View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Music
10 November 2017

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.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

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”.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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.

Content from our partners
Future proofing the NHS
Where do we get the money to fix the world's biggest problems? – with ONE
Labour's health reforms can put patients first

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU