Perhaps with Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, the analogy ‘never judge a book by its cover’ has never been more deserved. ‘Reputation’ sells itself as a boisterous depiction of a woman so confident and unforgiving, she is pursued by infamy. Behind this façade, the album reveals itself to be a story of love when it is most needed; finding a soulmate in an unforgiving storm.
Needless to say, ‘reputation’ was conceived in the darkest moments of Swift’s life, perhaps a creative catalyst for any artist. In the mid-2010s, she had reached a monumental career-peak with her culture-shaping 1989, topping the charts with a gorgeous collection of songs about the reckless abandon and destructive romance of the twenty-something woman. Suddenly in a league of her own and untouchable to pop music peers, she could only go one way: down.
2016 saw the downfall (and the making) of Taylor Swift. Poetic justice reigned supreme, and the castle Swift had built had to come crashing down; her public image was in tatters. In a year of chaos, public opinion had declared her somewhat culturally redundant. She had become an unwilling poster-girl for conservative politics due to her passiveness during a crucial election period, and her on/off feud with Kanye West had reached its messy boiling point. A bizarre modern-day public shaming ensued, with the #TaylorSwiftisOverParty trending worldwide. Among the countless snake emojis, one thing was decided: Taylor Swift is a cultural relic, another artist who failed to adapt and reinvent successfully – she’d committed the crime of becoming boring and uncool, and that was that.
After over a year of complete social media radio silence, Swift dared to return to the limelight in 2017, announcing her follow-up album, ‘reputation’. Declaring that she wouldn’t undergo a typical (and arduous) promotion cycle, one thing was clear. This was her side of the story. The secret diary of a mega-star. It would speak for itself, and frankly, we could take it or leave it.
Certainly, ‘reputation’ marked one of the biggest shifts in Swift’s image. The girl-next-door was discarded, and in her place, a woman with tousled hair, black lipstick, and oversized clothes. Sonically too, the album’s singles were without her trademark guitar, instead populated by Jack Antonoff’s synth-heavy production – it was bold and bombastic, and it subverted everything we thought we knew about Taylor Swift.
Still, there’s something inherently dichotomous about ‘reputation’, proving itself to be a coin with two vastly different faces. The first, we were expecting: a collection of songs addressing Swift’s fractured image. On tracks like ‘I Did Something Bad’, she writes about her vilification, confidently declaring that she was misunderstood, as she belts “they’re burning all of the witches even if you aren’t one”. Set to garish production Swift relishes in the character-version of her created by the media. Being wilfully camp, she embodies the character of a woman wrapped up in her stardom; she’s cold and calculated, flying her lovers across the world to entrap them in her web, only to discard them, left with a broken heart to remember her by.
But nestled a few tracks into ‘reputation’ there’s a different story. Specifically, a love story.
If ‘Red’ represents the enchantment of autumn, then ‘reputation’ represents the inevitable winter with all its symbolic dualities, capturing the war between a harsh world and a soft sort of love. It’s ultimately a parable about escaping the chaos of a bitterly cold storm, retreating into the warm arms of a reliable lover. On one of the album’s most intimate songs, ‘Call It What You Want’¸ Swift sings “All the drama queens taking swings, all the jokers dressing up as kings – they fade to nothing when I look at him”.
In many ways, ‘reputation’ is a modern fable on a fractured 21st century. It acknowledges a climate of hyper-consumption, insecurity, and social media dependency, wherein we’re all-too accustomed to judging another’s character. This is Taylor Swift’s lesson to you: step away from the noise of the world and grow to love the silence. Let the drama fade away and open up to love. Then, you’ll understand what’s truly important.