Rumors of the Old Taylor’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Or, more precisely, what’s been exaggerated is the death of the Old Old Old Taylor — the girly Taylor of giant twirly dresses and long ringlets and teardrops on her guitar, the Taylor who reached her apex with 2010’s Speak Now. That Taylor was long thought to be vanished, buried under the retro-chic femininity of 2012’s Red and the pop sleekness of 2014’s 1989, and then definitively murdered during the heel turn of 2017’s Reputation.
That’s not to say that Taylor ever went grunge or androgynous. In the 2010s, Taylor moved away from the country sound she built her name on, but she was still girly. She was just a little bit less … floofy about it. Until now.
Now, Floofy Taylor’s back with a vengeance. And we know this because the video for her newest single, “ME!”, which she dropped at the stroke of midnight on April 26, opens with the snake that Taylor made her mascot during the Reputation era exploding into a cloud of butterflies. Subtle she ain’t.
Taylor Swift is done trying to be a bad girl snake, “ME!” informs us. She’s back to her hyper-femme butterfly days.
Swift’s new image debuted only after months of preparation on Instagram
Swift’s been building up to this return all year. On her Instagram, there’s a stark dividing line between the posts of 2018 — the Reputation era, all blood reds and black — and the posts from last Christmas on. In the Reputation era, Swift tended to indicate tenderness with black-and-white photos or sun-drenched pictures of her in monochromatic outfits, but as she put that phase to bed, she started diverging more and more from the black-and-white-and-red color story she’d built for herself. The pictures on her Instagram started to get brighter.
Colors started creeping back into the frames, gradually but unmistakably: a frilly dress here, a pink-filtered staircase there. By March, they were hyper-saturated with bold, blaring pink (“screaming color,” even), and butterflies. Butterflies everywhere.
The pinks and the butterflies and the rainbows suggest that Taylor is trying to go back to her roots — not musically (“ME!” never tries to sound anything like a country song), but in terms of her persona.
They suggest that she’s sick of trying to play the villain role she saddled herself with in the wake of the #KimExposedTaylorParty, when Kim Kardashian West published a video that appeared to prove that Swift had publicly lied about Kanye West, one showing Swift signing off on a Swift-referencing Kanye lyric that she would later claim he’d published without her permission. The butterflies suggest that Swift wants to move past all fuss, to go back to being a pop culture princess. Whether she’ll be able to pull off that return is a larger question.
In some ways, throwing back to her ultra-femme good girl image is a wise move for Swift. She always wore her bad girl mantle uneasily, as evidenced by the comparatively anemic reception she earned with Reputation (anemic, of course, by Swift standards only; for most other artists, it would have been a smash). Critics almost uniformly found her harping on all the ways she’d been wronged exhausting, and while her diehard fan base remained supportive, no song on Reputation ever achieved the level of inescapable cultural saturation that, for instance, “Shake It Off” had in 2014.
But it’s worth remembering that Swift never quite chose to make a heel turn in the first place. She found herself pushed into the role after Kim Kardashian West caught her in a messy public lie that clashed viciously with her likable persona, and audiences started to think of her as fake.
Coming out of the Reputation era, Swift has done a little rehab work on her tattered princess image, especially as compared to her nemesis Kanye. She encouraged her fans to register to vote, and in so doing drove what appeared to be a measurable spike in voter registration numbers. She broke her long-standing rule against taking public sides in politics to endorse two Democratic candidates for Congress. (One of them lost and the other was already expected to win, but still.)
And most poetically, Swift made her political moves right around the same time that Kanye West courted controversy by visiting Trump at the White House, positioning herself as the woke, politically responsible alternative to the increasingly alienated — and alienating — Kanye. Essentially, Swift finally beat Kanye West in a PR skirmish for the first time since her major loss against the West couple in 2016.
There’s a chance that Swift has repaired herself enough that the public will be willing to look at her with unabashed adoration again, and a slightly bigger chance that the public is so tired of the bad girl era of Reputation that they’ll be willing to accept Butterfly Taylor as a less exhausting alternative.
But it’s also entirely possible that Swift’s public image fundamentally changed forever in the wake of the #KimExposedTaylorParty, and that no matter what happens from now on, people will always think of her on some level as a little bit of a snake.
If that’s the case, it might behoove Swift to find a way to reconcile the two poles of her image — a way to be both unapologetically a floof-loving girly girl and a scheming, plotting snake. That’s a Taylor Swift that I could get behind.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that both of Democratic candidates Swift endorsed during the 2018 midterms lost their races. Only one of them did.