Pop Is a Battlefield: Taylor Swift's '...Ready for It?' Sees Her Becoming Top 40's Universal Soldier

The beat drops. Taylor Swift clears her throat. The best response to controversy is more music. It's only fitting that "…Ready for It?," the second single from Swift’s upcoming album Reputation, premiered last night via a trailer for ABC's fall season. This is the perfect song for soapy, don't-call-it-a-guilty-pleasure television, all too appropriate for a woman who named her cat for Meredith of Grey's Anatomy.

If 1989 was Swift's attempt to rewrite pop music in her own image, "…Ready for It?" finds her doing Top 40 pop on everyone else's terms. The ingredients are familiar - a beat borrowed from Sleigh Bells' "Kids," her voice channelling Ellie Goulding, Sia, Rihanna. Swift has never sung more expressively, nor sounded more in tune with the way modern pop production uses the voice as an instrument. Some will call it a concession to pop radio - where all roads lead back to Rihanna.

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But the lyrics, which tick off a dark list of fantasies, are unmistakably Swift. "Me, I was a robber first time that he saw me/ Stealing hearts and running off and never saying sorry." Is she confessing that she's a maneater? Or is she mocking her public image? Unlike "Blank Space", which was a clear wink at the camera, she might be doing both at once.

Instead of accelerating into an anthemic chorus, her voice floats up into the heavens. "In the middle of the night, in my dreams/ You should see the things we do, baby". It's not just a major-key, traditionally Swiftian chorus -- it's one of the prettiest melodies of her career. Deep down, she's still the same wide-eyed romantic Taylor Swift. Or is she? "I know I'm gonna be with you / So I take my time." The beat drops; she pulls the rug out from under us: "Are you ready for it?" Is this a dream, or a nightmare?

And how long has Taylor Swift been holding onto that "He can be my jailer/ Burton to this Taylor" line -- a reference to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor that could only be pulled off by a mind-bogglingly famous woman with the same name? Liz Taylor was an acclaimed performer whose fame often overshadowed her art; sounds familiar. Alongside Richard Burton, her most (in)famous husband, she co-starred in 11 films. Were their tabloid controversies a distraction from Liz's art, or did her whole life -- her characters, romances, public image -- become one grand performance?

Taylor Swift, like Madonna before her, refuses to let the media control her perception. But Swift's not asking us to buy into her personal drama here -- in fact, she's never taken herself less seriously. "Look What You Made Me Do" opened with a line widely interpreted as a Kim/Kanye diss -- "I don't like your little games." On "…Ready for It?", she responds emphatically: "Let the games begin!" Swift's playing the villain, and she knows it.

The accepted wisdom is that Taylor Swift uses her singles to strike back at her exes, or fuel feuds with celebrities. But pop songs are about identification. They're not literal press releases about public figures -- or why would we, the listener, find any emotion in them? While the internet speculates over her politics, argues about how likeable she is, Taylor Swift reinvents herself. That's what pop stars do. It doesn't matter whether or not you like these singles. If you acknowledge that this is a new Taylor Swift, she's already won.

Ultimately, "Look What You Made Me Do" and "…Ready for It?" aren't about Kanye, Katy, or Calvin. They're about Swift herself, and her lesson to us: you don't have to give a damn about your bad reputation.

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