Music

Without Her Underdog Status, Who Is Taylor Swift Really?

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In a poem written by Taylor Swift to help promote her new album, Reputation, the most successful pop star in the world writes, “No amount of friends at 25/Will fill the empty seats/At the lunch tables of your past/The teams that picked you last/But Darling, you keep trying.” It’s a reference, obviously, to the bullying Swift has said she experienced when she was just a Pennsylvania teen growing up on a Christmas Tree farm who loved country music even though no one else did. As recently as 2015, the New York Times was still saying she was “kind of an underdog.”

For her entire career, Taylor Swift has viewed herself the way she did when she was fifteen years old: uncomfortable, awkward, and unpopular — an underdog in an industry of beauty queens. Of course, Taylor Swift isn’t an underdog, but it’s unclear if she knows that. Since her first album more than a decade ago, Swift has written her way into the hearts of tens of millions of fans worldwide. In an economy where most artists measure success in streams, Taylor is operating in an entirely different universe where streaming isn’t even on the table. Her new album, Reputation, is expected to sell 2 million copies its first week, and her upcoming tour will see her playing to crowds of 80,000 fans all screaming the words she wrote back at her. By any conceivable metric, she’s really damn popular.

Yet this underdog status — this negative self-perception — persists, playing out every time she accepts an award with conspicuously bug-eyed surprise. Her hypersensitivity showed in her feud with Nicki Minaj, in her very public fight with Kanye West, in her decision to sue a blogger for likening her video to Nazi propaganda. Last Friday, she released Reputation, a fifteen-song, fifty-five-minute attempt at brand rehabilitation. But inevitably, she still seems to feel sorry for herself.

Reputation is a masterfully constructed, pristinely written display of artistry, the album Swift has been building toward since her first real pop song, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” in 2012. Three years ago, Swift ditched her country sweetness with 1989, a declaration of pop independence. On Reputation, she leans all the way in. Gone are the family-friendly romances, the journal-entry narratives, and the Nashville twang. Instead, here is vindictive petulance, seduction, and Swift’s first recorded curse words (“shit” and “damn”).

For five albums, Swift operated in her own league and on her own terms, setting trends more often than following them. (Just listen to Kelsea Ballerini’s “In Between” and tell me you don’t hear early Taylor.) But on Reputation, she is racing to keep up. The songs are all under four minutes, five seconds, with enough BPMs to push any cardio workout. Thanks mostly to her collaboration with Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff, this is a collection of bass drops, trap beats, computer choirs, and an entire warehouse of synthesizers. It’s an album that tries to capture the dark play goth of Selena Gomez and Halsey, the quick-talking wordplay of hip-hop, the sweeping vocal runs of Miley Cyrus or Rihanna’s recent work. In other words: If there was a trend in 2017, Swift tried to incorporate it. The more I’ve listened to Reputation, the more songs it’s reminded me of, and none of them are by Taylor Swift. “Don’t Blame Me” sounds like Beyonce’s Fifty Shades of Grey remix of “Crazy in Love.” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” sounds like Lorde’s “Royals.” “So It Goes…” sounds like Selena Gomez. And so it goes.

But she didn’t need to do this. Taylor Swift isn’t an underdog anymore. In 2017, Swift could put out an album of cat noises and sell a million copies. Instead, she built Reputation: the nerdy girl’s masquerade of popularity. “We think we know someone,” Swift wrote in the prologue to the Reputation magazine (because, yeah, there’s a Reputation magazine). “But the truth is that we only know the version of them that they’ve chosen to show us.” On Reputation, though, it’s still unclear what kind of identity Taylor Swift wants us to believe that she has.

There are glimmers of a more individual future on Reputation. On the songs where she genuinely swoons, falls headfirst into the dreamy-sensitive-girl-bravely-trying-to-love pose, she thrives. “Getaway Car,” a late album cut with Antonoff, is a Swift classic. Though its Bonnie and Clyde analogy gets stretched a little too far, the earnest reflection on her emotions and actions gives it a strength and point of view missing on much of the album.

Swift wraps up her collection of too-trendy songs with one that actually sounds like her: “New Year’s Day.” It’s in her vocal range, saccharine, and gently sung over a plinking piano, focusing on Swift’s strongest suit: her writing. All weekend I’ve had its signature Swiftian bridge stuck in my head: “Please don’t ever become a stranger/Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.” It’s a whole story in a single line, and catchy to boot.

“New Year’s Day” is the only song that isn’t trying to be something else, something cooler, and it’s a reminder that after this obsession with popularity is through, there is still a corny girl with outsize talent who doesn’t need what’s in vogue to make a good song. In fact, she’s better off without it. She warned us, of course. “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” she promises on “Look What You Made Me Do,” but maybe (hopefully) one day, she’ll return back older and wiser, and ready to transform the power she wields into something still defiant but far less impressionable.

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