As soon as Taylor Swift deleted her Instagram account, her fans (known as “Swifties”) predictably anticipated a new album, which recently was revealed to be entitled Reputation, scheduled for release Nov. 10. Using social media stunts as teasers is commonplace among pop stars and cultural icons, but Swift’s release of clips featuring slithering snakes drew ire over its subtly hostile intentions. As Swifties begun gossiping over this new dark and vengeful Taylor, critics collectively sighed, wondering who spurned T-Swift this time around. The promise of a snake’s metaphorical venom may have tantalized gossip magazines, but the cultural consensus is that Swift is pop enough to create certified bangers, yet too bland to produce anything of real musical noteworthiness or critical attention.
Vanity Fair’s Yohana Desta recently sarcastically wrote that this new shade of Swift “will be just a few shades light of Hot Topic.” Vulture wrote in turn that her new single “Look What You Made Me Do” sounded less like a bold anthem and more like “Disney-villain karaoke.” Amid all these accusations of inauthenticity, one has to wonder if Swift ever deliberately changed her image, or if she has merely been constantly manipulating the persona that has grown out of her most iconic moment—Kanye West awkwardly interrupting her at the VMAs in 2009.
In reality, Swift’s new release is not indicative of a significant turning point at all. Unlike figures such as Miley Cyrus, her artistic progression isn’t an angst-driven burst of individualist resistance. Rather, Taylor’s intangibility is itself the dominating feature of her fame. She has elbowed out her niche until it grew from country-pop American sweetheart to iconic superstar spouting hollow bursts of feminism. While it is true that she markets her own white victimhood, it is also true that her feminism is evolving at a slow yet admirable pace, most recently with her successful court case against a groping DJ, where she decried victim-blaming and tackled the shameful stigma around sexual assault.
Certainly, in that moment at the VMAs, Swift swore to herself that she would never be caught unaware again—at least, not without a suitably infamous “surprised face” for the occasion. If anything, the “new” Taylor Swift is an even more relentless curator of her own image, calculating each outfit, remark, and public appearance. Taylor Swift is her own hot take—she hyperbolizes the awkward aspects of her public image, anticipating our hyperactive scrutiny and adapting her persona to preemptively respond. Her songs’ revenge fantasies are just a mass of generalized angst against that omnipresent, ultimately relatable evil: Other people’s opinions.
Her 2014 single “Bad Blood” boasted the same outward-flying blame when she sang: “Take a look at what you’ve done/ Did you have to do this?/ You know it used to be mad love.” The intent is identical in “Look What You Made Me Do”: Responding in vague ways to particular insults that both address the conflict in order to sustain it, and avoiding details that would make one appear too invested. It’s brilliant doublespeak.
Even when she is not overtly mentioning her West-inflicted victimhood, her discography centres ideas of self-approbation in response to jilted lovers, invasive paparazzi, or even the cloying public that unfairly interrupts Swift’s life to demand more-yet, in doing so, funds the relevance and success of Swift herself. Taylor Swift is untouchable because she has already heard your criticisms and adopted them as her next “edgy” persona—complete with uniform backup dancers and a pseudo-rap chorus for that “effortless” cool-girl vibe. She will oscillate between “Shak[ing] It Off” and being out for blood so fast that the two extremes coexist, rendering any outside “hot takes” useless, unable to cling to new ground.
Too many critics are distracted by the exactness of her lyrics, trying to tie them to the Kanye-Kim feud, or the Katy Perry feud, or some new theory involving Tom Hiddleston wearing that “I <3 Taylor” T-shirt back in the summer. Swift has spread the shade beyond the traditional scope of the spurned lover to cover everyone: from jerk ex-boyfriends and ungrateful colleagues, to the judgmental public and the journalists that keep analyzing her every move and claiming things as “honest” or “feminist” or “milquetoast”—or often a perpetual rotation of all three.
For all the bland inauthenticity Swift is accused of creating, she’s doing a pretty great job of making profit into its own revenge. The fact that it’s an unsatisfying conclusion to the pettiness of her many feuds is exactly the point: She can draw the conflicts out for all they’re worth, and then some. And the Swifties will keep on buying it, because revenge can sound so goddamn catchy.