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A unified theory of Taylor Swift’s reputation

The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh … ‘cause she’s dead! Javier Zarracina/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Taylor Swift knows exactly what you think of her. And she wants you know that she doesn’t care.

To show just how much she doesn’t care, she devoted the release cycle for her latest album, Reputation, to expressing how much it doesn’t bother her when people don’t like her. (The tour for Reputation begins May 8.)

Swift announced Reputation by deleting all of her old social media posts, replacing them with a video of a snake hissing, in what appeared to be a reference to her reputation as a lying snake. The video for her first single off Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do,” concluded with a lineup of Swifts spouting the most common critiques of Taylor Swift at each other: Her surprised face is annoying and fake; she’s constantly playing the victim.

The subtext was clear. Taylor Swift knows that some people don’t like her, and she knows why. And she wants to be very clear that she doesn’t like them either, and that for the record, none of the bad things she’s done are actually her fault. It’s all stuff that someone else made her do.

“Look What You Made Me Do” ushered in the age of the New New Taylor (as opposed to the Old New Taylor circa 1989), and the response was not welcoming. Vulture declared it “the worst music of her career.” USA Today said Swift had “never been more exhausting.”

The chilliness of the reception that greeted New Taylor was on one level surprising, given how much goodwill she had going into this latest album cycle. Just before she announced Reputation, Swift was at the center of a high-profile lawsuit involving a radio DJ who groped her during a meet-and-greet. Swift handled the case with aplomb, gave an endlessly quotable testimony, and — in a particularly classy move — sued for only $1 in damages, just to show that she was only bothering with the trial out of sheer principle. Her social capital skyrocketed. After a very rocky 2016, Swift successfully used the trial to reposition herself as someone worth rooting for.

And then she dropped “Look What You Made Me Do,” and while her fan base was ecstatic, cultural critics were less than impressed.

It wasn’t just that the song wasn’t great, critical consensus went: It was that the persona Swift was debuting with “Look What You Made Me Do” was neither interesting nor timely — especially after last summer’s #KimExposedTaylorParty seemed to leave her perfectly positioned to abandon her good-girl persona and make a heel turn.

“She squandered that chance to play the villain,” opined NPR. “She'd rather be the victim, which is a stale posture for her by now.”

But Swift’s refusal to “go dark” with her persona is consistent with the basic paradox that has defined her celebrity image for as long as she has been famous.

Since the beginning of her career, Swift’s celebrity image has been caught in a tug-of-war between intimacy and control, one characterized by two distinct identities: Taylor Swift, nerdy teen and girl next door, who just happens to naturally be able to give voice to your deepest feelings in her songs; and Taylor Swift, micromanaging CEO of a billion-dollar business whose marquee product is her own public image. Both sides are fundamental to Swift’s appeal — but they are also antithetical to each other. When the two sides of her persona clash, they cancel each other out, resulting in a Swift backlash like the one that’s formed heading into Reputation.

With “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift appears to be addressing the moment in her career in which the calculating and controlled part of her nature was most fully on display. NPR is not alone in suggesting that it’s the perfect time for her to take advantage of this moment and embrace her calculating side, making a heel turn and developing a new identity as a pop music villain: Think piece after think piece emerged all but begging Swift to stop playing the victim and have some fun being bad.

But Swift, who has maintained a strict wall between her two personas, tried to play it both ways: be the put-upon victim in her songs, but continue to coldly calculate her public persona. She was drawing her listeners close with one hand and then showing how she did the magic trick with the other. The split between her two selves had never been more apparent. And the audience turned away.

While Swift is still a major force on Billboard, Reputation’s singles haven’t had anywhere near the staying power that 1989’s did. As USA Today points out, in 2014, Swift’s “Shake It Off” spent 12 weeks at No. 1 before being dethroned by her next single, “Blank Space”; this year, “Look What You Made Me Do” spent only three weeks at No. 1 before being dethroned by Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” And Swift’s follow-up single, “Ready For It,” debuted and peaked at No. 4 before tumbling down the charts.

Reputation is set to emerge not with a bang but with a whimper — and that’s in part because, for the first time since Swift first emerged into the cultural consciousness, the two sides of her persona are not cohering into a single sympathetic identity. Here’s how that fundamental clash has played out throughout Swift’s career, and why it’s getting in her way now.

In early profiles, Swift is either a maniacal control freak or a Disney princess devoted entirely to her fans

50th Annual GRAMMY Award Nominations
Our song is a slamming screen door, sneaking out late tapping on your window.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In 2008, Jon Caramanica profiled Swift, then 18 years old, for the New York Times as she made her way through the press tour for her second album, Fearless. The resulting profile hit most of the beats of the traditional early Taylor Swift profile — her precocity, her wholesome blondness — but it lingered on one idea in particular: Swift’s persona insisted on a profound intimacy with her fans, on the idea that their feelings were her feelings and that there was no barrier between them. And to do so, Caramanica wrote, she had to give up control over her own person. She belonged to her fans.

So as she finished performing the heartbreak ballad “Should’ve Said No” at a concert, Swift “dropped to her knees and bent forward, holding her head still as fans in the front rows patted it concernedly,” in what Caramanica dubbed “a scarily intimate moment but essential to her self-presentation that there is no barrier between her and her songs, and their listeners, the consumers.”

“All in all it was a fair trade,” Caramanica concluded: “intimacy for control.”

In order to create the aching emotional core of her ballads, the narrative went, Swift had to cede ownership of her own person. In order to make her fans feel that they shared the same pain, she had to give herself up to them and their feelings.

But just a year later, as Vanessa Grigoriadis followed Swift around for her first Rolling Stone cover story, the narrative had already flipped. Suddenly, Swift wasn’t selflessly subsumed by her music, lost to herself in service to the great god of teen heartbreak. Instead, she was reimagined as a control freak, ruthlessly single-minded in her pursuit of perfection.

In what would become perhaps the most iconic passage of any Swift profile, Grigoriadis renders Swift having what appears to be a breakdown over a beverage mix-up:

Within 45 minutes, Swift produces two dozen perfect, chewy cookies, which she offers around with a glass bottle of milk. Suddenly, she squints at the jar, and shrieks a little: eggnog. She scours the fridge but comes up empty-handed, irritated by the foolishness of her mother, whom she surmises was shopping absent-mindedly. This cannot be. Snack time is ruined. Then she blinks rapidly and composes herself.

"I didn't do that," she says, shaking her head firmly. "Mom did that."

This version of Swift is so determined to be great at everything she attempts that she cannot handle the idea of serving her guests eggnog when only milk will do. Accordingly, the emotional power of her music and the intimacy it engenders with her fan base recedes into the background of the profile. Instead, Swift’s rapport with her fans becomes well-rendered deception, a “game face,” Grigoriadis writes, that “must be tattooed on.”

In the context of this profile, Swift’s most admirable trait is her business acumen. Grigoriadis describes her repeatedly as “very savvy,” noting that “she's been a working songwriter since the age of 13.” The most powerful image the profile affords to Swift’s music is not about its emotional strength so much as Swift’s work ethic: Swift, we learn, used to practice her guitar until her fingers bled, and her mother had to tape them up.

Swift has never been able to fully reconcile the two poles of her persona

2009 New Year's Eve With Carson Daly
She wears high heels, I wear sneakers.
Roger Kisby/Getty Images

The tension established by these two profiles would continue throughout Swift’s career: Everything about her music and her image is so precisely and impeccably crafted that no one can doubt it to be entirely under her control — but on the other hand, the emotions of her music are so messily intimate.

“Her music mixes an almost impersonal professionalism — it's so rigorously crafted it sounds like it has been scientifically engineered in a hit factory — with confessions that are squirmingly intimate and true,” wrote Rolling Stone in 2008.

As the tension between the two sides of Swift’s persona continued to play out in public, one side or the other always appeared to be in doubt.

Press stunts planned by Swift herself tended to place the intimacy of her persona front and center. She sent her fans surprise Christmas gifts; she invited them into her home to play 1989 for them before its official release. In TV interviews, the press clucked: Wasn’t it dangerous?

“Not to sound like worst-case-scenario Andrea,” said British talk show host Graham Norton, “but it sounds like a terrible idea.”

“Taylor, you go above and beyond the call of duty,” said Gayle King. “You have them over to your house, and you’re baking cookies. Who does that?”

Swift, the subtext went, was giving so much of herself over to her fans that she might put herself in danger.

But in in-depth profiles and criticism, the pendulum swung the other way, favoring considerations of Swift’s more calculating side. In the New Yorker in 2011: “Swift’s aura of innocence is not an act, exactly, but it can occasionally belie the scale of her success.” In Vanity Fair in 2013: “Swift cultivates a gawky adorkability in her music videos,” but in fact, “Swift works incredibly hard.” In GQ in 2015: “So is it unfair to categorize Swift as calculating? Maybe, and particularly if you view that term as exclusively pejorative. But calling her guileless would be even crazier.”

It was as though the two sides of Swift’s persona were incapable of being reconciled into a unified whole, as though she could not be both teen heartbreak queen and workaholic millionaire — or at least as though the narrative written about her life could not manage it. Occasionally she seemed to try to bring the two together, tossing out a sound bite that would render her micromanaging Type A side into something that blended more easily with the emotional intimacy of her other side.

“Am I shooting from the hip?” she asked GQ in 2015, after hearing that an unnamed “someone” had described her as calculating. “Would any of this have happened if I was? In that sense, I do think about things before they happen. But here was someone taking a positive thing — the fact that I think about things and that I care about my work — and trying to make that into an insinuation about my personal life. Highly offensive. You can be accidentally successful for three or four years. Accidents happen. But careers take hard work.”

That’s an entirely correct statement: Attaining the level of fame that Taylor Swift has, and maintaining it for as long as she has, does take hard work. It does not happen unless you are willing to be a control freak about your career. But Swift’s business persona seems to have no place in the sweetly aw-shucks persona she’s established with her music.

That’s partly because the two sides of her persona are so closely intertwined in the work she does just out of the public’s sight: in the way she carefully and intentionally rebrands her image every few years, and in the way she works the gossip press.

The two poles of Swift’s persona have helped her successfully revamp her image with every new album cycle

2010 American Music Awards - Show
You have pointed out my flaws again, as if I don’t already see them.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for DCP

Every time Swift launches a new album, she tweaks her hair and her style and her talking points to suggest that there’s a new Taylor to go with the new sound. And every time, she’s careful to make sure that the new Taylor is exactly what will silence her critics and delight her fans.

The new Taylor is always carefully crafted as a response to whatever criticism has been thrown her way during the previous cycle. And Swift is able to respond to that criticism because she keeps track of everything everyone says about her, as she told GQ in 2015:

That stuff does matter. Because if enough people say the same thing about me, it becomes fact in the general public’s mind. So I monitor what people say about me, and if I see a theme, I know what that means. I’ve had it happen twice before. In 2010, it was She’s too young to get all these awards. Look how annoying she is when she wins. Is she even good? And then in 2013, it was She just writes songs about guys to get revenge. She’s boy-crazy. She’s a problematic person. It will probably be something else again this year.

Accordingly, 2012 Taylor brought us Red, her most impeccably crafted album to that date, in response to the criticism that she wasn’t even that good. In turn, the pop culture hive mind began to admit that, say what you will about that little Swift girl, but she writes a damn catchy song. And after the “problematic person” critique began to pick up steam in 2013, 2014 Taylor declared herself a feminist, debuted her girl squad, and made a point of saying that her big revenge song wasn’t about a guy but about another girl.

Most effectively, she satirized the critique against her with “Blank Space,” in which she made literal the idea that she was a revenge-happy man-eater. “If I separate myself from it, it’s actually a pretty complex character,” she said. “She’s actually kind of exciting and interesting.”

Image building is the arena in which Taylor Swift the audience’s best friend and Taylor Swift the control freak have the ability to work together most seamlessly: The control freak watches the tides of public opinion and figures out exactly what kind of person it is that the world wants her to be, and then the best friend embodies it.

Or at least, that’s how it worked up until 2016. Exactly as Swift had predicted back in 2015, “something else again” came up to become the new dominant critique of her — only this time, Swift didn’t succeed in neutralizing it when she debuted her new persona in response.

And that’s because the new critique didn’t play out in the field of songwriting or politics. It was about gossip, the other arena where Swift puts both sides of her persona to work at once. In gossip, Swift is all intimacy and all control — and the resulting image is not entirely sympathetic.

Swift works endlessly to control the gossip press, which helps boost her intimacy with fans

2012 iHeartRadio Music Festival - Day 2 - Show
There is nothing I do better than revenge.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Clear Channel

One of the big criticisms of Taylor Swift is that she writes songs about her ex-boyfriends in what can be interpreted as petty acts of revenge. She gets the last word on the story of their relationship, and almost always, it’s a story where Swift is the heroine and her ex is the villain. John Mayer (probably) is a cold-hearted user in “Dear John.” Jake Gyllenhaal (probably) is clingy and whiny in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Harry Styles (probably) is toxic and dangerous in “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

Swift is prone to declaring that criticism of these songs comes “from a place of such sexism.”

“No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars,” she said in 2014. “They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises the red flag there.”

It’s true that few male pop stars get the flak Swift gets for writing songs about their exes — but it’s also true that to the best of my knowledge, Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars aren’t seeding hints about who their songs are about throughout their liner notes and then sending their fans off on a scavenger hunt.

Swift has no such compunctions. The reason fans are pretty sure “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is about Jake Gyllenhaal is because Swift gave them ample reason to think so: “She dressed her video co-star in Gyllenhaal’s clothes and sang about a scarf that she was prominently photographed wearing on a date with Gyllenhaal. They are pretty sure “I Knew You Were Trouble” is about Harry Styles because Swift talked about performing it “when the person the song is about is standing by the side of the stage watching,” right after Styles sat in the audience and listened to her sing it. They are pretty sure “Dear John” is about John Mayer because his name is John. (Mayer, for his part, says he found the song “humiliating.”)

Swift’s official stance on the matter is that she never explicitly says who her songs are about. “I’ve never named names, so I feel like I still have a sense of power over what people say,” she told GQ in 2015. “The fact that I’ve never confirmed who those songs are about makes me feel like there is still one card I’m holding.”

But she also seems to derive just as much power from the idea that her fans will surely guess who her songs are about, and that she’s given them all the information they need to do so. “Every single one of the guys that I’ve written songs about has been tracked down on MySpace by my fans,” she told the New York Times in 2008, back when her exes were non-celebrity randoms from her high school, apparently “giddy” at the idea. When a Rolling Stone writer suggested to her in 2014 that there was little ambiguity regarding who the song “Style” was about (it’s almost definitely Harry Styles), Swift “allows herself a satisfied grin. ‘We should have just called it “I'm Not Even Sorry.”’”

This kind of subliminal storytelling, the kind that gets teased out on gossip blogs and always has “alleged” attached to it, is where the two sides of Swift’s persona work most closely in tandem. She is in total control of her narrative, firmly positioning herself as the righteous and sinned-against party who has the last word, always, and that narrative is profoundly tear-stained and intimate. And if the narrative turns against her, she can always deny it, because the story depends on her confirmation.

What gets Swift into trouble is when that narrative starts to look fake. And that’s what happened to her last year.

The #KimExposedTaylorParty was a case of control overwhelming intimacy

Taylor Swift '1989' World Tour - Melbourne
The rumors are terrible and cruel, but, honey, most of them are true.
Graham Denholm/Getty Images

In February 2016, Kanye West released a song called “Famous” in which he rapped, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. / Why? I made that bitch famous.”

Swift denounced the lyric in a public statement. “Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single ‘Famous’ on her Twitter account,” said a spokesperson on her behalf. “She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message.” The spokesperson added, “Taylor was never made aware of the actual lyric, ‘I made that [expletive] famous.’”

Later that month, Swift won the Grammy for Album of the Year. And in her acceptance speech, she warned “all the young women out there” that “there will be people along the way who will try to undercut your success. Or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame."

To those who knew about her recent dustup with West, the implication was clear: West was trying to take credit for the fame Swift had worked so hard for, and this was anti-feminist. Swift was just an ordinary woman like anyone else, getting undercut in the workplace by her male colleagues.

It was a vintage Swift gossip operation. She had successfully micromanaged the narrative, and the resulting story had a universal appeal that was simultaneously feminist and spoke to the underdog in everyone: intimate, the way a good Taylor Swift song is. She was winning the game.

And then Kim Kardashian West — Kanye West’s wife and another celebrity who knows how to work a gossip cycle — released a series of videos that appeared to show Swift signing off on West’s lyrics.

At once, the narrative spiraled out of Swift’s control. #KimExposedTaylorParty started trending on Twitter as Swift haters celebrated her fall. They flooded her social media feeds with snake emojis.

Swift tried to disavow the whole thing. “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009,” she wrote on Instagram in a now-deleted post. But the lie was too blatant to work. Because it was clear that Swift had asked to be a part of the narrative of her feud with Kanye West — had, if anything, amplified it by writing songs about it and talking about it in her Grammys speech — and that her public image had benefited as a result.

The controlling side of Swift’s persona had showed its hand — and that meant the intimate side lost its power. Her attempts to connect with her fans stopped feeling authentic and started to feel like a lie.

“When did you first realize that Taylor Swift was lying to you?” asked the Ringer.

Traditionally, right now is when Taylor Swift revamps her image. But this time around, she’s been having trouble doing it.

2017 DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert In Houston - Taylor Swift Performance
Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for DIRECTV

As she geared up for Reputation’s release, Swift began New Taylor’s introduction to the public. Traditionally, she would take this opportunity to show us all the ways in which New Taylor renders criticism of the Old Taylor irrelevant — because the haters were right but she has grown as a person and so that doesn’t apply anymore, or because in fact, if you really think about it, the haters were incredibly sexist and unfair and it’s really brave of her to speak out against them.

But this time, that’s not what’s happening. Instead, Swift’s new songs have been about how the haters have made her do bad things and none of it was her fault, and how people have persecuted her unfairly but luckily her new boyfriend is really hot. It is, in other words, a step backward, a move away from the woke feminist persona Swift was playing with circa 1989, and back toward the aggrieved victim who finds her self-worth in boys that she embodied in “You Belong With Me.”

She’s made it clear that she knows exactly what everyone is saying about her, but rather than giving the world a new “Blank Space,” in which she takes ownership of the criticism about her and then turns it around with a self-awareness that reflects positively on her, she’s giving the world “Look What You Made Me Do,” in which she aggressively refuses to take ownership of anything, even as she acknowledges that she knows people think she plays the victim too much. “There she goes, playing the victim again,” one Taylor sneers at another in the video, immediately after singing a song about how everyone else is to blame for everything she’s done.

In part, that’s because Swift taking ownership of this particular criticism — that she’s fake, that she pretends to be an underdog when she isn’t, that she should abandon the stale innocent act and embrace her inner villain — would mean resolving the fundamental tension that has been at work throughout her entire career. If Swift were to admit that she micromanages the narratives she plays out in the press, that she manufactures feuds and then plays on them to make herself seem more vulnerable and hence more sympathetic, then she would be bringing together the intimacy and control sides of her persona in public view. She would be doing exactly the thing that she’s avoided most strenuously throughout her career.

Some of her latest videos even seem to be literalizing the tension between the two poles of her persona. In the video for “Ready For It?” two Taylors battle for dominance: one of them naked and vulnerable, the other black-clad and controlling. In the end, they synthesize together into the form of naked robot Taylor — but actual Taylor Swift doesn’t seem to be willing or able to manage such a fusion.

Swift seems to believe that if she explicitly acknowledges that she is both a Type A control freak and a person with messy, vulnerable feelings, she will lose a vital part of her appeal. And she may not be entirely wrong about that: Traditionally in pop culture, try-hards are villains or sad also-rans, not heroines.

But at this point, Swift’s ability to hold on to her appeal without uniting both halves of her persona is in serious doubt. The controlling and manipulative side of her persona has come into view to an extent that much of her audience is having trouble believing in the authenticity and intimacy of the other side. So even though Taylor Swift knows exactly what you think of her, for the first time in her career, she seems to be at a loss as to how to change your mind.

Update: This article was first published in November 2017. It has been updated to include information on the Reputation concert tour.

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