After a three-year hiatus, singer/songwriter Taylor Swift has returned to the music scene with the announcement of a new album, Reputation, out on Nov. 10. Her first single from Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do,” has already broken records across the board. Three Blue & Gold writers discuss Swift’s song, her future as an artist, and her impact on the world.
Shereen Lee: One of “Look”’s most notorious lyrics is “I’m sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now / Why? Oh, because she’s dead.” How true do you think that statement really is?
Christine Lin: In a recent New York Times article, Jon Carmanica concludes that “Look” “is a gut renovation, and shows that Ms. Swift is willing to incinerate herself if that’s what it takes to burn everyone else.” Swift has, up until August 25, been evolving as musician and public figure since her debut. Even with her genre change with “Blank Space,” she still kept a relatively “old Taylor” sweetness with the rest of the 1989 songs. With the complete reset of her Instagram account and Britney-esque upcoming music video, the “old Taylor” is truly, as she says in her song, dead.
Catherine Lin: Maybe the “new Taylor” is so different because of the death of authenticity and relatability. She says “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams”, basically admitt ing to being the fake person many critics always accused her of being. She’s finally being honest about her dishonesty.
Shereen: Well, the “Wildest Dreams” music video from 1989, her last album, portrays her as an actress. It puts her in Africa, and as a cartoonish “other woman”; how much more distant from her constituency could she possibly get?
Catherine: It’s a slow shift that’s now complete. Old Taylor was dying; now she’s dead.
Shereen: So that means she’s been planning her “death” for three years now? That’s morbid. And I don’t buy that any artist could have so much control over her personhood, or even her persona. But Swift’s progression seems so intentional.
Christine: Honestly, I like to think that celebrities are people, just like us. Sometimes, it just is what it is. I think Taylor Swift loves cats. She loves baking. When I snap about my cat, I’m showing off to people how cute he is. That’s probably what she’s doing too with her cat Instagrams.
Catherine: I think that it’s more like we are just like celebrities, i.e. that we can all engage in acts of deliberate self-construction and manipulation of public opinion. In announcing that she loves cats, Swift chooses to broadcast a specific aspect of her rather than whatever else she could say about herself. Since the beginning of her career, Swift has been adept at artificial self-construction. She adopts a Southern twang and cowboy boots to break into the country music genre, then loses them when they are no longer convenient for her.
Shereen: The lines “Honey, I rose up from the dead / I do it all the time” seem even more unnatural than any transitions she has made before, though. If anything, Swift’s new persona is even less separable from real life than it has ever been. “Look What You Made Me Do” was streamed over eight million times on Spotify within 24 hours of its release, breaking a global record. But even that simple act, this time, was a calculated act that shed part of her persona. Just a few months ago, Swift was famous for withholding her music from the streaming service in defense of artists who weren’t getting compensated fairly by Spotify. The company’s payments to artists have only declined in recent years. But Swift chose to put her music back on the site—and is profiting incredibly from that move, arguably for being the “evil” person that her own songwriting depicts her as.
Christine: Whether or not this persona is a “true” one, there is some comfort in the fact her new persona is so cohesive. The media has been creating multiple, diverse personas for Swift for the past 10 years, and has fitted her songs to events in her life whether or not she makes references to those events. With the Swiftgate controversy, her speed of persona creation by the media only multiplied. Now she’s taking control of that process herself. Every time she came back with a new album, she shifted her music style bit by bit, killing a bit of each of her past images with increasingly shocking title tracks. She then landed records every single time, as if to replace her previous successes with shocking, new ones. The more I think about it, the more I feel like she hasn’t changed at all.
Catherine: And even with this new persona, she can always replace Vengeful Taylor with Rueful Taylor. Justin Bieber was an unpopular delinquent in the media for a long time, known for egging his neighbor’s house and desecrating monuments while abroad. Now, after his 2015 album Purpose, he’s rehabilitated. Nobody hates him anymore. Miley Cyrus morphed from teen Disney star to infamous “Wrecking Ball” singer, and now she’s pure and innocent again. There’s no reason to think that Swift can’t do the same if she wants to.
Shereen: I guess that at this point, she’s basically indestructible. Too big to fail, until one day, she does.
Catherine: Even if she does, it’s been 10 years: she’s come a long way from the 16-year-old who wrote a song about her high school boyfriend while sitting in math class.
Christine: It’s been a good run.