I’ve been pretty successful at avoiding Taylor Swift in the past decade. I’m well aware that she has become a pop culture enigma, but for reasons that are both personal (I don’t like her music and lack of rhythm) and political (for me Swift represents all the possibilities of white mediocrity and privilege), I’ve chosen to disengage. My coworkers are used to me tuning out when they discuss the latests updates in Swift’s world. It’s usually my cue to put on some Beyoncé and turn up the volume. But when it was brought to my attention that Swift’s latest album, reputation, was being packaged in a way that felt a little familiar to fans of Bey, I was at least willing to investigate.
At the centre of my research is the letter that Swift wrote to fans in the digital booklet for reputation. Formatted like a newspaper article, Swift used no fewer than 500 words to speak about the deceptive nature of social media and an internet-based media industry that has helped shape a narrative about her that she clearly doesn’t agree with. It ends with a powerful statement: “We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us. There will be no further explanation. There will only be reputation.” The message is clear. Her days of directly addressing the public about her controversies are over. Her music, reputation, will speak for her.
Reputation certainly has some things to say. She mainly gushes about her most recent boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, but she doesn’t hold back on other topics as well. She addresses a few of her exes, including Tom Hiddleston and Calvin Harris, and her public beef with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. It’s personal. It’s her side of a bunch of stories that people have already read about her in the press. And in this way, it is very much like Beyoncé’s Lemonade — the singer’s latest album, which many people have interpreted as a narrative about the effects of infidelity on her and Jay-Z’s relationship. Like reputation, Lemonade acted as an official statement about the artist, from the artist. It’s the hottest tea, straight from the source.
And it’s also true that Beyoncé’s entire take on PR can be summed up in the letter that Swift wrote to accompany reputation. With the exception of her relatively new and selectively curated Instagram account, Beyoncé largely rejects social media. She doesn’t give statements on her personal life (unless it’s a pregnancy) and if she has beef with anyone, we can only speculate. Fans are used to dead silence from Beyoncé until the music is released. In an age where oversharing is common, expected even, Bey’s mysteriousness is just as admirable as her body of work. And this is where Swift diverged from Queen Bey with reputation.
The first rule of being mysterious is to not tell people that’s what you’re doing. The second rule is to not try too hard. By making such a grand gesture in the form of a letter, Swift broke both rules. The person screaming “I don’t care!” the loudest usually cares the most. Beyoncé didn’t need to contextualise the content of her album, and her reputation continues to be shaped by the things she’s revealed artistically as a result. This isn’t true for Swift because, well, she hasn’t mastered the art of subtlety. I don’t think that it’s fair for critics to shade Swift for “oversharing” in her music. But perhaps it wouldn’t feel like such an overshare if she didn’t announce to the world that her lyrics are breadcrumbs that have been intentionally left to leave fans scrambling for more.