So it’s pretty hard to find a critique of Taylor Swift’s new record that isn’t also (or mostly) misogynist. As they say in academia, consider this piece an attempt to fill that gap in the literature. I may get to the actual record later, but for now I want to think about her business model.

Swift made headlines this week for two different, but ultimately, I think, related moves. First, she pulled her music from the free streaming part of Spotify. In an interview with Yahoo music, she explained that she was

not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.

In an economy that has made free labor a de facto requirement for middle-class and creative jobs, Swift’s claim about fair compensation seems, on the one hand, laudable. From this perspective, she’s pushing back on the increasing demand for unwaged labor. But then we have to ask, on Spotify, whose labor is free? What about the fan labor of training the streaming algorithms? Of liking and unliking, skipping and playlist building? Swift doesn’t mention the unfairness of this sort of free labor. In her view, “art” deserves to be compensated…but maybe fan labor, which is a kind of care work, doesn’t deserve such ‘fair’ compensation. Or, to use some of Swift’s own language, the “amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work” is deserving of fair compensation, but the affective labor of fandom isn’t? From this perspective, Swift’s refusal to perform free labor sounds a lot like bourgeois white feminist demands for waged labor that then pass the underwaged care work off to less privileged women. (Eric Harvey has some really incisive things to say about Swift v Spotify here.)

It’s really, really interesting to see how she uses the discourse of “art” to distinguish between her creative affective labor and fans’ affective labor. In her WSJ op-ed from earlier this year, she argues: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Swift’s argument implies that there are some valueless things, some things that don’t have to be “paid for” because they aren’t important. So, just as race and class work to construct some women as rapeable (i.e., as valuable property) and some women as unrapeable (i.e., there for the taking, without consequence), [1]  just as art/craft hierarchies have historically (I mean, for several centuries, at least in the West) construct some people’s labor as important and valuable and other people’s labor as mundane, Swift’s appeals to art and value distinguish between affective labor that deserves compensation, and affective labor that, by implication, ought to remain uncompensated.

In fact, her whole argument centers on a metaphor of monogamous marriage:

Some music is just for fun, a passing fling (the ones they dance to at clubs and parties for a month while the song is a huge radio hit, that they will soon forget they ever danced to). Some songs and albums represent seasons of our lives, like relationships that we hold dear in our memories but had their time and place in the past. However, some artists will be like finding “the one.”

People buy records by “the one.” Marriage is and pretty much always has been a cultural practice for maintaining the racist, cis/heterosexist distribution of wealth and property. So OF COURSE it makes sense to compare a viable music business model, one that puts and keeps the money in the hands of the people who’ve always had it, to marriage. When Swift says “I believe couples can stay in love for decades if they just continue to surprise each other, so why can’t this love affair exist between an artist and their fans?” I really just want to ask her to read Carole Pateman’s chapter on “The Marriage Contract.” It shows how marriage is basically a relationship for expropriating women’s property (or, more technically, property-in-person) from them. In Swift’s analogy, fans are like married women, artists like the husbands who reap the benefits of their labor.

The second thing Swift did this week was release a video, “Blank Space.” But this isn’t just any video. She released an interactive app to go along with the video. As this Wired article remarks, the app transforms the music video into something like a video game experience. Music videos have been prosumery “interactive” for a while now–think of how many fan re-edits, vids, lip dubs, and lyric videos there are on YouTube. This is just an attempt to channel some of the money (and data? Is this app anything like the Jay Z/Samsung surveillance album?) into the artist’s and label’s pockets, rather than YouTube/Google’s pockets. As WIRED put it, “the Blank Space app is, unlike Spotify, a way for Swift to dictate the terms of an experiment and be at the forefront of a new marketing frontier.”

What these two moves share is the underlying view that some kinds of affective labor and digital interactivity are good–the kinds that Swift can both control and extract the most surplus value from–and some kinds of interactivity are bad–the kinds that Swift doesn’t control and extract enough surplus value from. The bad kinds feminize Swift–they put her in the position of feminized laborer, of wife. We can think of Swift’s two moves this week as attempts to Lean In, that is, pull herself out of structural/economic feminization.



[1] In this light, Swift’s own elision of music/art and femininity really telling. In the WSJ piece, she says “My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet…is that they all realize their worth and ask for it.”