clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What Is Taylor Swift Doing?

Her next album is called ‘Reputation’ and the cover art is aimed at the media—let’s analyze this

'Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology' Costume Institute Gala Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for People.com

The snake videos have ceased, and now we finally know: Taylor Swift’s next album is called Reputation, and it’ll be out on November 10. The singer made the announcement on Twitter and Instagram, posting what appears to be the album’s cover art. And it’s … interesting, to say the least. There are many different, newspaper-style fonts; Swift sports an edgier look and wears a choker and tattered clothes. There’s plenty to analyze here — not least the implications of Taylor Swift naming an album Reputation — so let’s do exactly that. Let’s ask, “What is Taylor Swift doing?”

Lindsay Zoladz: There can be only one explanation. For the album title. For the Ally McBeal’s–baby-grade snake clip art. For the Forever 21–knockoff Yeezy Season 3 she’s wearing on the cover. Taylor Swift is still mad about Kanye West’s “Famous” lyric, and it’s drawing her further into herself.

To know Taylor Swift, you have to know which Kanye West lyric made her so (performatively) angry. It wasn’t the ostensibly more crass “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex”; she was more pissed that Kanye would say of her, on his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, “I made that bitch famous” (it’s too silly a statement to take on its face anyway, seeing as Kanye is referring to a moment during which Swift was literally accepting an award on TV). One message Swift has always tried to project, loud and clear, is that she and she alone is responsible for her success, through a combination of songwriting talent, promotional savvy, and good old-fashioned elbow grease. Calling her album Reputation is probably a reassertion of that. And to be sure, it’s an important message for young women to hear; as she said to them directly in her 2016 Grammy acceptance speech, “There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments.” But whenever Swift starts walking this particular tightrope, the lines between normal person and celebrity, relatability and petty A-list insularity begin to blur. Swift, at best, is able to connect with her fans by teasing out the similarities between her inner life and theirs. Reputation’s cover and its solipsistic, army-of-one design (“taylorswifttaylorswiftTAYLORSWIFT”), then, have me a little worried. At the moment when many think that the next step in Swift’s artistic maturity would require her looking further outside her own bubble, Reputation sounds like what an unrelatable famous person would call an album about the tea leaves in their own belly button lint.

A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

Alyssa Bereznak: Publicly, Swift has listed “getting arrested” and “Googling herself” as her biggest fears. But if that were the case, she wouldn’t have made an album that, according to its weird cover art, appears to reference her reputation in the news. The truth is, she knows exactly what everyone said about her around the time she lost her “Famous”-inspired receipts battle, and she’s ready to play the villain that we all made her out to be. (Hence the anticlimactic snake videos and silly chain choker aesthetic.)

This is a space that Swift is comfortable in. On 1989 she used her “Blank Space” video to exaggerate the man-eater image her various high-profile romances had earned her. And in this album she has the chance to do the same with the more recent (and in my opinion, highly accurate) narrative that she is a calculated media genius who knows exactly how to manipulate the news cycle. The problem here is that the “Blank Space” schtick was a mild commentary on how the media skewers female celebrities for dating around, whereas Reputation could very well veer into a long, poppy complaint that the media has wronged her. Her only real chance of avoiding that is if she breaks the third communication wall and admits that (1) she really does follow along with what the internet is saying about her, and (2) she has the skill set of a ruthless public relations strategist. Any other approach to take on “the media” is going to feel dishonest.

Justin Charity: Swift is launching her own podcast, called Reputation, on Channel 33. Using the power of midgrade desktop microphones, Taylor will lock down her narrative and put the haters on notice in a weekly format for easy listening. Stay tuned, as Taylor may even premiere new music from her forthcoming album, which is not called Reputation and is not coming out on November 10.

Andrew Gruttadaro: Most specifically, I think Taylor Swift is wearing her choker wrong:

That’s too tight. After this photo shoot was over and Taylor deemed that they had properly captured her “Lindsay Weir tries grunge in Freaks and Geeks” look, I bet she took that choker off and there were weird marks encircling her neck. I never worked at Hot Topic, but I assume mild throat perforation is a sign that your choker is on too tight. Now, I’m sure this is meant to be a symbol of how Taylor feels choked by the media and so on and so forth, but I think she could have gotten there without inflicting bodily harm.

Alison Herman: Taylor has long played insistently, annoyingly coy about her politics: a generic picture outside a voting booth instead of an endorsement; a cheerleader-y Instagram post about the Women’s March instead of actual attendance. Choosing to be apolitical is an understandable-enough choice for a multimillion-dollar enterprise such as Swift, but in 2016 watching her flirt with politics without actually committing to a party, candidate, or ideology was just exasperating. Dedicating an album cover to slandering the media suggests that her silence is about to be over — and that the belief system behind that photo is not what we in the godless #fakenews liberal establishment might like it to be. On the other hand: What better way to go full heel turn than to align with someone whose approval rating is currently wallowing in the 30s? Birds of a victim-complex-having feather beloved by white women flock together!

Kate Knibbs: How do you raise awareness for a cause? Some people dump a bunch of ice on themselves and post it on Facebook. Some people do “fun runs.” Some people wear novelty T-shirts. Taylor Swift has generously donated her next album cover to cataloging all the ugly fonts. Will her attempt at starting a conversation about ugly fonts be successful? Too soon to say, but I’ve definitely typed the phrase “ugly fonts” more in this paragraph than I ever have before.

Rob Harvilla: “I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17,” Britney Spears once sang. Taylor Swift was only 16 when she released her 2006 self-titled debut album and her own M.A.D. tenure began, a small-town Pennsylvania girl dragging doofus small-town ex-boyfriends into the national spotlight. From “Picture to Burn” forward, she’s used that spotlight like an ant-frying magnifying glass; at her apex, she fried poor John Mayer himself. Even her angriest, most wounded and victimized songs — 2010’s “Mean” comes to mind — have a Power Imbalance problem, a deified pop superstar lambasting critics with a tiny fraction of her prominence. Taylor excels in many roles; underdog ain’t one of them.

She’s had it relatively easy in the press given her towering fame, is my point. Reputation’s surly cover image suggests that Swift will most likely throw hands at the media for improperly covering her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West — two of the very few living humans as ungodly famous as herself. As Pop Songs Complaining of Media Mistreatment go, Britney’s 2007 robo-pop jam “Piece of Me,” fizzy and exasperated and indignant and delightful, is a likely blueprint for this endeavor. But Brit had far more legitimate grievances against the celebrity-industrial complex; hell, against MTV alone. Taylor’s war with Kim and Kanye over “Famous” is murky and nuanced and unpleasant, but many of her wounds are self-inflicted, or at least proof that she’d finally found an adversary she couldn’t push around. Whether she’s got a pure pop song as sublime as “Piece of Me” in her is debatable; what she doesn’t have, and what Spears at least debatably had, is the undisputed high ground.