Not sure what to anticipate from Taylor Swift’s long-awaited sixth full-length, Reputation? One of the singles from her previous era, “Blank Space,” may very well be the best context clue we’ve got at this point.
The 1989 single and its accompanying music video served as a best-case example of strategic satire upon its release. Prior to “Blank Space,” part of Swift’s narrative had been her whirlwind dating life — the number of her romantic partners often refracted in a negative light by the media. Even casual fans who weren’t able to identify the specifics of the Harry Styles dating timeline versus the John Mayer dating timeline were at least aware that Swift had been in a number of relationships since her 2008 professional breakthrough. This was, apparently, a problem.
“Her ubiquity, not to mention her dating history, has begun to stir what feels like the beginning of a backlash,” read a New York Times piece from March 2013 — when Swift was still in the midst of her Red run, before she had emphatically crossed over to pop — titled ‘Taylor Swift Gets Some Mud on Her Boots.’ Part of this mass perception could undoubtedly be chalked up to sexism; the combination of being popular and also dating a handful of people would be unlikely to inspire a “backlash” for a male artist in their mid-20s.
Fair or not, however, this general belief presented a problem for Swift. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were joking about her love life! Her Q score was down! Swift has proven time and again that she is hyper-aware of the chinks in her armor. How does a music superstar recover her previously unassailable image?
With “Blank Space,” Swift changed the narrative by forcing her critics to laugh with her, not at her. The single painted her as a siren singing wayward pretty boys to their ruin: on “Blank Space,” Swift seethes that she’s bent on having eternal love or no love at all, that she’s a “nightmare dressed like a daydream.” She owned the fact that she had “a long list of ex-lovers” and then pushed that fact to its comical extreme in the song’s music video, in which she plays a wild-eyed villain in a Barbie dream house cycling through male conquests.
After being criticized for her love life, Swift showed herself stabbing the blood out of a heart-shaped cake. The self-mockery worked commercially: “Blank Space” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and with 2.1 billion views on YouTube, its music video is one of the most-viewed in the platform’s history. More importantly, the tactic helped Swift regain the upper hand in the battle over her public image. People were taking potshots at her dating history, so Swift decided to deliver the cleverest takedown herself.
Fast-forward three years: the “mud on her boots” has become a full-on revolt, depending on who you ask. After releasing an album every other year since the beginning of her career, Swift took 2016 off, and the year was not kind to her.
Ghost-writing a song for Calvin Harris resulted in a series of Twitter shots from her ex-boyfriend, who accused Swift of trying to “make me look bad” and “bury” him. Then, there was the Great Kimye-Swift Battle of 2016, over the details of what Swift did or did not know about Kanye West’s song “Famous” prior to its release. Everyone remembers the Snapchat clips, the “excluded from this narrative” response, the #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty hashtag that started during the Harris drama and was quickly revived during this argument.
And to end the year, Swift pissed off some of her more politically active fans by refusing to throw her weight behind either candidate in the 2016 presidential election. She encouraged Americans to vote, but did not say for whom. This was a mistake in the eyes of some, who were hoping that one of the biggest mainstream stars in the country would utilize her message of female empowerment against Donald Trump.
Let’s take a step back: none of these offenses are particularly heinous, malicious or anything close to criminal. They essentially amount to inter-celebrity beefing, plus not speaking out during an election season where dozens of top-line artists remained similarly mum. Yet they combined to portray Swift as teetering on disingenuous. Was the songwriter who struck a blow against bullies on “Mean” in 2010 apparently trying to “bury” another artist like Harris? Was Swift, who was infamously upstaged by Kanye West in 2009, being dishonest about their “Famous” exchange? And why would an advocate of women’s rights not publicly support the first female candidate for president on a major party’s ticket?
These questions were being asked, fairly or not, by fans and non-fans. If Swift does not answer them specifically within her new album, Reputation, she appears ready to springboard into the conversation that they are part of.
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) August 23, 2017
Without hearing a second of new music yet, it can be assumed that Swift will not ignore last year’s negative-leaning headlines — based on the literal headlines scrawled across her LP cover. It’s a striking image: Swift’s name written over and over again as she looks on, emotionless and partially engulfed by the words.
The title of the album, Reputation, is also the perfect suggestion of Swift meeting her critics head-on in her new music instead of shoving it to the side and moving on. There’s no chance of Swift letting bygones be bygones here; whether on her first single or elsewhere on her new album, she is going to address the evolution of her reputation from America’s sweetheart to the subject of an #IsOverParty.
The most encouraging tease for the Reputation cycle thus far has been the series of snake videos she posted to her social media pages prior to the album announcement. Pop obsessives will remember that the snake emoji flooded Swift’s mentions following the showdown with Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West; the presumption that Swift had been two-faced in their conversation provoked a new, negative association. A year later, Swift is co-opting that shorthand and making it her own in order to preview her next era.
It’s too early to say whether the imagery means Swift has turned heel and adopted a villainous side — think LeBron James when he was welcoming boos and winning championships on the Miami Heat — or if she’s simply showing that she’s got the fangs to bite back at her critics. Regardless, there’s a darker aesthetic at work here, and that’s an exciting musical development for a brilliant songwriter who has flirted with her edgier side but never fully unpacked it. After five albums of mostly presenting an immaculate public image, there’s fresh terrain for Swift to cover in the cracks of her persona, and it looks like she’s ready to explore it.
Questions abound about the sound, style and specific themes of Reputation; there will hopefully be some clarity when its lead single arrives. But the one thing we know about her next project is that it will try to alter the narrative of Taylor Swift that everyone looking from the outside thinks they know. This is what Swift does: control her story, even when it’s not necessarily flattering. She’s coming back while facing the most pronounced backlash of her career, and she’s going to say her piece.
“I can make all the tables turn,” Swift sang in the middle of “Blank Space.” So far, she has. With Reputation, she may try to do it again.