Media mogul, feline aficionado, and Grammy magnet, Taylor Swift has been a giant of pop music since her debut in 2006. Her sixth studio album, highly anticipated and heavily promoted, will doubtlessly dominate airwaves upon its release on Nov. 10. Swift has long used lead singles to rebrand—those from both “Red” and “1989” marked a pivot from country towards pure pop—and the first few singles of her “Reputation” era similarly focus on optics. Over the last few years, the star has been embroiled in a slew of controversies. Although they are not among her strongest work, the three songs appropriately address her situation and frame a captivating musical transformation.
The “Reputation” era officially kicked off with the release of Swift’s first single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Preceded by a total social media blackout and cryptic snake imagery on Instagram, the song offers a radically new sound for the musician. The backing instrumentals are packed with dramatic strings and forceful beats—the keys are aggressively struck, and rattlesnake-like percussion in the background supplements her voice.
Likewise, the lyrical content is harsher, and somewhat less subtle, than that of the “1989” era. The bridge samples a simulated phone conversation in which she mentions that the old Taylor is dead, and the new Taylor is unafraid to repeatedly tell others that “I don’t like you.” Other phrases, such as the “tilted stage” of the first verse and the alliterative “kingdom keys” seem to poke fun at her various ongoing feuds. The song functions on two levels, both as a serious reaction to the media’s reception to her and as self-parody (further evidenced by the music video). Either way, it’s clear Swift is wresting back control of the narrative.
The smashing success of her first single was followed up by a promo single, “…Ready for It?” Its title’s use of ellipses signals something left unsaid, and indeed, this piece occupies a strange space between old and new. The pre-chorus is breathy and trance-like, perhaps a fresh take on “Wildest Dreams.” The rest of the song is riddled with characteristic single-note melodies. There’s no denying, however, that there is stylistic evolution. The second verse is rapped—at least as close to rapping as Swift is going to get—and the prechorus reveals a deepening EDM influence.
Like her first single, “…Ready for It?” ups the lyrical ante. Likening herself to a “phantom” and a “thief,” the new Taylor seems less inclined to hold onto her old, innocent image. It’s also this single which gives us a taste of the relationship subject matter we know so well. Her new lover is aloof, more partner-in-crime than soulmate. Her line “Burton to this Taylor,” a clever reference that laments damaging presence of media on a relationship, is impressively self-aware. Straying from the method-acting of “Blank Space,” “…Ready for It?” reads more as a recognition and reclamation of Swift’s serial dating.
Rounding out the trifecta is “Gorgeous,” a startlingly typical Taylor Swift song. Coming off of her first two singles, it’s regressive in the best way. With its light production, tongue-in-cheek point of view—“but if you’re single that’s honestly worse”—and aesthetic imagery, one could conceivably pass the piece off as a deep cut from “1989.” That isn’t to say the song is flawless, however. It exhibits an alarming new trend in Swift’s music, in which she rhymes words with themselves, a disappointing step back from her previously celebrated ability to weave narratives. That said, the hyperbolic attitude, whimsical use of triangle, and reference to the musician’s cats, seem to hint that perhaps the old Taylor isn’t as dead as she has led us to believe.
Musically, the three singles are all over the place. Understanding their intersection requires reading—or listening—between the lines, contemplating the meta-game Swift is playing. Beneath the musical ambiguity of her first three releases, there is quiet signaling: The pop star is changing, self-aware, and unapologetic about her experiences. Anyone confused about the sonic content of her new album should not be too worried. If these releases are any indication, “Reputation” is shaping up to be one of her most interesting works yet.