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Taylor Swift Keeps the Digs Subtle in American Music Awards ‘Artist of the Decade’ Performance

Taylor Swift - Artist of the
Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

Has there ever been so much suspense over a televised award that didn’t even involve an “envelope, please” moment? Taylor Swift’s appearance at Sunday’s American Music Awards, where she was being honored as artist of the decade, was easily the most anticipated awards show appearance of the year, both for whether she’d be able to perform disputed material (resolved in advance) and whether they’d use her speech to offer her adversaries at Big Machine a sick burn (anyone’s guess, up to the last moment).

As it turned out, she kept the digs subtle and far between. She was introduced by legendary songwriter Carole King (who’s written dozens of hits ranging from Aretha Frankin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” to her own hit “It’s Too Late”), who said she’s seen many great songwriters, singers and performers, and, “It’s rare to see all those talents in one person, but that defines Taylor Swift. She is one of the only modern pop artists whose name appears as the sole songwriter in her song credits. The past decade has been incredible for this artist, and the best is yet to come.”

A career-retrospective video then played, which spoke of Swift’s significant efforts in artists’ rights, noting that as part of her 2018 deal with Universal Music, the company agreed to share profits from its expected sale of Spotify equity with its artists. Significantly, while video footage from across her career played, only songs from “Lover,” her new, first non-Big Machine album were heard during the segment.

She then took the stage and pointedly opened with a brief portion of her new song “The Man” — the lyrics of which wonder how much less flack she might take if she were a man, and could be seen as referencing her frequent references to Big Machine’s Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta as “these men” — wearing a white jacket with her album titles written on it in black stenciled letters.

Then a group of child dancers who accompanied her tore off the jacket to reveal a more characteristic sparkly gold one-piece outfit, as Swift dropped into her 2008 hit “Love Story” and then 2012’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” accompanied first by a group of shirtless male dancers, then a different group of male dancers in bowler hats and suits for 2014’s “Blank Space.”

Then an army of dancers took the stage for what was essentially a re-creation of the “Shake It Off” performance from her last tour, with Camila Cabello and Halsey joining her (it was Cabello and Charli XCX on the tour). The stage cleared and she concluded with “Lover,” from her new album, which she performed on a giant pink piano, embellished like a birthday cake with her album titles. Ballet dancers Misty Copeland and Craig Hall performed in front of her as the crowd waived their phones and Swift’s parents, frequently flashed to in the crowd, teared up.

She stood for applause and then accepted the award from King while the crowd chanted her name. She credited Cabello, Halsey, Hall and Copeland, and said the performance “was in so many ways a dream come true — that performance was even more than I hope it would be.” She then spoke of the influence King’s music has had on her parents and her family through her life, and how those songs “could transcend so many different changes in people’s lives,” and thanked King for showing her that.

“All any of the artists in this room want is to create something that will last,” she said. “And all that matters to me is the memories that I have had with you, the fans, over the years, because we’ve had fun, incredible exhilarating times together. Thank you for being the reason I am on this stage.”

Swift vaguely referenced the Big Machine situation later in the show, when she won Artist of the Year. She took the stage again, this time wearing a pink-and-gold-sparkle cape. “I really don’t have anything articulate to say,” she began. “The past year of my life has had some of the most amazing time and also some of the hardest things I’ve gone through in my life, and a lot of them haven’t been public.” She then spoke directly to her fans: “I want to thank you so much being being the thing that has been a constant in my life.

“Sometimes people who do what we do… you feel like your stock is either up or down, but the people who hang in there for you are the ones you will never forget. And the fans who have hung in with me for 15 years doing this… I don’t even know what I’m saying, but the speech of the whole night goes to Halsey —” who made a subtle dig against the Grammys, who, like Swift, was seen by some to have been shortchanged on Grammy nominations and thanked the AMAs for being awards chosen by fans.

“This year has been a lot,” Swift concluded. “It’s been a lot of good and a lot of really complicated, so on behalf of my family and me, thank you so much for being there and for caring.”

The suspense over Swift’s AMAs appearance got underway in earnest 10 days earlier when Swift took to all of her social media accounts with a statement that she had been “planning to perform a medley of my hits throughout the decade on the show. Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun have now said that I’m not allowed to perform my old songs on television because they claim that would be re-recording my music before I’m allowed to next year.”

Things got more confusing from there, as Big Machine, her former label, which is now controlled by Braun as well as Borchetta, released statements saying that of course she was legally allowed to perform her old material on the show — but also that they had reached an agreement with Dick Clark Productions that would let her do so. Clark Productions subsequently issued a statement disavowing any knowledge of the agreement described in Big Machine’s statement.

From there, the discussion moved back to the crucial issue behind the AMAs imbroglio — whether Swift could buy her master recordings back — and things got even less specific but more emotional. At least they did on Braun’s side: This week, at a Variety-cosponsored conference and subsequently in his own social media post, Braun said that his family and the company had received death threats from Swift supporters, and that everything could be resolved if the singer would come to the negotiation table. This time, Swift remained silent, ensuring that the world would be tuning in to hear whether she’d have another salvo to go with the “Shake It Off” reprise.