DAMON LINKER: Thoughts inspired by Taylor Swift’s 31-song notebook dump.

Bruce Springsteen gave Dylan a run for his money as a curatorial editor, especially in the years when he was most prolific. The Boss reportedly recorded as many as 70 songs for his fourth record, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). The final album included 10 of them. Springsteen gave away several songs to other artists, held onto others for his next album, and left the overwhelming majority of them in the vault. When 20 or so of them were released in a few batches decades later, fans were shocked by how many of the abandoned songs were gems. But Springsteen considered them either too derivative of other artists or too overtly commercial to fit his stark, uncompromising vision for the Darkness album.

The same thing happened with his next album, The River (1981). Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded something on the order to 50 songs in several sessions. One version of the final album included ten songs. Then Springsteen changed his mind and expanded the project into his first and only double album of new material. The final version included 20 songs, which meant another 30 were left behind. Once again, the extraordinarily high quality of the abandoned songs thrilled his fans when many of them were released a number of years later.

Now imagine Springsteen’s early career took place in the streaming era, without the constraints imposed by vinyl pressings and the need to produce and ship a physical product. In this alternative timeline, the Boss puts out almost everything. In addition to the 30 songs he actually released in those years, he releases 40 more. That could have meant four more single albums of new songs from the Boss in these crucial years of his career. As I’ve noted, there’s an abundance of great material there. Many fans would have been ecstatic. But what would have been the artistic consequence of flooding the market in this way?

Most likely, Springsteen and his fantastic band would have come to be known as prolific craftsmen of highly enjoyable pop songs and expert musical ventriloquists capable of mimicking the sound of a 1950s ballad on one track and the amped-up punk aggression of The Clash on the next. They might have sold a lot more records, but they also might have sold fewer, as Springsteen lost much of his distinctiveness as an artist, and his universe of fans was kept fat and happy with a steady diet of new material and never left hungry for more.

Good-Enough Songs

The past five years have been a period of mind-boggling productivity for Taylor Swift. By my rough count, she has released 138 “new” songs since August 2019. (This includes the track listings of the new studio albums Lover, Folklore, Evermore, Midnights, and The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, plus the vault tracks/outtakes/b-sides included on the re-recordings of her albums Fearless, Red, Speak Now, and 1989.)

In terms of quantity, that’s an extraordinary songwriting accomplishment. But I wonder if the volume of output—especially with her latest release—speaks to a failure or disregard of curatorial editing. It’s one thing to release 17 songs on Folklore and then another stylistically similar 17 on Evermore five months later. It’s a lot, but at least listeners had some time to digest the first batch before the second was dropped into their laps. But now imagine she combined the two albums into a single record with only the very best songs from each included, holding the rest for release years or decades from now. Wouldn’t that have been better, elevating this imagined single album above the extremely accomplished records she actually did release?

What happened on Friday of last week is as far away from such an approach as one could imagine. That’s when the previously announced 16-track new album was released but then became a 31-track magnum opus two hours later. This is a bigger version of what happened when Midnights was released in October 2022 with 13 tracks that became 20 later that night, when then the “3am Edition” dropped.

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It’s an old modern story: As external, received constraints on our choices are removed (through political reform, moral and theological liberalization, or technological advances), we are left with the burden of imposing constraints of our own choosing on ourselves—or else opting to give up on limitations altogether. I fear some of our greatest popular artists are showing signs of taking the latter path, and with less-than-entirely-positive results.

Of course, in just a few years, we’ll all look back at how quaint things were when songwriters actually had a process they carried around in their heads, instead of letting Brill Building GPT craft their material: What Happens to Songwriters When AI Can Generate Music?