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Brandon Polite (Knox College) - "Taylor Swift and the Philosophy of Re-recording"

Brandon Polite
Peabody Hall, Room 115
Special Information:
co-sponsored with the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, the Lamar Dodd School of Art, and the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts as part of the UGA Humanities Festival. Contact for an online link to this talk.

This talk is part of UGA's inaugural Humanities Festival, a series of interdepartmental events taking place March 15-27.

When Taylor Swift’s record label was sold in 2019, the six studio albums she’d recorded for them came under the control of a person with whom she has had years of bad blood: Kanye West’s former manager Scooter Braun. But rather than just shake it off and move on, Swift has taken the unprecedented step of re-recording near-duplicate versions of those albums. With all of the profits made from selling, streaming, and licensing these “Taylor’s Versions” going directly to Swift, she could deprive Braun of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. The gambit has already paid off. The first two Taylor’s Versions (of Fearless and Red) debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard charts and have sold over one million copies so far; and four more are still on the way. 


One question that Swift’s project raises is whether she is creating new works of art that are distinct from the originals. There are at least two arguments for denying that they’re distinct works of art. The first appeals to the fact that the two versions of each album sound so similar that listeners often need to pay careful attention to notice the differences between them. From this it concludes that, similar to how a person copying out War and Peace by hand would produce a genuine instance of Tolstoy’s novel, Swift has merely produced instances of the original albums by re-recording them. This is the formalist argument. The second argument appeals to the fact that Swift intends to subtly improve on the originals when re-recording them. From this it concludes that, similar to how Tolstoy’s drafts were War and Peace at earlier stages in its development, Swift’s original recordings are actually unfinished earlier stages of the Taylor’s Versions. This is the intentionalist argument.

In this presentation, I will defend the claim that Taylor’s Versions are new works of art distinct from the original recordings against these two arguments. In doing so, I will untangle some of the thorny metaphysical issues that Swift’s project raises.

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