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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.

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.

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”