For an artist who’s all about confessional songwriting, relationships and friendships as lyrical fodder, Taylor Swift is shockingly enigmatic. Or maybe, to be more precise, she has created and mass-marketed so many versions of herself that it’s impossible to distinguish the real human being from the clones.
Swift isn’t subtle about her plan to flood the world with carbon copies; the Taylor Swift bot is a recurring theme in her work now—the “real” Taylor dominating the “fake” one, new Taylor taking on her past iterations. The intended message is that Swift knows what you think about her—that she’s a robot and a fake—and she has a sense of humor about it. But this doesn’t impart a sense of self-awareness so much as a threat: Taylor Swift can only be defeated by newly updated Taylor Swift prototypes. She will just keep regenerating, blonder and thinner and stronger and more in love than ever.
What makes Swift seem so unknowable isn’t that she’s crossed genres or changed looks; other artists manage to update their appearances or experiment with a new sound without eliciting a barrage of snake emojis. Swift is an enigma because her brand seems to be completely at odds with her true self. There’s an ever-widening gap between the Taylor Swift who sings about finding her one true love and being weird in middle school and the Taylor Swift who is slowly being revealed by her actions: a singularly controlling, fame-obsessed artist, mercenary and tough as nails. Swift writes songs like a girl who is soft and impulsive, falling in and out of love, always being manipulated, constantly getting hurt. But it’s hard to imagine the real Swift ever allowing her emotions to get the best of her. After all, this is a woman who, time and time again, has prioritized her career above all. She preaches female friendship but would never risk album sales with overtly feminist activity. She loves her fans but will not hesitate to serve them with trademark infringement warnings. And, most damningly, she will act shocked and scandalized by a dirty Kanye West song and play it for sympathy, refusing to back down even when confronted with seemingly clear evidence of her dishonesty.
Swift writes lyrics that read like diary entries, and she has always dealt in relatability. According to her oeuvre, she’s just like any other middle-class white girl from Pennsylvania—she loves her friends, she loves her cats, and all she really cares about is finding The One. But despite what her music might suggest, the real Taylor Swift is much more interesting. As one of the most famous pop stars in the world, Swift is clearly singular; she’s not like her fans or the girls she grew up with. Her life is far more dramatic and her motivations are more complex. The main things driving Swift, at least in this Reputation era, appear to be fame, revenge, and money. Her rotating cast of interchangeable exes suggest that the search for that one true love isn’t what gets Swift out of bed in the morning. More likely, it’s her pursuit of pop star supremacy.
Swift is never more brilliant or fascinating than when she’s being selfish and manipulative—like that totally unnecessary, utterly glorious Witness-eclipsing Spotify maneuver. Clearly, Swift has a talent and a taste for outwitting her enemies. She also has a knack for knowing just how to wring every last drop of attention and press out of a single or album release. So it’s no wonder Reputation is “Taylor Swift’s long-awaited heel turn,” as Vulture’s Craig Jenkins calls it. It is delicious cattiness and self-satisfied cruelty but not, of course, incontrovertible proof that Swift really is a villain. While the singer has her Machiavellian moments, the truth of Taylor Swift is probably that she’s good and bad; not the country angel of her early records or Reputation’s man-eating manipulator. She’s just a really smart businesswoman who knows what sells.
To accompany Reputation, in fact, Swift is selling two behind-the-scenes magazines, available exclusively at Target. In the magazine’s forward, she writes, “We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us. There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation.” This is a hilarious sentiment, especially considering that it introduces a bunch of glossy pages and confessions that Swift is shilling for 20 bucks a pop. Swift’s work speaks for itself; she has nothing else to say, but she’s happy to make something up if you’re willing to pay for it.
For all of her alleged dishonesty, Taylor’s love of making money is remarkably straightforward. She is vastly opportunistic, willing to risk any and all potential hits to her reputation if it will make her a profit. Back when Swift first announced Reputation, when public opinion of her was at an all-time low, the singer introduced a system where fans were encouraged to purchase merchandise—like a $60 gold snake ring—in order to “boost” their chances of being able to purchase concert tickets. This naked money grab didn’t go over so well; even the Daily Mail was aghast, writing at the time, “for fans who aren’t trying to spend money just for the chance of spending more money, the arrangement is off-putting.” Off-putting maybe, but certainly not a shock. These days you can’t walk off a curb without getting hit by a UPS truck with Taylor Swift’s face on it. Capitalism is, and has always been, the pop star’s only consistent ideology.
Reputation is almost comically paint by numbers—a well-calibrated combination of what has worked for Taylor in the past, and new sounds (rap?!) and sound-bites that are sure to sell. There is no radical departure or artistic transformation here. In fact, Swift appears to be doubling down on the romantic ballads even as she experiments with her catty side. The album is designed to get gossip blogs going—shet knows that fans and critics alike will comb through her lyrics for digs and scandal, and she doesn’t disappoint. The most overtly confrontational song is probably “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” a barely-veiled, bitter track about the very mean Kardashian-Wests: “It was so nice being friends again / There I was giving you a second chance / But then you stabbed my back while shaking my hand / And therein lies the issue / Friends don't try to trick you / Get you on the phone and mind-twist you / And so I took an ax to a mended fence…But I'm not the only friend you've lost lately / If only you weren’t / So shady.”
Amusingly, Swift has built an album-long argument that it was love—not her own hard work or ambition—that allowed her to overcome the Wests’ smear campaign and triumph in the end. On “Call It What You Want,” she offers the clearest example of this revisionist history, crooning “My castle crumbled overnight / I brought a knife to a gun fight / they took the crown, but it’s alright / All the liars are calling me one / Nobody’s heard from me for months / I’m doing better than I ever was cause…My baby’s fit like a daydream.” Somehow the conniving Swift has managed to rewrite herself as a victim who was ultimately saved by Joe Alwyn’s abs. In many ways, this is a disservice to Swift, who’s talented, smart, and ruthless enough to save herself. But it’s also a continuation of her very successful brand. Swift sells albums by maintaining that she’s still the innocent, lovesick girl she probably never was in the first place.
At the end of the day, Swift’s selling power isn’t that she’s actually the girl next door—it’s that she has the good sense to truly see her fans, selling their lives, loves, and aesthetics back to them. Her lyrics are seemingly confessional, but just impersonal enough to apply to basically any teen. And Swift keeps up with the trends. Just take “I Did Something Bad” and “Don’t Blame Me,” two vampy tracks that will no doubt be taken as serious indications of Swift’s state of mind and romantic ethos instead of what they are: a solid attempt to court maturing fans with some light misandry. Riding the men-are-trash wave, she croons, “Crimson red paint on my lips / If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing / I don't regret it one bit, 'cause he had it coming.” And then, later, “They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one / They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons / They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one / So light me up.” Instead of stealing inspiration from teen movie tropes and Romeo and Juliet, Swift is taking a page from Tumblr, all black winged eyeliner and performative empowerment.
Nowhere is Swift’s talent for tapping into teen culture more apparent than in the Reputation magazines, which are chock full of Polaroids obscured by emo sentence fragments, handwritten lyrics and even poems. Swift has built an empire by ripping the aesthetics of quirky girlhood from the internet and mass producing them for Target. She is, unabashedly, a grown woman who’s mining the hurts and obsessions of teenagedom for lyric gold. In one of her exclusive Reputation poems, she writes, “If you’re anything like me / You’ve grown to hate your pride / To love your thighs / And no amount of friends at 25 / Will fill the empty seats / At the lunch tables of your past / The teams that picked you last.” Is Taylor Swift, an unfathomably successful millionaire, truly incapable of letting go of middle school rejection? Or is she just full of shit? Either way, she’s working it.