master recordings in 2019 in a deal which she claims she was cut out of due to sexist attitudes. She responded by re-recording these songs in a move that revolutionised not only music copyright law, but industry practices, and in so doing reclaimed her lost assets. Undoing systems of injustice should take priority over valorizing individual exceptionalism in spite of those systems, but the two are not always exclusive. Taylor is showing younger business women an alternative path which resists classification and is only confined by her own ingenuity.

You can stream Taylor Swift’s new album ‘Midnights’ now on streaming platforms.

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