When Taylor Swift takes the stage tonight at the 2019 American Music Awards, it's anyone's guess what she'll play.
Which is generally the case for the pop star, the night's Artist of the Decade Award honoree preferring to create the sort of waves that are less likely when everyone in the audience is privy to the set list. But thanks to a little pre-show drama, there's another layer of mystery surrounding the hotly anticipated act.
Depending on who you believe, the 29-year-old is either working furiously to deliver a medley of the 25 Billboard Top Ten tracks she's scored since her 2006 self-titled debut or playing it safe by sticking to the chart-toppers from her latest disc, Lover, the first under her new label, Universal Music Group, the first Big Machine Records founder Scott Borchetta and current owner Scooter Braun can't lay any claim to and, as she has put it, "The first album of mine that I've ever owned."
Really, it's anyone's guess what will come out of Swift's mouth, save for a source telling E! News, it will be an amazing performance and a celebration of the singer-songwriter's already legendary career. And such confusion is fitting when you consider what an utter quagmire the whole situation has become.
The CliffsNotes version is that when Swift switched labels last November, she officially lost any shot at owning her masters, the original recordings of her first six, multi-platinum albums that combined for nine Grammys. (She picked up a tenth for her Hunger Games track "Safe & Sound".) Now, they're owned by Borchetta and Braun, who must sign off any time she wants to use them for a live performance or in another official capacity.
Currently, the usage in question is her AMAs performance. And whether or not the men have or had given permission is a murky situation filled with she saids, he saids and they saids as representatives from the various companies weigh in with their take on the situation.
What's not up for dispute, however, is how peeved Swift still is that Borchetta sold his company to Braun and his Ithaca Holdings LLC and that the blood between her and the music exec, best known as Justin Bieber's manager, remains very, very bad.
To understand the origins of that, we go all the way back to 2016.
Back to when Braun client Kanye West and Swift were locked in their second battle of wills over his single "Famous" that referenced how he made "that b--ch", well, famous. The surreptitiously recorded snippet of their phone call that was leaked, confirmed West and wife Kim Kardashian's claim that the rapper had run the song by her, but not, as Swift had pointed out, that he had told her he'd be using that particular epithet.
West's decision to create a nude faux Swift for the accompanying music video (a situation she likened to "revenge porn") and Bieber's posting of a Facetime between him and West, briefly captioned "Taylor swift what up," did little to improve the situation. And though she took control of her own narrative, turning their fan's hissing insults into a record-breaking reputation tour featuring a 63-foot inflatable cobra named Karyn, some things are tough to shake off.
And while she felt Braun played a role in that particular character assassination it was but one of the issues she had with the 38-year-old, which is why she was so dismayed to learn he was the one who had shelled out the $300 million to buy Big Machine and her very valuable original recordings.
"Some fun facts about today's news: I learned about Scooter Braun's purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world," she wrote in a scathing June Tumblr post. "All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I've received at his hands for years."
Sharing the screenshot of West and Bieber, she continued, "This is Scooter Braun, bullying me on social media when I was at my lowest point. He's about to own all the music I've ever made."
Because of course she was going to take issue with it. And Borchetta's attempt to clarify a few things, namely that he had informed Swift via text and her father Scott Swift, a shareholder in the company (claims that her team disputed), did little to assuage her feelings about the fact that songs she penned in her Nashville bedroom as a teen with a guitar and some big dreams were now wholly in the control of two men who had not helped create them.
And there was nothing she could do about it. According to Swift, she had begged to buy her own masters, a transaction she could surely afford as 2019's highest paid earner, but was denied, locked into the agreement she had signed at 15, before she knew what she was gonna be.
The only offer presented, she wrote, was that she could sign back on to Big Machine "and 'earn' one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in." She walked away, she shared, because she knew Borchetta was going to unload the label "thereby selling me and my future. I had to make the excruciating choice to leave behind my past."
Having Braun own her work was "my worst case scenario", she continued, detailing how she had confided in Borchetta about her bad relationship with the New York native. "He knew what he was doing; they both did," she summed up. "Thankfully, I left my past in Scott's hands and not my future."
So she soldiered forward. And, save for Bieber's mocking of her post-Lasik surgery video, it seemed the group had reached on unsteady cease fire or, at least, were keeping any shots fired in private.
When Swift released Lover in August, both Braun and Borchetta congratulated her for a job well done. And though Bieber accused Swift of posting in the hopes of recruiting her fans to bully Braun, in the same breath he called for a truce: "One thing i know is both scooter and i love you. I'm sure Scooter and i would love to talk to you and resolve any conflict, pain or any feelings that need to be addressed."
So everything was okay-ish. As far as the public knew anyway.
Then—just 10 days before she was to take the stage at the AMAs—Swift dropped another bomb about the behind-the-scenes dealings, insisting Borchetta and Braun were blocking her from performing her previous hits at the awards show. (As an aside, she also mentioned she wasn't able to use them in an upcoming Netflix special.) According to the singer, they said they'd be willing to relent if she agreed not to re-record her old work, as she very much intends to do once legally able next November in order to avoid this whole situation in the future.
"I feel very strongly that sharing what is happening to me could change the awareness level for other artists and potentially help them avoid a similar fate," she explained in her Nov. 14 post. She also believed that going public might shame the men into changing their stance: "The message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you'll be punished. This is WRONG. Neither of these men had a hand in the writing of those songs. They did nothing to create the relationship I have with my fans."
Borchetta shot back that they were not the impediment, using language in the statement from Big Machine Label Group that didn't quite address Swift's claims. Sure, they weren't barring her from taking the stage, she had never said they were. And it seemed true enough that they had "continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties" but his words left open the possibility that there was, indeed, a dispute over what she intended to sing onstage.
His take, the statement continued, was that Swift contractually owed them "millions of dollars and multiple assets", that they had been working toward a resolution and when she was ready to have a "direct and honest conversation", she was sure to be met with "respect, kindness and support."
Instead, the conversation unfolded in the public eye, with the singer's rep sharing a message Swift had received from a Big Machine VP stating her AMA performance request, along with the Netflix ask, had been denied. "Lastly, Big Machine is trying to deflect and make this about money by saying she owes him," the rep continued. "But, an independent, professional auditor has determined that Big Machine owes Taylor $7.9 million dollars of unpaid royalties over several years."
Basically nobody agrees and everyone is pointing at the other person as wrong, save for Braun who remained mum (save for a vague post about kindness) until ongoing death threats from the type of fans who take a situation lightyears past what is acceptable spurred the father of two to post a public plea to Swift to hash out their differences.
The one thing that has emerged was a new message from Big Machine Label Group stating they've reached an agreement with Dick Clark Productions (the team behind the AMAs) for Swift to be able to perform what she'd like. Of course, Dick Clark Production later denied they had anything to do with the statement, but for sanity's sake, we're going to put that bit aside.
All signs point to the singer being able to put on the type of performance she's always wanted to, making her Swifties the true winners. And somewhere, as she puts the finishing touches on her medley, we're guessing the pop star is remembering one of the pieces of sage wisdom she'd shared with Elle this March.
"Being sweet to everyone all the time can get you into a lot of trouble," she wrote in a list meant to impart the lessons she'd gleaned in nearly 30 years of living.
"While it may be born from having been raised to be a polite young lady, this can contribute to some of your life's worst regrets if someone takes advantage of this trait in you. Grow a backbone, trust your gut, and know when to strike back. Be like a snake—only bite if someone steps on you."
Make no mistake, her fangs are at the ready.