One year ago, Taylor Swift’s somewhat infamous LP Reputation hit the shelves and digital libraries of 700,000 listeners. It would go on to sell 1.26 million copies in that first week, making it a member of an elite club of albums to have broken a million copies (at all, let alone that first week) in the last decade… a club that is mostly comprised of Swift’s other records. It was an auspicious achievement in the pop star’s increasingly controversial career – every album she’s released since 2008’s Fearless has broken a million records sold in its first week.
Swift has become a polarizing figure in the pop culture sphere. Between the ongoing Kimye saga, 100% valid conversation and critiques about the downfalls of white feminism, her own personal #MeToo moment and the usual, misogyny-fueled obsession with her love life that’s been prominent since that first record broke a million all those years ago. (She has arguably used that obsession to her advantage in the years since, but… wouldn’t you?) The stage was certainly set for Reputation to be as polarizing as the woman herself – it was the first Swift record that broke her every-other-year-pattern ever, and followed a nearly year-long (and highly advisable) social media hiatus/blackout on Swift’s part. It’s safe to say, nobody knew what to expect; uncommonly for an artist whose unflinchingly loyal following was built on the closeness she shares with her fanbase, “nobody” included the vast majority of her fans.
It’s safe to say I’m never going to forget the first time I heard “Look What You Made Me Do.” It was late at night, and I was driving alone on I-15 to join my bandmate at our producer’s studio in Boulder City, Nevada. My bandmate texted me to tell me that it was streaming, so I immediately queued up Apple Music and pressed play. The next three minutes and thirty-one seconds of my life consisted largely of complete silence (other than the car stereo) and my jaw tersely hitting the floor.
When the song ended, my silence didn’t. I put the song on again, trying to understand what had just happened. This was… Taylor Swift? The girl whose “country” (pop) 2012 masterpiece Red had wrecked and remade me in the wake of the abusive relationship I was in when it came out? The woman whose 2014 effort “1989” saw me through escaping that relationship? The same person whose albums always seemed to mirror what I was going through as they hit the shelves, and had since I was 15 years old trying to figure out why a scene-kid Latina from California felt so connected to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed country singer from the other side of the country?
I’ll be honest: I have never considered Swift’s debut singles to be high points on any of her records. They always seem to bury the talent lede and to serve as poor examples of the brilliance in each vinyl ridge (or sound file, which is more commonly accurate but just sounds a lot less romantic. Give me this). In this sense, “Look What You Made Me Do” was an appropriate first track off of Reputation – because, on that first lesson, I was left feeling unsettled, confused, and completely unsure of how I felt about the song. I sifted through hot takes on Twitter, seeing if anyone else had managed to encapsulate how I felt in 280 characters or less so I wouldn’t have to figure it out, but it hadn’t happened so far. I was on my own on that dark interstate.
I’ve since come around on the song. It was a single that needed the context of the album in a way that few (if any) other Swift singles had before. “Look What You Made Me Do” buries the lede, and then some; it paints Reputation as an album about revenge, about pettiness, about being a Kimye-entangled snake. In reality, the record is a swinging pendulum between two extremes; Swift being angrier than she ever has been and softer than we’ve ever seen her.
A year later, the pit of apprehension that settled in my stomach upon first hearing that combative single feels like a distant memory. The reclamation of the phrase “look what you made me do” was indeed the thesis of the record – but it wasn’t what that first track (and music video) would’ve lead us to believe. That was a red herring and just a small part of the story. What we made her do wasn’t about revenge, or anger, or anything that simplistic.
We made her unplug.
Reputation is the story of a young woman finding her way back to herself, and learning to really own the entire gamut of her own experiences and emotions – the good (“Call It What You Want”), the bad (“Dancing With Our Hands Tied”) and the ugly (“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”). Whether it’s the stunning self-reflection of “Getaway Car”, the snarky confrontation of “I Did Something Bad”, the sultry come-hither tones of “Dress” or the heartbreaking honesty of “New Years Day”, one year later this album feels like Taylor Swift at her most raw; and yet, most at peace. This is a young woman who has grown up in front of the world, made plenty of mistakes, been hurt just as many times, and is finally ready to talk about it… but only on her terms.
Throughout the record, I recognize shades of my own experience; I feel vindicated about standing up for myself on “I Did Something Bad” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” I look back at the boy who didn’t hear me when I said I wasn’t ready on “Getaway Car.” I fall in love during the fall right alongside her on “Delicate” and “Call It What You Want.” I feel that blush of pure desire through “So It Goes” and “Dress.” And more than anything, I cry with her to “Dancing with Our Hands Tied” and “New Years Day,” both over what wasn’t meant to be and for what still is to come.
Because of this, despite my initial apprehension, TS6 turned out to once again be the soundtrack to my own personal evolution from a young woman who has been perpetually two years ahead of me, despite our cultural, socioeconomic and myriad other differences; I don’t think I’ll ever hear the line “Please don’t ever become a stranger/whose laugh I would recognize anywhere” without tearing up.
With Reputation, Swift created something that captures both the grief of nostalgia and an unwavering optimism – an optimism that is simultaneously painfully honest and completely endearing, and that isn’t easy to do. Between her distinctive style of storytelling and some very risky sonic choices – choices that largely paid off – it is all at once the most and least quintessentially Taylor Swift album she could possibly have released.
It’s impossible to say what’s next for Taylor Swift. For the first time in her decades-plus long career, she is an incredibly lucrative free agent and has already confirmed that her next album will be out before her 30th birthday in December 2019. The sonic evolution between Red, 1989 and Reputation paired with her prowess as a songwriter and storyteller means there are a lot of different directions we could see her take with TS7. At the very least, it will be the first record we’ve had from her where there are no fresh breakups to sift through, nor a new romance to introduce her listeners to – in fact, in a lot of ways it seems that we’ll be getting the first TS record that will be created from the previously uncharted territory of fulfillment (or at least, contentment) for Swift.
Happy birthday, Reputation. A year later, I’m still not sure I was ready for it, but I’m sure glad we made her do it.