The old Taylor Swift isn’t “dead” — she’s haunting the new Taylor Swift
There’s one narrative that Taylor Swift would very much like to not be excluded from, and it’s this: “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now… ’cause she’s dead.” After a rocky 2016 that saw her go through two breakups and a very public falling out with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, the pop star is ready to reclaim and remake her image. The question is, how?
Typically, when pop stars reinvent themselves — think Miley Cyrus’ dalliance with hip-hop culture, Lady Gaga’s country-cool Joanne vibe, Madonna in pretty much every one of her music videos — they just dive right in, and explain later. It’s about distancing themselves from a certain persona by making bold, distinct changes that suit where they want to take their brand. Picking out Disney Miley from bad-girl Miley from boho, blissfully-in-love Miley is as simple as distinguishing the Ice Age from the Bronze Age.
But it’s harder to pick apart what’s happening with Swift, because her past image still feels so entwined with her new work. Rather than distancing herself from the “old Taylor,” she’s put her front and center. The central theme of her latest album — Reputation, out Nov. 10 — appears to be her effort to transform herself, but we’ve yet to see that transformation fully unveiled.
Musically, Swift’s new songs, which are heavy on electro-pop, are a far cry from her singer-songwriter roots and even the throwback synths that dominated 2014’s 1989. Still, it feels like we’re witnessing a painstaking process take place, and she’s walking us through every step. As such, Swift’s new music videos come off less like videos and more like extended makeover montages.
The first video in support of Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do,” set up the action and teased a feistier Taylor when it was released in late August. The video opens with a zombie Swift staggering around a cemetery and later, the pop star clashes with her various iterations — the aw-shucks girl West ambushed on the MTV Video Music Awards stage in 2009, the bespectacled girl next door with the countless BFFs, etc. She snarls at her critics and mocks herself for playing the victim. We see the drama and angst fueling her urge to lash out and change gears.
And that leads us to the similarly confrontational clip for “...Ready for It?,” the second Reputation single. The video, which debuted at midnight on Friday, continues the narrative that Swift is trying to kill off old ideas about her. But that’s proving to be harder than it looks, partly because she’s playing into those ideas.
At the start of the new video, Swift is clad in a black hoodie, bearing a striking resemblance to the Evil Kermit meme. According to “...Ready for It?” fan theories that have been liked (and therefore, presumably confirmed) by the singer on social media, this Taylor is the media’s representation of her: negative, menacing, harsh.
But there’s another Taylor in the mix. She’s stuck behind glass and, at first glance, she looks to be nude, which is potentially a nod to the faux-Swift that appears naked in Kanye West’s “Famous” video. Remember, that’s the same song that reignited the bad blood (sorry) between the two musicians and was the catalyst for Kim Kardashian West seemingly calling out Swift for being a “snake.” She appears vulnerable, exposed and trapped, like some sci-fi damsel in distress.
Upon closer inspection, though, we see that she’s not really nude, nor is she vulnerable; she’s wearing a sort of futuristic cyborg-style bodysuit that transforms into armor. She’s got electricity coursing through her. She’s powerful — so powerful that she destroys the “evil Taylor,” the Taylor we all think we know, and breaks free from her glass cage, ready to be resurrected.
If this is indeed part of an arc that’s playing out across multiple videos, then it’s safe to assume that the video for Swift’s third single, “Gorgeous,” will pick up the storyline. Will we finally get a sense of who the new Taylor is then?
And is there really a new Taylor? The countless Easter eggs in “...Ready for It?” — many of which allude to her new relationship with actor Joe Alwyn — keep referencing the singer’s past. She’s posing Lady Godiva-style on the white horse from the “Blank Space” video and mimicking poses from the clips for “Bad Blood” and “Out of the Woods.” The track has Swift singing about being a “phantom” in relation to getting under her new lover’s skin, but it seems like she’s the one being haunted — by her own reputation and the old Taylor.
And the old Taylor is still part of who she is — certainly lyrically, if not musically. Part of Swift’s appeal is her indulgence of our (very human) petty urges: calling out a bad boyfriend, picking at the scab of friendships that have gone south, standing up to haters. Her newest track, “Gorgeous,” is about her liking someone so much that it pisses her off. It’s petty, and a bit bratty, but also relatable.
The videos for “Look What You Made Me Do” and “...Ready for It?” may have killed off the old Taylor, but she’s not really dead. The snake — an image which Swift’s been taunted with and eventually adopted to tease her new album — sheds its skin, but remains a snake. Taylor Swift can recalibrate and reclaim her narrative, but the things that make her Taylor Swift haven’t really gone anywhere. And really, would her fans have it any other way?