Polite interviews King on Swift on Swift

In a recent episode of Polite Conversations, Brandon Polite interviews Alex King about the appreciation conditions for Taylor Swift’s mimic rerecordings of her earlier tracks.1 A couple of really nice points come out in the episode.

Alex explains how, just as much as the originals can condition the experience of the new versions, the new versions can change the experience of the original versions. The singer in the original versions was an exploited teenager. So listening to the original versions has always involved hearing an exploited teenager, but present context might make that feature of the phenomena especially salient.

This is not time travel or backwards causation. Instead, it’s a possibility resulting from the fact that tracks are historical individuals rather than timeless platonic forms.

The issue that prompted me to blog, though, is a puzzle about artistic intention. Alex notes that, supposing intentions matter for meaning, the new versions might mean something different than the originals.

If you think intention is important, the intentions in the original case are very straightforward in a certain way. The intentions in the re-recordings case are really different. It’s not her aim exactly to sing a simple love song or sing a simple breakup song or just express those emotions. It’s like — the subtext of every song of these re-recordings is like a fuck you, right?

Slight deviations in the way that Swift sings break-up lyrics now might be intentionally directed at the jerks who own the rights to the masters of the original tracks.

It helps here to distinguish the meaning of the song from the meaning of the performance or version. To highlight this difference, contrast “Happy Birthday” sung by a first-grade class with “Happy Birthday” sung by Marilyn Monroe for JFK. It’s the same song in both cases, and the song meaning is summed up in the title. The performances are very different, in ways that make them mean different things.

In those cases, though, the versions sound very different. Taylor Swift’s rerecordings sound very much like the originals, and they are intended to do so. She wants the new versions to be functionally interchangeable with the originals, so that anyone who wants to hear the song can play Taylor’s Version and get what they want. So let’s suppose that she intends for the new versions to have the same meaning as the originals.

One might think that the point about historical individuals (above) means that the meaning of the two version are necessarily different. If we’re supposing intentionalism, though, that kind of difference doesn’t matter. Swift’s original recordings, when she was an exploited teen, were not intended to be about her being an exploited teen.

To simplify, let’s say that Swift’s intention when singing an original was to mean something about emotions and relationships. And let’s suppose that her intention with the new version is to mean the same thing as she meant in the original. The intentions, formulated in that way, are importantly different. The original intention directly picks out love stuff. The remake intention picks out love stuff only indirectly, by picking out whatever the original picked out. Does that mean that their meaning is different or not?2

Alex also notes that the fan community treats Swift’s songs as puzzles, finding subtle meanings and Easter eggs which are— sometimes at least— intended to be there. If Swift intends for her songs to be scrutinized in this way, then in an indirect sense she intends fans to find all the subtle meanings— even the ones she did not explicitly intend. Alex puts the point this way:

[F]inding the things that she hasn’t intended is, in a certain way, consistent with [what] we might call… a… “meta-intention” of hers, which is that people approach her works in that way, with this super inquisitive… eye.

This all raises some interesting questions about intentionalism, I think, but I’ve gotten to the end of the post without concisely formulating them.

A stylized photo of Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift.
  1. Earlier, Brandon interviewed me about Taylor’s Versions and cover songs.
  2. In jargon, is it the sense or reference that matters?

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