The new, hard-nosed Taylor Swift is a hard sell
After a series of PR disasters, she needed a full stylistic reboot. Has it worked?
Three years ago, the release of Taylor Swift’s album 1989 was the coronation of a true 21st-century superstar. She had already built a hugely successful career by stylistically orbiting Nashville, but this record – Swift’s “first documented official pop album” – blasted her into an even broader realm of cultural relevance.
More recently, Swift has been on the end of more laughs than a Don Rickles punchline. She took a bad defeat in her feud with the Kardashian-Wests after Kim shared a video of a phone conversation between Kanye and Taylor that ostensibly proved the rapper sought approval of a barbed reference in his song Famous, despite the singer’s claims to the opposite. The revelation launched the “Taylor Swift is a snake” meme.
Further PR blows have veered from silly (we all cringed hard enough to break ribs when rumoured beau Tom Hiddleston was captured in that “I Heart TS” shirt) to very serious (Swift has been held up as an icon to emboldened white supremacist groups in the US).
In August, she brilliantly won a court battle against a former radio DJ who groped her, with a withering performance from the witness box.
Swift skilfully unites slimy, grimy sounds with fresh pop vibes in a neat, catchy package
But then, in the build-up to the release of her new album Reputation, which dropped on Friday, she released the single Look What You Made Me Do. Here, she unconvincingly tried to recast herself as a battle-hardened pop warlock in a video that seemed to lift iconography from Beyoncé’s Formation wholesale.
Gags about “mayonnaise in her bag” ran thick. In August, Ireland’s Daily Edge ran a piece titled “The six most embarrassing things Taylor Swift did today”. As Swift’s album beckoned, people were dunking on her at will, and her image was on a par with selfie sticks at concerts and software update notifications.
Here’s the thing, though: all subsequent singles from new album Reputation have been interesting, credible tunes. Ready For It? draws from the same abrasive, industrial sounds Kanye blazed on his thrilling 2013 album Yeezus. That’s until the angular electronics, menacing horns and battering beats are banished by a beam of brighter synths that shine on the chorus. Swift skilfully unites slimy, grimy sounds with fresh pop vibes in a neat, catchy package.
Gorgeous is a sunny, Caribbean-hued ode to the object of Swift’s affection that throws back to her goofier early stuff. Sample lyric: “If you’ve got a girlfriend, I’m jealous of her/ But if you’re single that’s honestly worse.” Then there’s Call It What You Want, which carries a downbeat, creeping unease as Swift appears to concede defeat in some recent battles: “I brought a knife to a gunfight/ They took the crown, but it’s all right”.
These cuts should be a narcotic to radio addicts. But critical evaluations, particularly in pop music, are often influenced by a narrative – and Swift is on a low ebb right now. If you don’t believe me, ask Britney Spears, who made some fine records during her supposed “meltdown” phase and got very little love for them.
The best way for pop stars to end a losing streak is to try a full stylistic reboot. That’s when the narrative shifts into a story of redemption: a phoenix thriving beyond the flames. Swift went hard to change her image on Look What You Made Me Do. The video sees her co-opting snake imagery and even has a section where she lays waste to all her former guises.
It’s an incredibly ambitious project, but a new, hard-nosed Tay Tay is a hard sell. She appears to lack the inner steel to transform into some kind of pop King Leonidas, slaying all her enemies at will. Consider how she’s low-key sniped at Katy Perry over the years: it’s not the sign of a superstar easily brushing dirt off her shoulder.
Her lack of direct engagement in what counts as an American crisis is, at best, tone deaf
Last month, lawyers for Swift sent a cease-and-desist letter to the blog PopFront, after Meghan Herning penned a smart piece that sketched out links between Look What You Made Me Do and white supremacist culture. PopFront responded by getting the American Civil Liberties Union on its side. Swift herself has been silent on the issue.
Of course I don’t believe that Taylor Alison Swift is a card-carrying member of any white supremacist organisation. But her lack of direct engagement in what counts as an American crisis is, at best, tone deaf.
When Cardi B, the Bronx rapper of Caribbean heritage, dislodged Swift from the top of the US singles charts in September, it was cited as a spiritual skirmish in a broader societal conflict.
As Dodai Stewart, editor of Splinter, recently wrote: “The result is a battle for number one that feels more like a battle for America’s soul, with fans hopeful that Cardi B can reach number one, thereby taking with her and uplifting everyone who’s ever felt oppressed, outnumbered, under-represented, disadvantaged or underprivileged.”
Hey hey it’s Tay Tay: Four comeback numbers
Look What You Made Me Do
Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry – Swift puts all her enemies in her crosshairs, but this attempt to cast herself as pop’s new malevolent evil genius is a misfire. No solid blows are landed over producer Jack Antonoff’s throbbing beat as Swift slyly snipes at her foes without being bold enough to mention them by name. And when she breathily croons “ooh, look what you made me do” on the chorus, you’re left to ponder what devilry does she think she’s actually done.
. . . Ready For It?
This one maintained Evil Taylor’s new image, but in a more effective way. Vocally, a strutting Swift sounds far more confident than before, her half-sung, half-rapped flow proving an effective instrument. Evidence that she can do work with a little grit ‘n’ grime on it.
The best of the three numbers released ahead of the Reputation album, Gorgeous is a bouncy, playful pop ditty that’s pure aural taffy – no overreaching ambition or wasted motions. Over “whiskey on ice”, Swift crushes hard on a would-be lover. In these instances, she sounds like a pop star. No need for any more grim eulogies dedicated to the old Taylor. It turns out she still has a pulse.
Call It What You Want
Swift appears to show at least a touch of humility on Call It What You Want, sniping at the “drama kings” and “jokers dressing up as kings” but ultimately accepting that recent beefs have seen the pop crown wrestled from her grasp. Musically, this is woozy, low-key number, with Swift effectively evoking the muted style that Drake once did so well.