Artist of the Decade Taylor Swift gives a shining but safe performance

Amidst controversy, Swift showcases her hits — and perhaps, a missed opportunity

400px-taylor-swift-2-2019-by-glenn-francis

Taylor Swift, pictured here earlier in 2019, was named the Artist of the Decade at this year's American Music Awards.

Courtesy Glenn Francis (Wikimedia Commons)

Taylor Swift was honored during the American Music Awards with the Artist of the Decade award Nov. 24. The award is a nod to the longevity and impact of her career as a musician and songwriter, as well as to her new status as the show’s most awarded recipient in its history. Her performance, intended to highlight the biggest hits over the course of her career, was consistent with the caliber she’s set over the years as a formidable headliner and prolific pop star. 

The performance, however, was not without surrounding controversy and conversation. Earlier this month, Swift took to social media to ask for public support in her dispute with Scott Borchetta, the CEO of Big Machine — Swift’s original label — and Scooter Braun, the man to whom Borchetta sold Swift’s masters against her wishes. Swift claimed that these men were barring her from performing from her catalogue during the AMAs. Later on, it was reported that the two parties had come to some kind of compromise regarding her ability to perform her own songs, at least for this particular event. 

Needless to say, a special amount of attention was on Taylor during the show, as fans and non-fans alike were eagerly waiting to see how she might use this platform and performance to make a statement, perhaps about her own resilience in the fight to possess her own art, or the empowerment of women in predominantly male-dominated industries. 

Standing in a white dress shirt plastered with the names of her six previous albums — written in a bold font similar to that seen on prison uniforms — Swift opened her performance with “The Man,” a snippet from a track off her latest album “Lover.” The topical lyrics seem to allude to the adversity she’s faced in recent events. “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can / Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man / And I’m so sick of them coming at me again / Because I was a man, I’d be the man.” This portion of the performance, lasting less than a minute, was the only one that seemed to reference the attacks made on her character by Braun and Borshetta, which came off as intending to fabricate an image of Swift as a calculating and dramatic woman.

Melting into a fresh rendition of “Love Story,” the remainder of the performance sought to highlight the pinnacles of her career. “Love Story,” the mega-hit off of the 2008 release “Fearless,” soon became “I Knew You Were Trouble,” an experimental song off of 2012 album “Red,” ramping up the energy once more. 

She followed with not one, but two hits off of 2014 release “1989,” “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” employing the help of Halsey and Camilla Cabello — perhaps a nod to female solidarity in the music industry. After a bombastic and lively performance of “Shake It Off,” Swift took to the piano to sing “Lover,” the title track off her new album. Stripped back, acoustic renditions are where Taylor’s soft, bright and dynamic voice truly shines through, giving the audience a reminder of her songwriting prowess and commanding stage presence even in the absence of backup dancers and flashing stage lights.

The performance did just as it was intended, highlighting the pinnacles of her career and placing special emphasis on her most commercially successful hits. What the performance failed to do, however, was demonstrate Swift’s range as a musician and the full span of her lasting career. Of course, tracks that are not so immediately recognizable off less successful albums may not be the best choice for an appeal to a mass audience. However, given the fact that the AMAs are a fan-voted show, other songs — not so overplayed ones — could have resonated more with that demographic, and a diverse lineup could have better showcased her songwriting and genre-transcending abilities. Her commercial pop hits are certainly catchy, but over the years, her artistry has transcended and challenged the conventions of pop.

Swift is a consistently remarkable musician and performer, hence the prestigious award. But this performance may have lost its potential to be truly remarkable, above even Swift’s standard, especially considering the legal turmoil and public conversation surrounding it. Perhaps, however, the choice not to make any obvious or scathing statements was a statement in and of itself — no man was going to shift the narrative arc of her career, which she herself has built from the ground up. 

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