Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ received widespread backlash, much of it less to do with music and more to do with a sense that she’s done something morally wrong. “She claims to have gotten harder, but only comes off as brittle; she says that defeat made her smarter, but sounds as if she’s endlessly smarting,” Frank Guan wrote for Vulture. Maura Johnston, for The Guardian said: “it’s not clear whether she’s playing a role or being herself.” Everything seems to come back, at least implicitly, to Swift herself and her perceived pettiness.
But why are people so mad? I find most of Reputation to be fun and catchy. Assertions, however energetic, that the album is a trash fire haven’t convinced me. What’s more, I’ve been struck by how so many seem mad at Taylor Swift. Not just disappointed in an album they think is sub-par; they’re angry.
Critics and even fans have laid into ‘Look What You Made Me Do.’ The verses were deemed a drone, the chorus an arrhythmic mess that stops the song dead. But aesthetic concerns can’t account for the intensity or the personal nature of the criticism. Many artists, after all, drop a dud now and again. A common refrain among her detractors, from Ira Madison of GQ to Bryan Rolli of Forbes, is that she’s “petty.” But, if she’s petty now, then she was surely also petty in ‘Bad Blood’ (“Did you think we’d be fine? / Still got scars on my back from your knife”), ‘Mean’ (“You, with your switching sides / and your wildfire lies and your humiliation”), and even as early as 2006 in ‘Picture to Burn’ (“I’m just sitting here planning my revenge”). If anything, ‘Bad Blood’ is a good deal pettier, since it’s about the trivial matter of Katy Perry hiring Swift’s backup dancers.
The difference between ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and those earlier songs is not in degree of pettiness. Rather, it’s in Swift’s persona and the nature of her performance: the tension between Swift appearing to be her true, spontaneous self while putting on a show that is anything but spontaneous. This makes for a better performance: after all, we’d hardly expect consistently good shows if she only sang what she felt and felt what she sang. If that were the case, any argument with her boyfriend could tank her love songs. As Denis Diderot wrote, “the actor who acts from the head… will always be the same, unchanged from one performance to the next, always with the same degree of perfection.” This is what Swift does; she acts from the head.
So, who is Taylor Swift? We don’t know. In the early days of her debut album, we saw and heard a person who perfectly fit the US country music genre. Her melodies stuck to the conventions of country music. Her hair was allegedly messy. Her songs were always about rural life. While I don’t want to exaggerate her as overly religious, she does make some references to the Christian God.Then she had a gradual transition from country to pop, with each album having more pop elements than the one before. 2012’s Red is her last album with any country sound, though unquestionably more pop than country. Its 2014 follow-up, 1989, is pure pop. Her transition from country to pop music was matched by her transition to a pop persona: broad appeal, red carpet events, finely made-up in a way that felt more urban. 1989 even opened with a song called ‘Welcome To New York’. This song doesn’t just describe the sights and emotions of the city (“the lights are so bright / but they never blind me”). It also announces the arrival of a new sound: “everybody here / wanted something more / searching for a sound we hadn’t heard before / and it said / welcome to New York.” It even states straightforwardly, “it’s a new soundtrack.” The pulsing synths and clap-clap percussion are a far cry from her country roots.
From 2008 to 2014 at least (spanning Red and 1989), her work was defined in part by its relatability. Let’s lay out the timeline here: musically, 2008’s Fearless is still country, 2010’s Speak Now is her first dig into pop music, Red is country-pop with an emphasis on pop, and 1989 is full pop. Her overall persona also changed from country musician to pop star roughly in tandem. But, she assumed a strong quality of relatability as early as Fearless, long before the pop persona fully took form.
“Relatable” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Authenticity is praised; InStyle cheerfully called Katy Perry “the most relatable pop star around” when she posted a picture of herself relaxing in pyjamas on Instagram. The idea of relatability was made ubiquitous by BuzzFeed, which has been fuelled for years by content like ’21 Photos That Everyone Will Find Uncomfortably Relatable.’ The same principle drives adaptations of prestigious literary texts for a modern setting, like the rake of Sherlock Holmes shows set in the 21st century or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet; they are, in part, an attempt to make the classics relatable to a contemporary audience. But, relatability was not, of course, invented by BuzzFeed in 2007, even if that’s how the term was popularised. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson defends relatability as the God particle running through centuries of art, writing that “so much wonderful theatre has served, historically, as an exaggerated mirror held up to a country at a specific moment in history.”
Swift doesn’t try to hold a mirror up to society, but she has spent much of her career presenting herself as a reflection of her mainly young, mainly female audience. Her high-concept songs are often about nearly universal topics, especially love and heartbreak. Take her version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, ‘Love Story’ from Fearless: “You were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles / And my daddy said, ‘Stay away from Juliet.’” All this is delivered to a backdrop of plucked guitar strings with drums and cymbals; this is still Swift in her ‘aw shucks’ country mode. This is a similar effort to update the story for relatability to a contemporary audience. Another song from Fearless is ‘You Belong With Me’, with its famous lines, “She wears short skirts / I wear t-shirts.” The intent is clear: you, dear listener, wear t-shirts.
In her work from 2008 to 2014, Swift often lyricises experiences in a way that evokes intense emotion but avoids specificity or, as in ‘Mean,’ only gives details which are common enough to maintain the effect, so that the listener can imagine themselves as the hero of the song, that the song is about their life. Even songs that tell a story with specific details feel deliberately constructed to function as broadly applicable fairy-tale allegories for things many people have experienced.
Some of those songs are self-consciously about her brand and how the public perceives her. As one of Swift’s most popular songs ever, ‘Shake It Off’ is an unsubtle response to the then-common jokes that she was burning through boyfriends too quickly, that she needed one breakup per year to make up ‘break-up song’ material for her next album. These jokes, of course, were rooted in misogyny and slut-shaming. The song was a straightforward dismissal of all that hate. Notably, the tone of the song is cheerful and exuberant rather than angry.
1989 is the album that is most about the idea of Swift, the one that sees her in conversation with herself. If ‘Shake It Off’ defies the ‘she goes on too many dates’ narrative, ‘Blank Space’ revels in it. Swift gleefully paints herself as an adrenaline junkie who pursues ill-fated relationships, fully anticipating the inevitable nasty downfall. There’s hardly any insult one could throw at Swift that she couldn’t assimilate into this, a self-empowering reconstruction of the most cartoonish strawman: “Cause we’re young and we’re reckless / we’ll take this way too far / It’ll leave you breathless / or with a nasty scar.” Swift has spoken in interviews about how this is not based on the real her but on “the character I felt the media had written for me.”
This is how Taylor Swift The Person stops being merely the artist and becomes part of the art in a way that confounds the death of the author. The idea that the Taylor Swift fan has in their head of who Taylor Swift is becomes intertwined and inseparable from the art itself. The idea of Taylor Swift, who her fans take to be the “real” Taylor Swift, is bound up with the music itself. This takes on an emotional intensity due to the “relatability” of her work. The unconscious assumption is: “I know Taylor Swift; Taylor Swift is me or the same as me.” This sounds silly when you say it out loud, but a huge range of artists traffic in the same appeal, from Bruce Springsteen’s working-class small towns that both character and audience long to escape, to the low-key depression anthems that attract teenagers to mumble rap. It’s where we end up if we engage with this music in good faith and get swept away by the effect.
If we understand all that, we can start to understand why it’s such a problem when Taylor Swift abruptly made a huge change to her performance and public persona. Musically, all her pre-Reputation songs are centred on her vocals; in Reputation, the mix dumps an ocean of synth soundscape on top of her. The cheerful persona seen in the 1989 polaroids or decked out in a princess dress for the music video of ‘Love Story’ has been replaced with black lipstick and more revealing leather get-ups. Frank Guan of Vulture describes the result as “Disney-villain karaoke.”
This change in her work was a response to public spats which themselves changed the public’s view of her. July 2016 saw her tear into the lyrics of Kanye West’s ‘Famous,’ only for Kim Kardashian to release a recording of Swift approving those lyrics. After she claimed partial writing credit for his hit ‘This Is What You Came For’, her ex Calvin Harris accused her of looking for “someone new to try and bury” (she may well have been telling the truth, but she lost the narrative, as it were). There was a popular conspiracy theory that she was faking her relationship with Tom Hiddleston. So, even before she turned heel on the album, the public perception of her had soured; Ruth Graham of Slate echoed a common sentiment when she called her “disingenuous” and blasted her for her “public performance of woundedness.”
Then ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ drops. Suddenly, she’s all edgy. She wears mostly black. She literally announces that the old Taylor is dead. The overwhelming, repetitive focus of the song is revenge: “Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.” It’s a musical departure too, with as much monotonous brooding as singing. Swift fans formed an intense attachment to the idea they had of who Taylor Swift was, only for that performance to suddenly change. This is a problem when much of the appeal of Taylor Swift’s music is tied to the idea of who Taylor Swift is. Some avowed fans reacted angrily, as if they had been betrayed by a friend.
Recall Johnston’s remark that Swift seems to be playing a role rather than being herself. What should be clear at this point is that we were at no point presented with the “real” Taylor Swift any more than we get to see the “real” version of any public performer. This is not to say that Swift has been deceptive; it can be reasonably assumed that she wrote about her own feelings to at least some degree in every album. There’s nothing wrong with Swift affecting a public persona, but it ought to be understood that she’s doing so. From Fearless to 1989, we have this finely tuned high-concept relatability persona. 1989 saw a split focus between relatable songs and playing with her own persona. And now, we have the angry Reputation mode. ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is mainly, probably exclusively, a declaration that she will take revenge against Kimye and their “tilted stage” set to swerving instrumentals and often breaking into weird chants. The similarly aggressive and lurching ‘I Did Something Bad’ denounces her exes as liars and narcissists. The problem here, the reason that listeners are uncomfortable, is that the shift in public persona seen and heard in Reputation is so naked and obvious that it exposes 2008-14 as a performance. Fans don’t like to think that Pop Star Taylor was a performance because they felt like they knew Taylor and, on some level, were Taylor.
The backlash to Reputation was so devastating that Swift will inevitably backtrack and try to recreate her image as America’s sweetheart. Maybe it’ll take – allowing fans to pretend that Swift is being authentic – or maybe it won’t, the illusion shattered. No matter how well she performs the role, either we will be conscious that is just a performance, or will wilfully close our eyes to it.
But then, maybe that’s true of any celebrity. Almost every celebrity has a social media account. Some have accounts with professional photography while others keep it breezy, yet both are carefully curated. Many stay out of controversial politics while others, like Jameela Jamil or Cher, charge straight into the fray, but both tactics involve building a personal brand. How can you be authentic when it’s impossible – and undesirable – to show all of yourself? Celebrities can scarcely escape performance, whether they’re on stage or giving an interview or even just walking down the street. No matter what choices they make in how they present themselves, they’re all putting on one performance or another.