To say that Taylor Swift’s image has changed over the course of her career would be an understatement. Since her first album came out in 2006 she has grown up, and her brand has documented her growth. Along the way, she’s dealt with a series of public criticisms and feuds, most recently with Kanye West, resulting in what many believed was the end of Swift’s career. However, just over a year after the saga, the singer came out with a single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” where she declared that the “Old Taylor” was “dead.” As Swift gradually returned to social media and released more songs and eventually her sixth album, reputation, in November 2017, she intended to show the world that she really had changed, and was more honest and open than before. Swift, who knows better than any other artist just how to play the game of being a celebrity, changes her image frequently, and is usually successful. Her problem this time is that she struggles to become a New Taylor, because her old self still shines through.
Swift’s first album, Taylor Swift, introduced to the world a promising young singer-songwriter, whose songs showed that she was innocent, intelligent, and hopelessly romantic. After a few smaller releases, she debuted Fearless, her sophomore album, in 2008. Swift gained more fame — but she also faced more setbacks. After winning numerous Grammys for that album, Swift had her first run-in with Kanye West at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. As Swift accepted the award for “Best Female Video,” West stormed onstage, snatched the mic, and announced that Beyoncé had “one of the best videos of all time” and should have won. Swift dealt with it with poise and maturity, but was visibly shocked.
Swift wrote her third studio album, Speak Now, entirely by herself with no assistance, making it her most revealing album yet. Two songs on the album seemed to address Kanye West: “Mean,” which became a hit single, fought back at West as well as at other critics, while “Innocent,” seemed instead to forgive West for the infamous MTV VMA incident. Swift showcased her reputation as trusting girl who dreamed of perfect love stories, and her fans loved her for it. Yet her persona began to falter — was she a sweet country girl, or an angry vengeful one? One New York Times article wrote, “The great accomplishment of [Speak Now] is that Ms. Swift is at her most musically adventurous when she’s most incensed.” But Swift had already shown the world just how aware she was of her own reputation when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 2009. In her opening “Monologue Song,” Swift ironically sang,
“I like writing songs about douche bags who cheat on me / But I’m not gonna say that / In my monologue! / I like writing their names into songs so they’re ashamed to go in public, / But I’m not gonna say that / In my monologue.”
As the rumors and backlash grew, Swift made her first major image change. In her next album’s lead single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” a song that had much less of a country twang than her previous hits, Swift described a boyfriend listening to “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” This self-aware view of her own image as a mainstream pop artist showed the world that although she might have appeared to be just another ditsy pop starlet, Swift was smarter. For this album, Red, Swift changed her look: she wore red lipstick and straightened her youthful curly hair. She was growing up, and her album, featuring an eclectic mix of country and pop songs, showed it. Yet the rumors and backlash returned, as people judged her for her dating habits and her tendency to write overly confessional songs.
So in 2014, Swift debuted 1989, and made the official switch from country to pop, once again changing her image to reclaim her narrative, this time showing a new relationship with criticism. Her lead single, “Shake It Off,” told the world that no matter what the “haters” and “heartbreakers” did, she would always shake it off. “Blank Space,” her second single, smartly satirized the reputation she’d gained as a crazy ex-girlfriend. Swift was now a short-haired, stylish, savvy millennial with famous friends and a popular and successful boyfriend (Calvin Harris), and her fans idolized her for it.
And then came the Kanye West scandal. West and Swift had appeared to have finally become friends, but when West came out with “Famous,” a song in which he boasted, “I made that b**** famous,” Swift claimed to be appalled. She publicly spoke out against the song, most prominently in a passive-aggressive acceptance speech for “Album of the Year” at the 2016 Grammys. But in June, Kim Kardashian West posted video proof that Swift had approved the lyrics prior to their release. The internet erupted, with critics proclaiming that Swift was a liar who had played up her innocence to hurt West’s reputation. The backlash was bad enough that she went underground, not even using social media. It was time for another character change.
Therefore, it should have come as no surprise to Swift fans when she released the bold “Look What You Made Me Do” in August 2017, a single off a brand new album. The song overtly addressed the impact of the drama with Kanye and Kim. The most telling line came near the end of the song, when she said, “The Old Taylor can’t come the phone right now. […] ‘cause she’s dead!” The music video that followed was equally self-aware, ending with a conversation between caricatures of her personas from the last decade. Each Taylor insulted the others, often using direct quotes from criticism that she had received over the years. Swift endeavored to show the world that she was done playing media games by directly addressing the criticism and insults, and showing that, from now on, she would be herself and not some persona. But what listeners have to remember is that every time she shows the world a “new” side of hers, she just spins her story a different way, creating a new arc for the character she plays. With the release of her newest album, reputation, Swift portrays a mature adult woman who has grown hard and jaded from dealing with rejection, heartbreak, and judgement. However, the way Swift keeps trying to show the world just how far she has come may finally be getting stale.
Swift released reputation on November 10, 2017, and, to nobody’s surprise, it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The album tells the tale of a supposedly messy life in the spotlight, constantly pushing this concept of a grown-up version of Swift. Musically, she crafts the “New Taylor” image by diving into sides of pop music that her previous albums never explored. In “End Game” (featuring Ed Sheeran and Future) and “…Ready For It?” Swift tries hip hop, while “I Did Something Bad” uses a heavy electronic beat, and “Delicate” even incorporates a vocoder. Yet some things are still the same. This musical evolution is part of something that Swift has been building for the past five albums, and songs like “Getaway Car” and “New Year’s Day,” which are beautiful and nuanced, actually embrace “Old Taylor” style.
Lyrically, the album covers a host of topics. As anticipated, “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” tackle the PR disaster that resulted from her feud with Kanye West. Similarly, “I Did Something Bad,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Getaway Car” give fans what they expect, because these songs focus on endings of previous relationships, something Swift’s music has always addressed. But the rest of the album describes the unexpected love that she found with her current boyfriend, a love that came at the time when she needed it most. In “Call It What You Want,” she sings about how although her “castle crumbled overnight,” she is “doing better than [she] ever was.” These parts of the album feel especially beautiful because they seem genuine; this is the honesty that Swift seems to be aiming for.
However, Swift’s desire to carve a new image for herself feels almost desperate. She discusses alcohol many times, something that could never have occurred in previous albums, but it comes off in a way that evokes a kid who wants to seem cool and grown-up for drinking. Similarly, when she alludes to her newfound sexuality, lines like “Only bought this dress so you could take it off” (from “Dress”) just feel overdone. Swift even swears now! She clearly wants to continue controlling the way the media views her womanhood, but it feels forced. She struggles to be convincing in her new persona, because it feels like a facade covering the old one.
Thus, although Swift continues to do what she always has done, she is less successful this time around. She has been a media mastermind since her care-free, curly-haired, country days, and each time she faces criticism, she responds by drawing attention back to herself through clever songwriting and savvy manipulation. But her latest album, reputation, deals with a defamation so severe that the album has to reinvent the essence of Taylor Swift, and it falls short not because the music is bad, but because the reinvention is not convincing enough. Swift will likely continue to alter her image in future albums, because that is how she documents her growth and maturation. And she may even be successful with it in the future. For now, however, reputation fails to convince listeners that she’s grown; instead, it is simply a well-written album that reveals Swift’s desire to reach a new level of stardom.