Wade through the pulsing intro, the rapped verses, the shimmering chorus and you’ll get to the meat of the matter. Boom, boom, clap. We’re here at the space where the long-awaited, always lauded Taylor Swift bridge should be. Here we should get the emotional lift, the most quotable lines: “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes”; “We are never getting back together, like, ever”; “Boys only want love if it’s torture.” But instead, on Swift’s newest single, “…Ready for It?,” released September 3, there’s a warning, a post-chorus shot across the bow. One simple phrase repeated six times: “Let the games begin.”
The game, of course, is the Taylor Swift album rollout, which began three weeks ago with the release of lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” and will extend — in all likelihood — into January of 2019. This is a tried and true playbook for Swift, who has been using it since her second album. A single drops in the late summer, followed by an album announcement. Then there are months and months of hype: partnerships with big businesses, press appearances, a couple more singles. Then, as the leaves begin to fall, a new album arrives that will beat every sales record and make Taylor Swift the winner once again.
In the game of 2017 fame, Taylor Swift is already miles ahead. “…Ready for It?” was the second single Swift dropped in a little more than a week, and she could still release another before the November 3 debut of Reputation. There will probably be a tour announcement closer to that date, and another slew of stories mining the new lyrics for barely disguised slights. On top of all that, her Fifty Shades Darker single, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” featuring Zayn Malik, is going to get a full Oscar nomination push, and all three singles will be eligible for the 2018 Grammys. To say we are just beginning this press cycle is an understatement. As I wrote for Buzzfeed recently in a piece about how her album hype cycle is longer than absolutely anyone else’s, part of Swift’s game is a precise play on the award system so that her album is released late enough in the year to be considered for the next year’s awards. That way we’ll still be talking about Taylor when Reputation is inevitably up for a slate of Grammys in 2019.
Unlike with the release of 1989 in 2014, though, Swift is no longer perceived as a sweet pop darling. In place of the critical and popular thrill over her new album, there has been a soft collective groan. The world, for many, feels so polarized, so dire, that cute and clever doesn’t cut it anymore. 1989 was popularly and critically beloved. The sleekly produced, infinitely catchy album broke every record and cemented Swift as one of the only truly powerful global pop stars. But during the 549 days between 1989’s announcement and Swift’s acceptance speech for Album of the Year at the 2016 Grammys, something shifted. Critics became skeptical, and formerly ambivalent music fans turned on her. First there was her #squad of gazelle-like models — all white, all tall, all thin, and all rich — which made her seem even more like an unaccessible popular-girl mogul. Then a fight with Kanye that many thought revealed her to be manipulative. And then her silence about the 2016 election.
But does it even really matter?
“Look What You Made Me Do” received fairly scathing reviews. The Voice rated it negatively, and so did Vulture, the Ringer, the New York Times, Pitchfork, the Guardian, and Variety. But the song sold anyway. The lyrics video broke a YouTube record. The song broke a Spotify record, being streamed more than 8 million times in the first 24 hours. Two days later the music video broke the VEVO record for most views in 24 hours. “Look What You Made Me Do” is currently the number one song in America on the Billboard Hot 100.
The only thing that could shift the spotlight away from Swift’s publicity cycle this fall is another major release. But despite announced albums from Beck, Sam Smith, Miley Cyrus, and U2, Swift is a star of a different magnitude (sorry, Bono). The only artist who could topple Taylor is Beyoncé, but it hasn’t even been two years since Lemonade, and the Queen Bey just had twins. For the past four years, the two have waged a two-woman war for the pop throne with entirely different military tactics. Beyoncé operates in a sphere of silence, never giving interviews, never leaking information, dropping full albums completely without warning, keeping even the birth of those twins silent. Meanwhile, Taylor’s running a regimented, formulaic strategy that hasn’t failed her yet.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that even if Reputation is a truly bad — or even truly mediocre — album, the audience for it is so large that it won’t matter. At this point, Swift is far too famous to fail. Whether or not her album is good or she regains the public favor entirely is irrelevant. The fall games may be just beginning, but Swift has already won.
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