Taylor Swift’s False Reputation
I've followed Taylor Swift’s career from the beginning. I’ve admired her flair for storytelling, her ability to transform the mundane details of everyday experience into profound life lessons. I’ve also admired her knack for creating an endless number of catchy melodies. Being a fellow millennial woman, I feel like I’ve gone through the awkward transition from insecure, adolescent teenager to self-assured woman right alongside her. Yet I can’t help but feel that each of our brands of womanhood are worlds apart.
With Swift’s latest album, Reputation, the world has witnessed her complete evolution from squeaky-clean country sweetheart to femme fatale sex symbol. This shift has seemed to jolt many a critic and T-Swift fan. The synth sounds that she introduced on 1989 are center stage on Reputation. Gone are the guitars, replaced by layers and layers of keyboards and bass-filled drums. Even Swift’s voice goes through a vocoder on “Delicate.”
As John Caramanica noted in The New York Times, there is a shift away from Swift’s signature melodies into a style that uses her voice as an “accent piece, or seasoning.” (To be sure, “Delicate” and “Dress” retain the one-note melody that has worked so well for her in the past.) According to Caramanica, the songs of her new album “emphasize the cadence of her singing, not the melody or range.” This musical element is an appropriate choice, since it seems to reflect Swift’s move to further de-personalize herself.
There is a bite to these lyrics, so that Reputation lacks the playfulness of past Swift albums.
Reputation is a coming-of-age album, showcasing plenty of “firsts” for Swift: her first on-record curse word (“I Did Something Bad”), her first time singing (repeatedly!) about consuming alcohol, and her first time singing overtly about her sexuality. Of course, boasting of sexual prowess is pop culture’s way of dubbing a female artist a true “woman.” Although Swift had been dropping hints for a while, from 2010’s "Sparks Fly" (“Give me something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around”) to 2014’s "Wildest Dreams" (“Tangled up with you all night / Burning it down”), Reputation is shamelessly drenched in the theme of sexuality.
In “Dancing with Our Hands Tied” Swift reflects on a lover who chose to look past her shortcomings and “turned [her] bed into a sacred oasis.” In “King of My Heart,” she mentions a “kingdom inside [her] room.” In “Delicate,” she tells her lover, “Just think of all the fun things we could do ... Do the girls back home touch you like I do.”
The steamy “Dress” exemplifies this the most clearly. (Apparently, the song was too much for Swift’s parents to handle, as they left the room when she played it at a listening party she hosted for fans). Over a slow-jam beat that seems a more likely fit for a Rihanna song, Swift sings, “Say my name and everything just stops / I don't want you like a best friend / Only bought this dress so you could take it off, take it off / Carve your name into my bedpost.”
Our popular culture, including Reputation, often disregards God’s design for sex, limiting our God-given sexuality to the physical, instead of encompassing all aspects of our sexuality. It glamorizes pre-marital sex, purposefully leaving out any negative consequences.
In The Gift of Sex, in which Clifford and Joyce Penner discuss sexuality as a component of God’s design for marriage, the authors write:
Lovemaking cannot be just physical … If there is to be a fulfilled relationship, there must be more to it than meeting physical needs. The total person—intellect, emotions, body, spirit, and will—becomes involved in the process of giving ourselves to each other.
Besides boasting of her sensual side on Reputation, Swift proudly displays her vengeful tendencies as well. I see this antagonism as a direct result of her years of pining as a hopeless romantic, which has been the subject of most of her songs. She has put all of her hope and identity in romantic relationships. When her boyfriends fail her, her emotional wall goes up. Slowly but surely she has gotten to the point at which, as "Look What You Made Me Do" exclaims, "I don't trust nobody and nobody trusts me.”
Distrust easily devolves into being outright vengeful toward her enemies, a recurring theme reflected in two more tracks: “I Did Something Bad” and “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” The former seems to be a throwback to “Cell Block Tango (He Had It Coming)” from the musical Chicago, complete with gunshot sound effects and Swift’s first on-record curse word (“If a man talks s---, then I owe him nothing / I don’t regret it one bit, ‘cause he had it coming”).
There is a bite to her lyrics, so that Reputation lacks the playfulness of past Taylor Swift albums. If 1989’s “Blank Space” has “a long list of ex-lovers,” Reputation’s “Look What You Made Me Do” mentions an ominous “list of names and yours is in red, underlined.” In “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” Swift sings, “Friends don’t try to trick you / Get you on the phone and mind-twist you / And so I took an axe to a mended fence.” Later in the song, Swift literally laughs at the prospect of forgiving those who have wronged her.
With Swift’s brand of womanhood, sensuality and bitterness are the pillars of a woman to be emulated. Yet Proverbs reminds us that “charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” I believe Swift’s deepest desire is the same as mine and all women: to know someone intimately and be known in return; to love someone unconditionally and to be loved unconditionally in return. Swift holds onto this side of herself by a thread, with only two out of 15 tracks on Reputation reflecting this theme (“End Game” and “New Year’s Day”).
I can relate to Swift’s relentless search for intimacy—whether her focus is romance or sex. Yet worldly intimacy, separated from the love of Jesus, will always come up short. I’m reminded of the Samaritan woman at the well, who was also tempted to find her fulfillment in romantic relationships. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” Jesus told her, “but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”