Being cast as the wounded party has been an undercurrent throughout much of Taylor Swift’s career. From messy breakups to mean girls to Kanye West, she’s capitalized on positioning herself as having to rise above the haters (to shake them off, even!) in her songs and in her public persona to an often relatable, sometimes petty, and potentially exhausting end.
The 2010 song “Dear John,” based on her relationship with fellow singer John Mayer, contains the lyrics, “Don’t you think 19’s too young to be played by your dark, twisted games?” There’s, “Mean,” a song from the same album: “Someday I'll be living in a big old city, and all you're ever gonna be is mean.”
Her very public feud with Katy Perry, which kicked off after Swift accused Perry of stealing her backup dancers, culminated with the grudge anthem “Bad Blood” before the two finally called it off and embraced in Swift's latest video, "You Need to Calm Down."
Especially early in her career, Swift’s public comments seemed built upon the kind of drama typically contained to the halls of a high school, like when she appeared on Ellen in 2008 and discussed her first celebrity breakup with Joe Jonas.
“You know what? It’s like when I find that person that is right for me and he’ll be wonderful, and when I look at that person, I’m not even going to be able to remember the boy who broke up with me over the phone in 25 seconds when I was 18,” Swift said. Degeneres and the entire studio audience gasped at the apparent callousness of Jonas (who, mind you, was 19 at the time and said the phone call was cut short because Swift hung up on him).
But this week, Swift’s public grievances have graduated to something more serious than her years-long back and forth drama with Kanye West — the rights to her own creative work.
On June 30, it was announced that Ithaca Holdings, a company owned by entertainment executive Scooter Braun, had acquired Taylor's old record label, Big Machine Records, for $300 million. As part of the deal, Big Machine Records, and thereby Braun, would retain the rights to the masters for all six of her previous albums in perpetuity.
It’s disturbingly common for artists, even superstar talent at the level of Prince and Janet Jackson, to have to fight for the rights to their own music. There’s an added layer in Swift’s case: She and Braun have a long history of animosity, which Swift detailed in a lengthy open letter she posted on Tumblr.
“I learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world,” Swift wrote. “All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years.”
She continued: “Like when Kim Kardashian orchestrated an illegally recorded snippet of a phone call to be leaked…”
Swift is referring to when Kardashian posted a portion of a phone call in which Swift gave West permission to release his song, “Famous,” which includes the lyrics “"I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous."
A little background, if you don't have a murder board connecting Swift's grudges on your wall: Kardashian and West are married, Braun has worked with West, West interrupted Swift’s time on 2009 MTV Music Awards stage because he believed Beyoncé's "Single Ladies” should have won the award for best music video over Swift’s “You Belong With Me."
After West released “Famous,” Swift's fans cried foul but West claimed he’d been given permission to use it. Swift’s publicist told Buzzfeed News that wasn’t the case.
“Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single ‘Famous’ on her Twitter account,” the statement said. “She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message. Taylor was never made aware of the actual lyric, ‘I made that bitch famous.’”
After some public back and forth, Kardashian finally responded with a video of Kanye on the phone, rapping the song — including the line “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex” — to Swift.
“I think this is a really cool thing to have,” West said, to which Swift replied, “I mean it's like a compliment kind of.”
Swift’s open letter about Braun points to other actions she perceived as personal attacks, like when West released a music video that featured a topless wax sculpture of Swift, or when Justin Bieber posted a photo of himself, Braun and West with the caption, “taylor swift what up.”
She continues: “Now Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
People on Braun’s side say this statement is inaccurate. In an Instagram post, Braun’s wife Yael Cohen said that Swift had been given an opportunity to own her own masters and passed. (Swift’s letter states she had been offered a deal from Big Machine to essentially earn rights to her back catalog one album time, for each new one she turned in. Instead, Swift signed with Universal Music Group's Republic Records, which is releasing her new album "Lover" in August.)
Cohen Braun’s letter continued: “Your dad is a shareholder and was notified and [Scott] Borchetta [owner of Big Machine] personally told you this before this came out. So no, you didn’t find out with the world.”
Additionally, Braun issued a public statement on Big Machine's website, saying multiple people had alerted Swift regarding the deal.
"Out of courtesy, I personally texted Taylor at 9:06pm, Saturday, June 29th to inform her prior to the story breaking on the morning of Sunday, June 30th so she could hear it directly from me," Braun wrote. "I guess it might somehow be possible that her dad Scott, 13 Management lawyer Jay Schaudies (who represented Scott Swift on the shareholder calls) or 13 Management executive and Big Machine LLC shareholder Frank Bell (who was on the shareholder calls) didn’t say anything to Taylor over the prior 5 days. I guess it’s possible that she might not have seen my text. But, I truly doubt that she 'woke up to the news when everyone else did'"
Like legions of teen stars before her, Swift has had to navigate the rocky transition to being viewed as an adult — and as someone who can give voice to songs about adult experiences — all under the scrutiny of the public eye.
As Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams pointed out last month, some former teen stars like Selena Gomez and The Jonas Brothers have found success when they leaned into what made them famous in the first place.
“The Brothers have wisely integrated their past into their present, appealing to the original fans who taped their posters to walls while earning some overdue respect from their former naysayers,” writes Williams. “What's interesting about it all is that while the brothers have changed, the music itself is remarkably consistent.”
Swift has stayed true to her thematic roots even as her sound has evolved from her early pop-country days. After a decade of watching and listening to Swift air out personal grievances and prop up professional feuds, both in her work and through her massive public platform, the question of who is wrong in the Big Machine sale remains murky — and perhaps deliberately so. Artist ownership of work affects musicians across all tiers of the industry, but it's hard to get people without a stake in the issue to care. Swift making it personal is more likely to make her fans take it personally too.