It’s not that we want to dislike Taylor Swift. Thinking about her career, her catalog, her PR stunts and public persona over the years as one giant body of work, we generally have loved her—maybe only 30 percent of that time have we wanted to shake her and ask, “Girl, what are you doing!?”
It just so happens that this 30 percent has fermented mostly over the last two years, a cataclysmic pileup of problematic ideas about feminism, misguided media manipulation, self-victimization when it benefitted her, silence about issues when it didn’t, and most egregiously, three garbage songs from her new album released in a row.
Despite these controversies of varying severity, we have always observed the unspoken rule of pop culture, as it has proven itself time and time again: All it takes for forgiveness and to change a star’s narrative is one project, one good song. Finally, Taylor Swift has given us one of those.
“Look What You Made Me Do” proclaimed that the “old Taylor” is dead. But it appears that, blessedly, “Call It What You Want,” the 27-year-old’s fourth single off her upcoming Reputation, has brought her back from the grave.
The song is sweepingly romantic but deeply personal and introspective, one of those hybrid ballads that are both booming and lilting, typical of her musical bridge from “Teardrops” Taylor to “Style” Swift. More, it’s a gasp for air from the scattershot sonic sprint that’s defined the first three singles off Reputation, a sweaty, aggressively energetic medley that confused a SoulCycle playlist for a new musical direction.
And if those songs all seemed lyrically petulant—calling out the media, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Calvin Harris, Spotify, Katy Perry, and former “Girl Squad” turncoats—this one seems refreshingly pure, and even mature.
It’s a thinly veiled ode to romantic bliss with her current boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn, and like the best of Swift’s catalog, it sends a message of empowerment derived through self-worth, self-respect, and the peace that comes when you find a partner who complements that—in contrast to the rest of Reputation’s tracks, which seek to empower through anger and taking other people down.
“Call It What You Want” boasts a music assist from Swift’s frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, the sort-of musical muse who helped Swift nail the signature, game-changing pop sound that won her Grammys and a new stratosphere of fame and fans with 1989. (The sound that she’s confusingly rebuked with the other tracks off Reputation thus far.)
“Call It What You Want” both returns Swift to familiar musical territory but, at least recently, unfamiliar thematic territory: humility.
“My castle crumbled overnight,” she begins, referencing the dramatic fall from her pop music throne in the last two years. “I brought a knife to a gunfight. They took the crown, but it’s alright,” she continues, a nod to finding serenity through love instead.
Characteristically Swiftian lyrics about lovers being daydreams (in contrast, you know, to nightmares dressed up like daydreams, night skies, storms, and metaphors about royals) follow. She’s back in storyteller mode, simultaneously vulnerable and emboldened by love.
There are sweet anecdotes about laughing with her lover under the covers and wearing his initial on a necklace. Should you have feared that she would release a song without just an ounce of tone-deafness, she sings about a night in late November, as if mentioning the month wouldn’t prompt snark about her election silence.
She also hasn’t abandoned the meta references that she’s known for, both to her career and the court of public opinion constantly ruling against her and sentencing her to a lifelong term of thinkpiece incarceration. Swift has the sole writing credit on the track and it carries her most obvious hallmarks, the least of which is a penchant for referencing herself and the journey of a girl’s love life through her lyrics.
You could fill an entire encyclopedia with such references, but maybe the most interesting way to view “Call It What You Want” is as a direct response to “Love Story,” in which Swift is waiting for a white knight to whisk her away.
“Romeo, save me…” she sang on “Love Story.” Eight years later, and a handful of relationships down, she’s more mature. “You don’t need to save me…” she sings on “Call It What You Want.”
On “Love Story,” she implores Romeo to “take me somewhere we can be alone. I’ll be waiting; all that’s left to do is run.” Now, she doesn’t need saving. In “Call It What You Want” she has the agency: “But would you run away with me?”
Then, of course, is the most swoon-inducing parallel. The heart-tugging finale of “Love Story” is Swift pleading, “Baby just say…yes.” And in “Call It What You Want,” after asking if her love will run away with her, she says, “Yes.”
All of this is a long-winded way to say, hey, we like this song! It’s catchy and romantic and inspires an instant singalong and spares us happy-hour debates about what’s happening with Taylor Swift, like during that dark period following the release of “Look What You Made Me Do.”
It does seem, however, that Swift’s detour to modesty and simplicity will be but a brief stop. Along with Reputation’s release next week, Swift will be launching a Reputation magazine through Target that will include 72 pages of poetry, photos, artwork, lyric sheets, and a poster. Call it what you want. Might we suggest “excessive?”