Taylor Swift leans in to her villainous persona on Reputation

In Swift’s storytelling, “bad things” used to just happen to her. Now, she’s the one doing them.

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Taylor Swift knows that her reputation is in ribbons. Instead of hiding from it, she’s made it the driving force behind her sixth album campaign. The album’s called Reputation, and it uses tabloid and rebel girl imagery in its marketing. “My reputation’s never been worse,” she sings on the new record’s “Delicate”, “So you must like me for me.”

Following in the synthy pop footsteps of her last record, 1989, there are darker tones to Reputation. It’s bassier and more layered, with more intrusive sound effects (like the gunshots on “I Did Something Bad”), and more overtly hip-hop influenced. Critics said that Lorde’s second album Melodrama sounded more like Taylor Swift, and now Reputation sounds a little more like Lorde.

Swift half-sings, half-raps on “End Game” (one of the weaker tracks on the record), bragging about her “big reputation”. On “Don’t Blame Me”, she croons that men are “just playthings” to her. She’s “stealing hearts and running off and never saying sorry” on “…Ready For It”, which throbs like an emergency services siren. She sounds like a sarcastic brat on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, and she knows it. The narrative peaks on “I Did Something Bad”, where Swift fully leans into the manipulative, hedonistic seductress role. It’s joyful in its remorselessness. “If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing,” she sings, marking the first time she’s used a swear word in a song. “I don’t regret it one bit, ‘cause he had it coming”. A woman scorned in red lipstick, she’s a sexy, glamorous nightmare.

Taylor loves reinvention, so it can feel like playing into her hands to note the differences in persona between this album cycle and the last. But there are deliberate changes at work here. Take, for instance, the word “bad”.

“Bad” appears more than 30 times on Taylor Swift’s new album –as many as on all of Swift’s other albums put together. It first appears in “Picture To Burn”: “You’re a redneck heartbreak / Who’s really bad at lying”. From then on, “bad” is almost exclusively used to refer to seductive but dangerous men: the irresistible man on “Sparks Fly” who’s a “bad idea”, the one on “Superman” who’s “not all bad like his reputation”, the one on “22” who “looks like bad news”, the one on “Wildest Dreams” who’s “so bad but he does it so well”, or the “bad guys” Swift can make “good for a weekend” on “Blank Space”.

It’s not until “Bad Blood” until the word starts to move towards Swift herself, and even here it’s made clear that the real villain of the piece is the enemy Swift sings to, not Swift herself. On “This Love” too, she sings “this love is good, this love is bad”, but as it’s about her lover leaving (and eventually returning to) her, it doesn’t feel like she sees herself as doing much wrong.

Reputation marks the first time Swift has ever described herself as bad on her own record – and she loves it. “You like the bad ones too,” she sings shamelessly on “End Game”. She revels in how good transgression feels on “I Did Something Bad”. She’s “the actress in your bad dreams” on “Look What You Made Me Do”, she insists “I’m not a bad girl, but I do bad things,” on “So It Goes…” The resulting picture is of a more morally dubious person who’s also a hell of a lot more interesting – like she’s embracing the parts of the persona she caricatured and satirised in “Blank Space”.

Swift’s usually discusses her “faults” through a veil of haters and critics: the writer on “Mean” who is “drunk and ramblin’ on about how I can’t sing”, the long list of flaws rounded off by the line “at least that’s what people say,” in “Shake It Off”. That classic Swiftian defensiveness is hard to shake, and it sticks around here, if more subtly. There’s still distance put between the real Taylor and the Taylor people talk about: “They say I did something bad”, “they’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one”, “I’m not a bad girl”, “he ain’t reading what they call me”, “they say she’s gone too far this time”.

But there’s a swing at work in other places, too. She’s increased her use of words like “want” and “wanna”, while there’s a stark drop off in words like “know”, “ever” and “never” – some of the most favoured words on all her other albums. Overall, there’s a lyrical move from describing little cinematic scenes to a compulsive confessional mode.

The old Taylor isn’t dead. But these shifts in tone and vocabulary present an artist who’s becoming less concerned with turning her life into picture-perfect narratives of the future and the past, what she didn’t know then verses what she does know now, heart-breaking movies and fairy-tale endings – and a lot more concerned with what she wants, right now, in the moment. Even if it’s bad.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.