In campaign ads, Republican Glenn Youngkin boasts that he spent the last three decades “building business and creating jobs, leading a team of nearly 2,000 people who trusted me to get things done.” As co-CEO of the private equity firm the Carlyle Group, Youngkin was also party to one of the most contentious music rights disputes in recent memory — Scooter Braun’s purchase of Big Machine, the record label where Taylor Swift recorded her early hits.
Now, 25 days out from election day, that sordid history is becoming a central plot point in the closely contested race for Virginia governor. It also led to a frantic scramble to yank merchandise emblazoned with a Swift trademark. Earlier this week, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe — seeking a second non-consecutive term in office — launched a five-figure ad buy on Facebook, Instagram and Google, drawing attention to Youngkin’s role in the fight over Taylor Swift’s back catalogue.
To review: back in 2019, Braun’s Ithaca Holdings acquired Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group in a deal financially underwritten by the Carlyle Group. Under the agreement, the masters for Swift’s first six albums became Braun’s property. Swift — who has a long, unhappy personal history with both Braun and his clients Justin Bieber and Kanye West — was devastated. She posted a lengthy statement appealing to Youngkin and his colleagues at Carlyle to pull out of the deal. “I’m especially asking for help from the Carlyle Group, who put up the money for the sale of my music to these two men,” the popstar wrote on Tumblr at the time. “I just want to be able to perform my own music.”
The deal ultimately went through, despite Swift’s public pleas, to which Youngkin never publicly responded. (At the time, Youngkin’s co-CEO, Kewsong Lee, defended Carlyle’s financing of the deal, saying, “I’ve got every confidence in the world that it’s going to turn out to be a successful investment.”) Swift, who decided to re-record her first six albums in an effort to prevent Braun from profiting from her music, would go on to call out both Carlyle and the private equity industry more broadly after the sale. “Private equity is what enabled this man to think… that he could buy me,” Swift said in a speech at the Billboard Music awards that year. (A rep for Youngkin did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)
The McAuliffe campaign ads, which feature Swift’s image and plays on her lyrics (e.g. “’Cause Glenn, now we got bad blood…” and “Play Stupid Games, Win Stupid Prizes”), debuted earlier this week and are micro-targeted at Swift fans and anyone else who searches her name. The Virginia Democratic Party, backing McAuliffe’s bid, even got in on the fun with tweets like, “There’s bad blood between @taylorswift13 and @GlennYoungkin. Glenn has made clear that he will rip anyone off in order to make a profit. If he’ll do this to Taylor Swift — he’ll do it to Virginians.”
Ironically, though, the McAuliffe campaign did not secure Swift’s permission ahead of launching an ad campaign skewering Youngkin for profiting off the popstar’s work and image without her consent. (A spokesperson for McAuliffe confirmed to Rolling Stone earlier this week that the campaign had not had “direct contact” with Swift’s team prior to the ad buy.)
Virginia Democrats would have good reason to believe Swift would bless the effort — after all, she is clearly not a fan of the Carlyle Group and has been vocally supportive of Democratic candidates. (She threw her full weight of her star power, for example, behind the Senate candidacy of Phil Bredesen in her home state of Tennessee back in 2018.)
So it raised eyebrows when a line of Taylor Swift merchandise was abruptly pulled from the Virginia Democrats’ website on Thursday. The Washingtonian was first to report that, shortly after tweeting “tis the damn season to get your swifties against youngkin merchandise” on Thursday morning, the party deleted both the tweet and but purchase pages for sweatshirts, mugs, and buttons featuring the slogan. They subsequently deleted the entire category of products from its site.
A source close to the situation says the items were removed from the site out of an abundance of caution — those responsible for creating the merchandise weren’t aware that the pop star holds a trademark on the term “Swifties.” The same source, who was not aware of any request from Swift’s team to remove the merchandise, added that refunds were processed for any individuals who bought the items in the short window when they were available online. (Swift’s publicist did not respond to requests for comment.)
Election day in Virginia is November 2nd; Red, Taylor’s Version, comes out November 12th.