Taylor Swift, Spotify & The Trap of Self

I don’t know if you heard but Taylor Swift has officially pulled all her music from Spotify. While this is traumatic for anyone who has a series of playlists entitled “Taylor’s Life in Song” and happens to also be on a seminarian’s budget, thus making said hypothetical human-being unable to purchase all these songs to re-create the masterpiece of a playlist series… yes, while all that might theoretically be true to someone somewhere, Taylor Swift claims that she did not make this decision without a considerable amount of thought.

In her interview with Yahoo! Music regarding this decision, Swift explained that she was initially open to the idea of Spotify, saying that if felt a bit like a “grand experiment”. But she recently realized that she doesn’t agree with “perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”

Said Swift:

“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

On the one hand, you have to admire Taylor Swift’s spunk. Her decision to pull her music from Spotify was somewhat daring, to say the least.

And inasmuch, I salute Taylor. For someone so young, she is remarkably accomplished; I routinely work against not reminding myself that we’re the same age lest I meditate too much on the fact that the number of Taylor Swift albums sold while I’m sitting on the toilet is greater than the views my blog will receive between now and the apocalypse. And for someone who is so young, unconventionally talented and successful, Ms. Swift handles herself with consistent poise and class; she’s yet to be involved in some ridiculous scandal and hasn’t gone off the “good-girl deep-end” that media coverage unabashedly (and with drunkish quantities of sexism) thrives upon.

All that said, beyond a post-pubescent fascination with Ms. Swift and beyond my current hipster-driven fascination with an artist who pulls her music from the legal version of Grooveshark, I think there’s a necessity to examine this decision with a critical eye.

On the one hand, Swift’s move shows a respect for the value of artwork, a pure, undiluted appreciation for the artist’s vocation in today’s otherwise entitled culture. But then again: does it?

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Swift’s decision to pull her music from Spotify cost her an estimated $6 million in royalties over the next year. That’s a large number, but it get’s significantly smaller when one consider’s that Swift’s 1989 grossed $12 million in the first week thus topping sales unheard of in the music industry for nearly 15 years. The demand for Taylor Swift is high and her removal from Spotify will only drive up her album sales. If it’s not on Spotify, people either won’t listen to it or will buy it. And because Taylor Swift is a cultural icon, she’s not taking much of a gamble in assuming that most people will choose the latter option. Its possible that Swift’s decision had more than a pure artistic motivation behind it but was grounded firmly in the pragmatics of the dollar $ign.

Which is understandable. to say the least. Today pop artists are also small-business owners, that’s no news. But beyond the drama of the situation and even beyond the painfully, pathetic online appeals from Spotify for Taylor to “just say yes” (Seriously Spotify, I haven’t seen desperation get this awkward since my high school prom), there’s still a major issue with this whole situation.

Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify under the banner of “valuing art”; because it is “art” and “art is valuable”. But at the same token, Taylor Swift unabashedly utilizes her artwork as a pinnacle of self-expression. Swift told Rolling Stone this past September that:

“Sometimes the lines in a song are lines you wish you could text-message somebody in real life…”

For her recent album, Swift drew particular inspiration from notions of the late 1980’s, namely: “The idea that you can do what you want, be who you want, wear what you want, love what you want.”

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Simply put, through her music Taylor Swift says:

“I want to define life on my own terms.”

This is hardly surprising. While she rises above the rest, Taylor Swift is neither the first, nor last, pop sensation to view her art as the epitome of self-expression. And I don’t pretend that she’s necessarily the one to blame for these sentiments. In a world of universal access to Twitter, blogging, and self-publishing, there is an increasingly worrisome trend by which art is viewed and judged as a podium for self.

But while it’s true that art is a means of self-expression, high art (“valued” art as Swift might say) has historically been seen as something more than just one’s diary on canvas or subconscious musings put to music.

Greek poets used their craft to communicate the ethics and values of their nation-state; likewise medieval literature acted as pillars of the culture (Beowulf being one example) well other times acting as critiques (think Canterbury Tales and the writings of Erasmus). Rembrandt once said that a painting is only complete when it has the shadows of a god. Shakespeare said of his art that it simply held “a mirror up to nature.” His writing betrays an uncanny humility and denial of self-importance, despite abilities that changed the modern world.

From listening to these masterminds and artists of the past, we ought to learn an important message. Theologian and art critic Jerram Barrs summarizes it well:

“The more inward and purely self-expressive art becomes, the more inaccessible it is to others.”

Barrs notes that since the Romantic period, the arts have been on a increasingly slippery slope of being viewed merely as a means of self-expression. The more art becomes simply a projection of self, the more humans are disconnected from it and each other.

It could be argued that Taylor Swift defies this rule, because there are thousands of fans who say they relate to her work. Doesn’t her popularity signify her ability to relate to people? Isn’t that the very parameter of “pop” culture? Its ability to relate the every-day patron?taylor-swift-letter-earrings-fashion-ftr

Perhaps, or perhaps the undertones of this discussion are seen in a culture that’s increasingly disconnected from others and continually lost in ourselves.

Which sounds a bit dramatic, especially for a discussion on popular art. And perhaps it is. But when an artist makes a million dollar claim concerning their work, pole-vaulting it from the realm of pop culture into “valued” art, then it seems appropriate to sit back and question if they stand behind the historic values necessitated by their claim. And Taylor Swift does not.

Again, this is probably a hyperbolic nuance and it may sound like I’m really venting some subconscious hatred for Taylor Swift under the ruse of pure motivation (“WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK ME TO BE IN YOUR MUSIC VIDEO, TAYLOR? IS 9 YEARS OF INFATUATION NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU!?”). Though it may be the former, I assure you my motivation isn’t the latter. I hold Taylor Swift in the highest regards, and part of me will always, always be a fan. Furthermore, Taylor Swift is hardly the root issue here; in no way am I proposing that.

And I’m not proposing a paradigm shift. I’m simply urging that we must acknowledge how the paradigm we currently hold, the current value of art, is on the basis of an individual’s self-expressive abilities. What stands to be lost from this vantage point, what will be the inevitable collateral of a culture looking self-ward as a muse for inspiration, isn’t necessarily tangible but very important nonetheless. As C.S. Lewis said:

“All great art exists because there is a world not created by the writer.”

So what happens when art stems not from “a world not created by the artist” (as Lewis would say) and instead is generated solely from within? I would argue that the loss of art to the elevation of self may temporarily satisfy (“She get’s me!” cries every teenager at a Taylor Swift concert) but will ultimately leave us feeling empty (“Life is hopeless” read the statistics on trends in teenage suicide).

Taylor Swift’s comments are indicative not of an artist pushing against a consumeristic trend of self-entitlement, but rather an example of a musician embellishing it. By promoting the grand product of her self expression as high art, Swift fell into the trap that modernity and post-modernity has been pushing us toward has been pushing us toward: the trap of self.

Taylor_Swift_-_1989And while Taylor Swift is undeniably successful within that trap, it is a trap nonetheless. And if Taylor and other artists like her want to project themselves as perpetrators of “valued” art, then (as a patron of this art) I ask for something beyond self-expression. I ask that their art moves beyond the artist, beyond the observer and delves into a reflection of something greater, a world that can only be opened to us by art.

But if that’s not on the artist’s agenda, not high on Taylor’s to-do list, then that’s fine. I understand. I get it. I just ask that she doesn’t pretend that her popular art is actually high art, demanding respect for such via a larger paycheck. I’m just one measly fan, I get that. But I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to pay that price.

Which goes to say that I really hope Taylor and Spotify make-up soon. I hope to see her playlist back on my browser in the near future, and to enjoy and relish in her popularity as an icon of pop culture soon. Because, if nothing else…she just get’s me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Taylor Swift, Spotify & The Trap of Self

  1. You just said everything I’ve been trying to say for a week and yet you managed to make it sound so much smarter AND kinder.

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