Taylor Swift Is Too Big to Fail
The pop star returns with a middling record but her commitment to staying quiet, engaging with her fanbase, and not addressing anything has proven a win for her anyway.
Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
When Taylor Swift teased what would be her first single “Look What You Made Me Do” from her forthcoming sixth album, Reputation, she did it during a total solar eclipse. After more than a year of silence—of a wiped social media presence and forcefully excusing herself from all of our narratives—she tried to outshine a massive astronomical event. Swift had finally returned with new music, and she was not the least bit subtle about it. Yet, when “Look What You Made Me Do” came out, it got panned by critics. It looked a little too much like a drag of Kanye West (“I hate your tilted stage.”) It seemed that she metabolized all of our criticisms and handed them back to us in the form of biting lyrics and snake imagery in the song’s video. Yes, the Old Taylor is dead, she declared, but it seemed like New Taylor still lived in the past; looking back to a 2016 petty fight with West and Kim Kardashian West when 2017 admittedly held more important conversations. Conversations, to be clear, Swift doesn’t want to be part of.
Things didn’t look that good for Swift’s return: her rollout failed, initially, with her lead single usurped by Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” on the Billboard 100, and all of her subsequent singles charted low with “...Ready For It?” currently sitting at 19 and “Gorgeous” currently at 69. During this time, more importantly, the accusations of Swift as alt-right were something she deftly avoided publicly. Swift’s centrism has been contentious, to say the least. No one knows who she voted for, where she throws her support, and why she remained silent when so many of her peers have vocalized their distaste for Trump as a president and human. She has been called to action but won’t come through, which is a contradiction from her last album cycle. When 1989 came out, Swift was hyper vocal about feminism, an important signifier then, and her silence now is a complete 180 in character. Swift has remained steadfast in her silence; in her very if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-it-at-all lane.
And yet, knowing all of that, Reputation is the bestselling album of 2017 so far.
Reputation is an… album. It certainly isn’t her best or even her second best. But the quality doesn’t matter that much and, on some level, we all knew that. Taylor Swift is not simply a pop musician, she is transcendent of that; she’s on a tier only a handful will ever achieve. Swift didn’t do any major interviews in the run-up to this release (she didn’t have to.) She returned to her base and communicated exclusively with her fans on Tumblr, catering to them instead of appealing to the media or a broader audience, choosing to explain nothing at all. She sees the media as an enemy now. She has recently made a habit of levelling lawsuits against publications and blogs for anything perceived to be a libellous statement. Media is in a particularly onerous spot with people declaring whatever they feel is contentious or slight to be fake news. Taylor Swift is agnostic, in a sense, with respect to politics. She’s agnostic of current events. The claims that she’s an aryan icon don’t affect her. Neither does her perceived failure to denounce Trump. Swift is pure entertainment; that’s what she’s always been known to be, what she’s best at being, and how she’ll probably remain. She’s huge and the profits show that. Taylor Swift is too big to fail.
On a musical level, Reputation is disappointing because Swift is such a powerhouse pop performer. Red and 1989 have proven that to us. But on Reputation, (her first as an executive producer) her lyrics often read like Tinder bio descriptions to her exes. She’s loosened up: she says “shit,” she sings about sex and swooning after a guy who she isn’t dating, and she likes whiskey. Thematically, Swift doesn’t pivot away from her wheelhouse: it’s full of revenge, lust, and our underestimation of her; completely internal, not at all external. As Lindsay Zoladz put it in her review for The Ringer, Swift has forever been in an “I’ll show you pose”— a kid stuck, still, telling her friends, crushes, exes, whomever, that they are profoundly wrong about her. But she doesn’t necessarily correct them in any substantial way on this record. Her lyrics—like on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” where she sings: “Did you think I wouldn't hear all the things you said about me?/This is why we can't have nice things”—are an attempt at an evisceration that fizzle out before they hit their target. That is her focus.
Sonically, it’s mostly fine, not great. “Gorgeous” sounds an awful lot like an Imogen Heap song, but Imogen Heap will always do it better. To her credit, the first three songs on the album are bangers and can almost trick yourself into thinking the rest of it will be good. “... Ready For It?” is intoxicating; “End Game” and Swift’s booming “you and me, we got big reputations” in-between Future and Ed Sheeran’s rapping is genuinely exciting at times; and “I Did Something Bad” is a memorable track, though the lyrics “They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one/ They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons” aren’t ideal because who wants to share the same rhetoric the U.S president currently (mis)uses? Swift went big on this album, enlisting both Max Martin and producer-du-jour Jack Antonoff, who may have used his better material on records with Lorde and St. Vincent, both out earlier this year. Swift swerves between the sounds of today’s pop, hip-hop, and trap, but doesn’t do it that well, though some critics, puzzlingly, call it innovative to distill (borrow) from today’s sounds so effectively. It’s a mish-mash of other personas, which, if she did that on purpose, is one thing. Being messy and human and confronting what matters is another. Swift barely shows us who she is at all.
Other pop star contemporaries of Swift’s have been politically vocal. Katy Perry’s entire album, Witness, is about being “conscious” (whatever that really means.) She was an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton. Lana Del Rey, who avoids being pulled into the political realm, admitted her disappointment in America, saying she won’t show the American flag during her shows anymore. On her album Lust For Life, which came out in June, her track “When The World Was At War and We Kept Dancing” posited the question: “Is this the end of an era? Is this the end of America?” Even one of Swift’s best friends, Lorde, tweeted, [sic] “i just want to say i'm so, so sorry. all white people are responsible for this system's thrive and fall. we have to do better. i'm sorry.”
Swift won’t easily admit her whiteness, her position, and privilege, the way Lorde does. That could potentially disrupt her fan base, something that she is deeply protective of preserving. By keeping herself out of the conversations happening around her, she has found space for people who are of unbelievably different beliefs to collectively enjoy her music and her as entertainment. And that has paid off for her economically. Whether her centrism is a strategy to propel her further along in her career is something for the future. But for now, nothing can really stop her.
Sarah MacDonald is an Assistant Editor at Noisey Canada. Don't follow her on Twitter.