Being the Juliet to a handsome Romeo, having her lover march in on a white horse and beg for her forgiveness, professing her love to a man during his wedding to another woman: Taylor Swift, ever the romantic, loves a good fairy tale.
Her most meticulous and longest-running fantasy, though, has been the one where she — a multimillionaire, well-awarded artist with the likeness of a supermodel — is an underdog.
That fiction was easier to buy into when she sported her trademark ringlets and light faux-twang as she shared intimate tales of her countless douche exes: one didn’t let her drive his pickup truck, another dumped her over the phone. But it wasn’t until a Big Bad Wolf named Kanye interrupted her wholesome VMA speech that the rest of the world was sold on it as well.
Swift’s devout cult of fans has embraced this fairy tale the most — and in addition, made her latest Reputation Tour the fastest-selling one of the summer. Songs like “You Belong With Me” and “Teardrops on My Guitar” speak to the soul of every tween with braces suffering an unrequited love. And if she was able to take inspiration from her high school heartaches and make it big, then anyone could do so, right?
But Swift wasn’t ever just anyone, and having parents financially able to relocate to Nashville so you can pursue your country stardom dreams is not exactly a middle-class privilege.
In the world of celebrity, Taylor Swift was once both queen bee and teacher’s pet, boasting an exclusive star-studded clique while being the sweetheart of critics and award shows. It was easy to want someone like Swift to mess up, to have her good-girl façade crumble to bits. And that's exactly what happened in 2016, after another feud with Kanye West. The scandal and its aftermath, which not-so-subtly bleeds into her latest album, Reputation, was as shallow as you would expect. West referred to Swift as “that bitch” in a lyric, and Swift responded, calling out its misogyny. But later, Kim Kardashian West leaked footage of Swift approving the track via phone call.
West and Swift do not specifically discuss the "that bitch" lyric in the leaked clip, and West says she didn't know Kanye planned to use those words to describe her. Still, after the Wests' reveal, a predictable Twitter pile-on ensued, and Swift receded from the public eye. She returned in late 2017 with Reputation, an album showing Swift at her most petty and bitter. In its songs, she owns her anger, her resentment, her obsession with being put on a pedestal — and it actually kind of works.
Unlike her previous underdog stories, the underlying fantasy on Reputation is that of Swift as a villain. The album casts her as ghastly, shaken, having lost her faith — but freer than ever by embracing her nastiness as part of her humanity.
Unfortunately, her attempts to break free from her country beginnings make for an album dully bloated in its production and insipid in its message. Reputation has Swift trying her hardest to fully ditch her cowboy boots. In exchange, we get trendy flairs of bombastic trap and dubstep, pushing her sound a step further than on 1989’s electro-pop fling, which like Reputation was brought to life with the help of Max Martin and Jack Antonoff.
Most of Reputation’s songs fall flat in their sonic confusion and delusional edginess. Her finest moments on the record focus not on her downfall, but on how she’s changing and growing through a newfound love and knowledge of herself because of it. “End Game,” a surprisingly captivating affair with Future and Ed Sheeran, is full of catchy hooks and is the coolest Swift has ever sounded. It is also the best musical exploitation of her recent scandals, reaching the self-referential heights. “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Bad Blood” painfully attempted to score, but were too drunk on resentment to pull it off.
“They took the crown, but it’s all right,” she sings in “Call It What You Want,” another of the few effortless moments in Reputation’s hour-long run.
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Swift is, above all, a brand, and a smartly marketed one. Her adjustment to pop’s growing urban and electronic obsession has been admirably bold. After 1989’s success, it seemed she could not get any bigger, which made her subsequent fall from grace all the more fascinating.
Even in the face of backlash, Swift's ability to cast herself as a character for a hungry audience — the underdog, the villain— has worked well for her. Perhaps this is her biggest strength: She knows how to sell herself. She sees through the voyeur, the sensationalist, and the narcissist in all of us because she is one too. Swift reels in both the press and the crowd, fully aware of it. Capable of crafting a tragedy out of even the most minute aspects of her life, this morbid tactic leaves one feeling they know her well enough to see her as either their confidante or their biggest nightmare. Regardless, she is unforgettable. “I don’t love the drama, it loves me,” she amusingly brags in “End Game.”
Though Swift’s role as a self-styled protagonist has kept her at the top of the charts, her musical judgments and indulgences come into question on Reputation. Whether she is taunting her A-list enemies or mourning a lost love, the world is all ears. Swift has reached truly untouchable status. So why not leave behind the trendy, obnoxious dubstep beats? After all, audiences always love a fairy tale, no matter how it is dressed up.