Taylor Swift became a household name in her teens, circa 2006. She was blonde and often heartbroken. She dripped tears on her guitar. She declared a love for Tim McGraw, a similarly sappy country singer. She peddled herself as a small-town girl who only wanted to figure out how to belong. And how, possibly, she might stop her lovers from leaving her. In the song "A Place in this World," which appeared on her debut album Taylor Swift, Swift declares herself "just a girl trying to find a place in this world."
"I'll be strong/I'll be wrong/Oh, but life goes on," she sang. She was independent, but she was meek. Taylor Swift wasn't going to cause a ruckus. She was a kind of schoolgirl role model: she would keep her head down, and she would maintain her composure. Her fans were primarily girls her own age and younger. She avoided sexy photoshoots, telling the Telegraph in 2011 that it wouldn't be "necessary," as she dressed modestly in her everyday life anyway.
Swift gave advice at her concerts, encouraging her younger, more vulnerable fan base to be confident in themselves. "When you start to compare yourself to other people, please change the channel in your mind to something else," she told the audience in Manchester, England in 2015.
In general, people were evil ("People throw rocks at things that shine," she sings in "Mine."), but her fans good of heart, and all they had to do was stay the course. Her lyrics championed being "strong" ("A Place In This World") or promised an idyllic future in which criticism wouldn't matter ("Change"). Buzzfeed's Ellie Woodward pointed out in 2016 that Swift has spent much of her career playing the victim. Taylor Swift was a girl who, despite all the odds, managed to stay good in a world full of temptation. People could goad her, but she wouldn't bite that apple.
Enter: reputation. The new Taylor Swift is totally okay with causing a ruckus. In 2017, everything she does is designed to provoke. Her newest album, which dropped Friday, is an exploration of its title, and it is anything but meek, for better or for worse.
Swift sends this message as many other musicians have — through taboos like sex, alcohol, and even drugs, sort of. Remember when Miley sang about "molly" and we all clutched our pearls? Swift does her own version of this on reputation by acknowledging intoxicating things. The old Taylor didn't need drugs, it seemed. Instead, she found innocuous things inebriating and waxed poetic about it — she loved how her boyfriend walked with his hands in his pockets, and she found the simplest things like "slam of screen doors" titillating.
New Taylor imbibes, though. She drinks whiskey in "Gorgeous." She sips wine in the bathtub in "Dress." And she's not just sipping top-shelf liquor. She goes to a dive bar in "Delicate"! She drinks beer from a plastic cup (presumably a red Solo one) in "King of My Heart"! She's not only drinking, either. She's getting drunk. She's crossing the social boundary between "drinking" and "inebriated." When "Gorgeous" dropped, we noted that she'd never sung about alcohol before. Even in her song "22," which appeared on her Red album back in the days of New Taylor, there is nary a mention of wine, beer, or liquor.
New Taylor also gets down. She has sex. The song "Dress" is a slow-churn pop ballad about Swift's lover removing her dress. In the song, she "carves" her lover's name into her bed post, a nod to the practice of counting one's sexual conquests on a wooden bedpost. Her lover is scratching at her back in "So It Goes" and he's her drug in "Don't Blame Me." Swift is admitting that she's human — she has predilections and addictions, and, more importantly, she's the agent of them. The new Taylor isn't the sneaker-wearing girl on the bleachers, waiting for her love to arrive. She pursues a more tilted existence, one where she can get tipsy and break the rules.
This is all made clear by the third song on the album "I Did Something Bad." Yeah, uh, Swift's a bad girl now, in case she didn't make her point. The song is a pretty direct reference to the drama between Swift and rapper Kanye West — "If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing/I don't regret it one bit, 'cause he had it coming," she says, probably referring to West calling her "that bitch" on his song "Famous." Swift knows she did something arbitrarily bad, but she doesn't care. Swift admits to lying to West, and perhaps other accusers in her life, in the song ("for every lie I tell them/They tell me three").
"They say I did something bad/Then why's it feel so good?" she asks. This rhetorical question isn't that different from Rihanna's chorus, "I may be bad but I'm perfectly good at it." Granted, Rihanna has less to be sorry for. Swift has made some public missteps, and an apology might be wise at this point. But, that's not New Taylor's policy. Bad Girl Taylor Swift takes no prisoners, and doesn't renege on her decisions. Saying sorry is being vulnerable, and new Taylor is all bark and bite.
The bark and bite is there musically, too, which might be the album's greatest weakness. Swift wants to a cause a ruckus, so her new music is raucous. Swift introduces a lot of auto-tune (a Kanye West staple) in the album, and some aggressive bass. If old Taylor was just a girl with a guitar, new Taylor is fifteen girls and a chorus of synthesizers. It's like the soundtrack for Stranger Things 2 is out for revenge. Actually, Stranger Things 2 had its gentle moments. The only moment of quiet Swift really gives us in reputation is on "New Year's Day," the final song, which feels like a nod toward the old Taylor. (New Year's Day is a day of resolution, right? Maybe Swift is resolving to start over again. Maybe that's her apology.)
In the introductory letter to Swift's album, the musician explains that she is neither good or bad — she, like all humans, is a "mosaic" of things good and bad.
"We are all a mixture of selfishness and generosity, loyalty and self-preservation, pragmatism and impulsiveness," she writes. She's no longer a role model, maybe, because role models are overrated anyway. No one is "just a girl." Life's stickier than that.
Publicly, at least, Swift seems to have left her protective (and illusory) Garden of Eden. However, as the Times highlighted earlier this week, Swift is in many ways the same 2006-era pop star on Tumblr. Writer Joe Coscarelli pointed out that Swift uses the platform to interact with her most obsessive fans to a degree that almost feels intimate. She champions them when they champion her, creating a Round Robin of Swiftie support. Similarly, Swift held several advance listening sessions for reputation with her biggest fans. Reputation is an unapologetic album, perhaps because Swift surrounds herself with the people she would never need to apologize to.
Years after Kanye West stepped on stage at the 2009 VMAs, interrupting Swift's acceptance speech, Swift asked politely that she be left out of this still-ongoing "narrative." How demure of her. She just wanted to find a place in this world, you know? She didn't want to get involved, because getting involved meant being vulnerable to critique. It also meant having opinions, and being an agent, and doing things that couldn't be considered demure.
What's that trite adage about women and behavior? Oh, yeah. "Well-behaved women rarely make history." Being a good role model can only go so far. New Taylor is here, and she's okay ruffling a few feathers. She's down to drink and have sex and swear, just so long as we don't forget about her.
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