All The Drama Of Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’, Decoded By A Superfan
Strap yourself in.
To mark the release of Reputation, we’ve enlisted Taylor Swift stan KAITLYN PLYLEY to give us a superfan’s read of 2017’s most headline-grabbing album.
“When you become famous at 21 or 22, you stop growing up… you’ve got to leave yourself behind.” These were the musings of Lady Gaga in her 2017 documentary Five Foot Two. I kept remembering these words as I listened to Taylor Swift’s latest studio album, Reputation, released last week.
Swift, now promoting her sixth studio album, became famous at the age of 15. But Reputation shows the 27-year-old megastar growing up, sometimes painfully — and finding herself amid the wreckage of her public persona.
This album isn’t just an angry popstar lashing out at her critics, or a lovesick young woman singing about her beau. Reputation contains both of those elements, but the overall impression is that of a woman who is finally out of fucks to give. You won’t find much self-pity in here.
Rather, this is a powerful woman grappling with her own ego and insecurities, and her need to be loved by everyone, while her every move is documented. Her misdemeanours finally catch up with her and she is forced to adjust her priorities.
As with any good Swift narrative, this journey is told through acute examinations of relationships that represented her emotional state at the time.
So, let’s parse this tracklist!
The album opens with the throbbing baseline of ‘… Ready For It?’ The vocals soar in the pre-chorus, but the lyrics introduce a cynical Swift.
She knows “how this is gonna go” with her new love interest — island hideouts and midnight rendezvous are de rigeur for Swift now. Then, she delivers a lyric that would sound trite on the lips of any other artist: “Touch me and you’ll never be alone.”
Taken literally, anyone who touches Taylor Swift will never be left alone by the public again. Tom Hiddleston and Calvin Harris were hunted while jogging or hitting the gym; Jake Gyllenhaal still gets asked about her in interviews, seven years later. Even a journalist whose hand Taylor briefly grabbed once while pulling her through a throng of paparazzi was hounded by teenage girls on Facebook.
Taylor is warning her potential paramour: dating her means you’ll never have a moment’s peace again.
‘End Game’ is a cypher on trying to make deeper connections when rumours precede you, featuring Swift pal/fellow pop heavyweight Ed Sheeran and Atlanta rapper Future. In her verse, Swift smirks, “I swear I don’t love the drama — it loves me!” Amidst the rollicking bravado, she acknowledges that her new love interest has been seeing through all her “usual tricks”. The perfect, shiny, squeaky-clean Taylor of 1989 is gone and New Taylor is admitting she’s not wide-eyed or completely innocent.
‘Don’t Blame Me’ continues the theme of a larger-than-life femme fatale raging against culpability, avoiding her deeper issues. But the big sound and bombast we’ve heard so far on the album is punctured with ‘Delicate’, a shivering monologue of insecurities and second thoughts after an admission. You can hear the narrator talking herself into the relationship, trying to be the “cool girl” despite her misgivings. Swift opens the song with probably the most vulnerable lyric of her career: “My reputation’s never been worse, so / you must like me for me.”
(I’m ignoring ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, which I pretend isn’t on the album.)
Calvin, Hiddleston And Joe Alwyn
The illusions and cracks in the relationship start to show in the moody ‘So It Goes…’ The couple is clearly self-destructive, but she feels unable to resist their chemistry.
This isn’t the righteous Swift of Speak Now’s ‘Dear John’ or Red’s ‘All Too Well’, dressing down her ex for leading her on. This Swift sounds tired, resigned to repeating her patterns: “Cut me into pieces / Gold cage, hostage to my feelings.”
The album turns at its middle track, ‘Gorgeous’. This light bop marks a volta in Reputation, like a weight coming off your chest. With her trademark sarcasm, Swift sings about negging a guy in a bar because she’s furious at him for being so pretty. She has an absent boyfriend, she’s not happy, and the last thing she needs is to catch feelings for this hottie. (That hottie is her current boyfriend, English actor Joe Alwyn, by the way. Swift told fans at her Secret Sessions — the first time she’s ever named a subject of one of her songs.)
Swift’s insecurity that her reputation and fame mean she will have to settle for less in a relationship is obvious in a line that was discarded from an early version of ‘Gorgeous’: “I’m nothing that you want but I must say / You’re so gorgeous.”
With the context of this line, the confusing timeline of her 2016 relationships makes more sense. She met Joe Alwyn while she was still with Calvin Harris (“He’s in the club doing I don’t know what”), but assumed Alwyn was way out of her league. (And you can imagine, given she was making fun of the way he talked and talking to everyone except him, that Alwyn had little idea Swift was keen.)
Hiddleston offered her a ‘getaway car’, so she jumped in with him and kept going until she couldn’t outrun herself anymore.
‘Getaway Car’ is the Hiddleswift retrospective that we all needed. It could be a direct response to Hiddleston’s mopey GQ interview in February, in which Tom expressed a puzzled sorrow at the end of his relationship with Taylor. (Even though, by the time he was talking about it, they’d been apart longer than they were together. #Hiddlesad.) Swift’s vocals are so precise: “Don’t pretend it’s such a mystery / Think about the place where you first met me.” That place was in flight from her last boyfriend. “I wanted to leave him / I needed a reason.”
Women are often conditioned to believe that we need ‘a good reason’ to leave a relationship. For a true believer in hetero monogamy like Swift, it makes sense that in her metric, the only thing worth leaving an okay boyfriend for is a more exciting boyfriend. That’s not a dig — sometimes when we feel unable to act, we look to someone else to push us into a decision. Maybe Hiddleston made that nudge.
Post-Hiddleswift Taylor begins ‘King Of My Heart’ resolved to live alone, better off by herself, but a new love comes out of nowhere. I’d put money on this song being about Joe Alwyn, whom Swift met at the same Met Gala where she was awkward-dancing with Hiddleston. “We met a few weeks ago,” Swift sings, and the Hiddleswift relationship was really only a few weeks long, so, the timeline works. Her priorities begin to shift away from the jetset life and high drama.
The second half of the album feels like healing, growing in self-worth so that she doesn’t need to resort to games anymore.
Kanye West And Taylor’s Bad Reputation
Just when the album feels like it’s sloping down to a quiet ending, angry Swift comes back like “AND ONE MORE THING” on ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’. Everyone’s going to assume this track is about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West — and, yeah, like, almost definitely. The bridge is Swift’s sloppily sarcastic version of West’s “Let’s have a toast” refrain from ‘Runaway’, ending with a huge cackle.
On ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’, Swift compares herself to literary character Jay Gatsby, which most will probably interpret for the allusion to wealth and glamour, but in the context of the album it also evokes the tragic image of a young celebrity amassing luxury items and throwing parties that they never join, in an attempt to make people love them. The song acknowledges that Swift has had to close the gates because people betrayed her trust.
If Swift started the album shouting “I don’t care what you think!!” at anyone who would listen, the final two tracks ooze settled contentment. “Call it what you want,” she says of her current relationship. She’s still reflecting on her mistakes but takes comfort that she “did one thing right”.
Tear-jerker ‘New Year’s Day’ is the work of a Taylor who has rearranged her priorities since her reputation crumbled, and now puts more value into the person who helps her clean up after the party than the glitter of the night before. This is Swift’s most mature love song to date, and trust her to make putting empty beer bottles in a rubbish bag sound like the romantic ideal.
Reputation is an incredibly focused piece of art. Swift presents a person in power turning villainous in their insecurity: spinning little lies to stay on top, toying with playboys, punishing a gorgeous man for making her feel something vulnerable. But most of all, she shows us a woman not being honest with herself, then maps her journey back to authenticity.
Taylor writes in one of the poems included in her Reputation magazines, “And in the death of her reputation / She felt truly alive.” Old Taylor is dead, and I am living.
Kaitlyn Plyley is a freelance writer and the host of conversation podcast Just A Spoonful. She tweets from @kplyley.