In her rise to pop superstardom, Taylor Swift was once earnest and anodyne, her life’s disappointments more a chance for songs of perky commiseration than of rage. The world has changed, or maybe the 27-year-old has grown up. On Reputation, her sixth studio album, Swift is in a fighting spirit—and the story is all about her.
Reputation stars Swift as aggrieved and vindictive—not the singer from her last album 1989 who playfully pointed to the chatter among her ex-lovers, but one wielding a baseball bat and ready to smash stuff up on the video for the new album’s first single “Look What You Made Me Do.”
On “I Did Something Bad,” Swift—who breaks new ground on the song by recording a profanity—tells a man who crossed her, “I don’t regret it one bit / ‘cause he had it coming.” In a possible nod to challenges faced by strong women, Swift continues: “They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one.”
Swift has always brought autobiographical elements into her songs but on Reputation one target is unmistakably clear—Kanye West.
The rapper notoriously interrupted Swift as she accepted an MTV award in 2009 and last year infuriated her by boasting that he might be able to have sex with her because he “made that bitch famous.” West’s wife, socialite Kim Kardashian, sought to defend her husband at the time by releasing a recording of a telephone conversation in which West appeared to consult Swift about the lyrics.
Swift hits back on her latest album: “Friends don’t try to trick you / Get you on the phone and mind-twist you / And so I took an ax to a mended fence.”
The focus on West is all the more striking as Reputation for the first time sees Swift embracing hip-hop, completing a transformation from her early days strumming country guitar.
“End Game,” one of the strongest songs on the album, has Swift collaborating with both rapper Future and English songwriter Ed Sheeran, a close friend, in a finely tuned blend of pop and hip-hop.
If the sharp-elbowed tone may reflect the mood of the United States in 2017, one element is strikingly absent—politics.
Unlike virtually all A-list pop singers of the moment, the self-described feminist Swift has stayed mum about President Donald Trump. The silence may be refreshing for music fans looking for an increasingly elusive political safe space in Trump’s America. But it also marks a shrewd marketing move for an artist who works on the liberal coasts but whose country roots have ensured her a loyal fan base in conservative states. And even if her persona on the album is harder-edged, she is also making sure her real-life reputation among fans stays undisturbed.
Swift has made surprisingly few public appearances for Reputation, instead communicated through safe posts on social media platform Tumblr.
When three years ago she released 1989, one of the top-selling albums of the past decade, Swift also waged a high-profile war against Spotify, accusing the fast-growing streaming site of short-changing artists. Swift has since dropped her campaign and returned to Spotify. But she is keeping Reputation off all streaming services for at least one week, hoping to maximize sales.
Swift is less reserved in other areas.
She speaks more forthrightly than ever about sexual desire, even if her imagery is still prim compared with lyrics from stars such as her rival Katy Perry. “I don’t want you like a best friend / Only bought this dress so you could take it off,” Swift sings.
Swift sharply shifts tone to close the album with a ballad, “New Year’s Day.” Swift’s gentle voice is backed by piano, a reminder of her earlier sound—and that her new “reputation” is also about maturity.