‘What didn’t kill us made us stronger’: Read Taylor Swift’s inspiring speech as she becomes Billboard’s Woman of the Decade
Taylor Swift accepted the Woman of the Decade award at Billboard’s Women In Music with a lengthy speech covering inequality, trolling and the importance of great art
Taylor Swift has been named as Billboard’s Woman of the Decade, at their Women in Music awards last night in Los Angeles. Swift is the first person to ever receive the honour, and marked the occasion with a speech that truly set her apart as a worthy winner.
Covering the last ten years of her illustrious career, Swift spoke about media controversy, the pressure that female artists feel to fit a mould in the music industry, her admiration for other young female artists breaking the mould today, and her recent legal battle with Scooter Braun over the rights to her early music.
Read the speech in full below:
I’m Taylor, good evening. I wanna first thank Billboard from the bottom of my heart for this honour. I want to say thank you so much to Billboard for giving me this honour, for naming me as their Woman of the Decade.
So what does it mean to be the woman of this decade? Well, it means I’ve seen a lot. When this decade began, I was 20 years old and I had put out my self-titled debut album when I was 16, and then the album that would become my breakthrough album, which was called Fearless. And I saw that there was a world of music and experience beyond country music that I was really curious about.
I saw pop stations send my songs Love Story and You Belong With Me to number one for the first time. And I saw that as a female in this industry, some people will always have slight reservations about you. Whether you deserve to be there, whether your male producer or co-writer is the reason for your success, or whether it was a savvy record label. It wasn’t.
I saw that people love to explain away a woman’s success in the music industry, and I saw something in me change due to this realization. This was the decade when I became a mirror for my detractors. Whatever they decided I couldn’t do is exactly what I did. Whatever they criticized about me became material for musical satires or inspirational anthems, and the best lyrical examples I can think of are songs like Mean, Shake It Off, and Blank Space. Basically, if people had something to say about me, I usually said something back in my own way.
And this reflex dictated more than just my lyrics. When Fearless did win Album of the Year at the Grammys and I did become the youngest solo artist to ever win the award, with that win came criticism and backlash in 2010 that I’d never experienced before as a young new artist. All of a sudden, people had doubts about my singing voice — was it strong enough? Was I a little bit pitchy? All of a sudden they weren’t sure if I was the one writing the songs because sometimes in the past I had had co-writers in the room.
At that time, I couldn’t understand why this wave of harsh criticism had hit me so hard. I believe a popular headline back then was, ‘A Swift Backlash,’ which is clever, you gotta give it to ’em. And now I realize that this is just what happens to a woman in music if she achieves success or power beyond people’s comfort level. I now have come to expect that with good news comes some sort of pushback. But I didn’t know that then.
So then I decided that I would be the only songwriter on my third album, Speak Now, and that I would tour constantly, work on my vocals every day, and perfect my stamina in a live show. I decided I would be what they said I couldn’t be. I didn’t know then that, soon enough, people would decide on something else I wasn’t quite doing right, and then the circle would keep going on and on and rolling along and I would keep accommodating, over-correcting, in an effort to appease my critics.
They’re saying I’m dating too much in my 20s? Okay, I’ll stop, I’ll just be single. For years. Now they’re saying my album Red is filled with too many breakup songs? Okay, okay, I’ll make one about moving to New York and deciding that really my life is more fun with just my friends. Oh, they’re saying my music is changing too much for me to stay in country music? All right. Okay, here’s an entire genre shift and a pop album called 1989.
Now it’s that I’m showing you too many pictures of me with my friends. Okay, I can stop doing that too. Now I’m actually a calculated manipulator rather than a smart businesswoman? Okay, I’ll disappear from public view for years. Now I’m being cast a villain to you? Okay, here’s an album called Reputation and there are lots of snakes everywhere.
In the last 10 years, I have watched as women in this industry are criticized and measured up to each other and picked at for their bodies, their romantic lives, their fashion. Have you ever heard someone say about a male artist, ‘I really like his songs but I don’t know what it is, there’s just something about him I don’t like?’ No! That criticism is reserved for us!
But you know, I’ve learned that the difference between those who can continue to create in that climate usually comes down to this. Who lets that scrutiny break them and who just keeps making art.
Women in music, on stage or behind the scenes, are not allowed to coast. We are held at a higher, sometimes impossible-feeling standard. And it seems that my fellow female artists have taken this challenge and they have accepted it.
I’ve watched as one of my favourite artists of this decade, Lana Del Rey, was ruthlessly criticized in her early career and then slowly but surely she turned into, in my opinion, the most influential artist in pop. Her vocal stylings, her lyrics, her aesthetics, they’ve been echoed and repurposed in every corner of music, and this year her incredible album is nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys because she just kept making art. And that example should inspire all of us, that the only way forward is forward motion. That we shouldn’t let obstacles like criticism slow down the creative forces that drive us.
And I see that fire in the newer faces in our music industry whose work I absolutely love. I see it in Lizzo, Rosalia, Tayla Parx, Hayley Kiyoko, King Princess, Camila Cabello, Halsey, Megan Thee Stallion, Princess Nokia, Nina Nesbitt, Sigrid, Normani, H.E.R., Maggie Rogers, Becky G, Dua Lipa, Ella Mai, Billie Eilish. And so many other amazing women who are making music right now.
Female artists in music have dominated this decade in growth, streaming, record and ticket sales, and critical acclaim. So why are we doing so well? Because we have to grow fast. We have to work this hard, we have to prove that we deserve this, and we have to top our last achievements. Women in music, on stage or behind the scenes, are not allowed to coast. We are held at a higher, sometimes impossible-feeling standard. And it seems that my fellow female artists have taken this challenge and they have accepted it.
It seems like the pressure that could have crushed us made us into diamonds instead. And what didn’t kill us actually did make us stronger. But we need to keep advocating for women in the recording studios, behind the mixing board, in A&R meetings, because rather than fighting to be taken seriously in their fields, these women are still struggling to even have a chance to be in the room.
The streaming world
We now find ourselves fully immersed in a vast frontier that wasn’t around last decade, and that is the streaming world. In music, we’re always walking hand-in-hand with technology, and sometimes that is so awesome, like how now we’re able to just drop a song that we made yesterday.
I’ve spoken out in the past about the future of revenue flow for creators and the songwriters and producers who are being left behind due to these rapid shifts and changes. I still don’t think that record contracts or producers agreements have fully caught up, and I hope that in the next decade, we can keep searching for the right solution for producers, songwriters, and creators. Don’t you?
…‘But he’s always been nice to me,’ when I’m raising valid concerns about artists and their rights to own their music. And of course he’s nice to you. If you’re in this room, you have something he needs.
Lately, there’s been a new shift that has affected me personally and that I feel is a potentially harmful force in our industry, and as your resident loud person, I feel the need to bring it up. And that is the unregulated world of private equity coming in and buying up our music as if it is real estate. As if it’s an app or a shoe line. This just happened to me without my approval, consultation, or consent.
After I was denied the chance to purchase my music outright, my entire catalogue was sold to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings in a deal that I’m told was funded by the Soros Family, 23 Capital, and the Carlyle Group. Yet to this day none of these investors have ever bothered to contact me or my team directly. To perform their due diligence on their investment. On their investment in me. To ask how I might feel about the new owner of my art. The music I wrote. The videos I created. Photos of me, my handwriting, my album designs. And of course, Scooter never contacted me or my team to discuss it prior to the sale or even when it was announced.
I’m fairly certain he knew exactly how I would feel about it though. And let me just say that the definition of the toxic male privilege in our industry is people saying, ‘But he’s always been nice to me,’ when I’m raising valid concerns about artists and their rights to own their music. And of course he’s nice to you. If you’re in this room, you have something he needs.
The fact is that private equity is what enabled this man to think, according to his own social media post, that he could buy me. But I’m obviously not going willingly. Yet the most amazing thing was to discover that it would be the women in our industry who would have my back and show me the most vocal support at one of the most difficult times, and I will never, ever forget it. Like, ever.
Call it out
But to conclude, I will say that in 10 years I’ve seen forward steps in our industry, in our awareness, our inclusion, our ability to start calling out unfairness and misconduct. I’ve seen the advent of social media, the way it can boost the breakthrough of emerging artists and I’ve seen fans become more engaged and supportive than ever before.
I’ve leaned on that support and it has kept me in a place where, no matter what, I always wanted to keep making music for them. I was up on a stage in New York City in 2014 accepting Billboard Woman of the Year and I was talking about the future of streaming. How we needed to make sure that the female artists, writers, and producers of the next generation were protected and compensated fairly. This was before my record deal with Universal, last year, that would contractually guarantee that the artists on their roster be paid upon any sale of their Spotify shares unrecoupable. So thank you for that.
This speech I’m referring to was on my 25th birthday. I’m about to turn 30 tonight, woo! But my exact quote during the speech was, ‘I really just feel like we need to continue to try to offer something to a younger generation of musicians because somewhere right now your future Woman of the Year is probably sitting in a piano lesson or in a girls’ choir and today right now we need to take care of her.’
I’ve since learned that at that exact moment, an 11-year-old girl in California really was taking piano lessons and really was in a girls’ choir. And this year she has been named Woman of the Year at the age of 17. Her name is Billie.
And those are the stories we need to think about every day as we do our jobs within this industry. The ones where people’s dreams come true and they get to create music and play it for people. The ones where fans feel a connection to music that makes their day easier, makes their night more fun, makes their love feel more sacred, or their heartache feel less isolating. The ones where all of you in this room stand as an example for someone else in the next generation who loves the same thing that we love. Music. And no matter what else enters the conversation, we will always bring it back to music. And as for me, lately, I’ve been focusing less on doing what they say I can’t do and more on doing whatever the hell I want.
Thank you for a magnificent, happy-free, confused, sometimes lonely but mostly golden decade. I’m honored to be here tonight. I feel very lucky to be with you, thank you so much.