While her music has evolved dramatically over the years, Taylor Swift has only made slight, safe tweaks to her public image. Now, with the snake-centric presentation of her new Reputation era and vengeful, chilling lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift seems to be in the midst of the most complete skin-shedding of her career. It might be the country-turned-pop star’s biggest creative risk yet.
Until now, Swift has spent over a decade tackling safe themes. Early on, she seemed to believe fully in storybook romance, singing sweet, earnest tales of falling in and even out of love like “Our Song,” “Love Story,” “White Horse” and “Out of the Woods.” From her bright and warm imagery to her smartly crafted lyrics that treated heartbreak like the biggest blow one could take, her problems seemed to be garden-variety suburban woes, with stakes she has scaled up ever-so-slightly as her star power has increased.
Of course, maturity mixed with fame brings more complicated problems – and different kinds of enemies. Her first public nemesis was Kanye West, who interrupted Swift as she accepted the 2009 MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video to say that she didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t much of a feud: The public pretty unanimously sided with Swift, and West’s career was nearly detonated by the move. But when the West feud reignited last year, following spats with Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, it set the stage for one of the biggest blows yet to Swift’s public image.
“Famous”-gate began when West seemed to jokingly claim on that Life of Pablo song, “I made that bitch famous,” a misogynistic statement Swift took issue with. She called him out, and a new war of character ensued that turned into a she said–they said when West’s wife Kim Kardashian got involved. She leaked West and Swift’s phone call about “Famous” through a series of Snapchat videos, having long claimed that Swift had approved the lyrics. Though she isn’t heard approving the “bitch” line in the publicly seen footage, her detractors had all the evidence they needed. Swift called out Kardashian’s “character assassination” then went dark, embarking on the most publicly quiet year of her career.
Surprisingly, for Swift at least, she kicks off her latest era with a song that seems to call out her beef with West and Kardashian via a reference to a “tilted stage” (West’s Life of Pablo tour featured him performing on a floating stage that would tilt and move above the audience). At one point, she proclaims the “old Taylor” to be dead in what sounds like a voicemail recording, a nod to the now infamous phone call captured in the reality star’s Snapchat story. Plus, her snake-centric teaser videos and now merch directly reference the snake emojis Kardashian’s fans flooded Swift’s social media accounts with.
Sonically, “Look What You Made Me Do” is one of her darkest turns. There’s no big, hopeful chorus like the empowering 1989 lead single “Shake It Off,” that addressed a more general assembly of haters and tabloid drama. She’s more direct, addressing her enemy with few subtleties. “All I think about is karma,” she threatens over an ominous beat that features elements of spooky carnival and horror-movie sound effects. It’s also Swift’s first song to interpolate music from another artist, when she references Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” creepy-sexy delivery on the chorus.
While her full album direction won’t be confirmed until Reputation‘s November 10th release date, Swift’s greatest attribute as an artist has long been how cohesive her eras and full LPs are. Clearly her current rebirth is a much darker one, as she has wiped away any sign of her former persona on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and all her other public platforms. The move is particularly significant for Swift given how intimately she has shared the details of her life over the course of her career and the very particular way she has developed her own fan-artist relationship. This era already feels a little colder, harsher and possibly even more villainous than the pop-star-next-door we had come to know.
Given the passionate response to the way she ripped apart her own image in the campy “Blank Space” video and went a little more lyrically vicious with “Bad Blood,” her fans may have long been hungry for a more evil incarnation of Swift, one that owns the public perceptions and projections of a calculated figure. A downside of her Nice Girl persona for so many years is the victim complex many felt she played into on her breakup songs and later in her feuds. “Look What You Made Me Do” does little to oppose that assumption, given its pointed fingers stance and emphasis on karmic retribution.
Still, as she pushes forth into her Reputation era, owning her bad press instead of merely brushing it off appears to be a good look on Swift. A little touch of camp could make her transformation complete, but for someone who has been as consistently earnest as Swift, leaning into her darker side might be the biggest test of her artistic capabilities yet. Will one of pop’s biggest, most fervent fan bases cheer on her gritty new direction? Or will her followers mourn the loss of “the old Taylor” she finally saw fit to kill off?