“My reputation’s never been worse,” Taylor Swift sings on “Delicate,” a phrase that felt strangely prescient as Swift’s rollout for her much anticipated Reputation album seemed to sputter at every turn late last year.
The writing was on the wall, ever since Kanye West (before he delved into his MAGA phase and alienated a portion of his core audience) and Kim Kardashian made public both video and audio of Swift’s (at least partial) consent to West’s controversial use of her in the lyrics to “Famous.” The reference, where West states that he’s responsible for Swift’s fame, was the same instance that Swift has both publically denied and subtweeted in her acceptance for the Album Of The Year Grammy in 2016. Her scorn was thinly veiled:
“I want to say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame. But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday, when you get where you’re going, you will look around and you will know — it was you, and the people who love you, who put you there. And that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
At that moment, becoming the first solo woman to ever win Album Of The Year twice, Swift was on top of the world. But it wouldn’t take long for West to have the last word and for the narrative and media perception of Swift to switch. The time between 1989 and Reputation found Swift particularly quiet, enjoying some time outside of the spotlight while she went back to work with her 1989 collaborators — Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff. But in late 2017, when the music from Reputation began rolling out, it became clear that Swift was not going to be given the benefit of the doubt for this cycle. Where on 1989, the world seemed to be behind this country singer making the full swing into pop, now Swift was fighting an uphill battle. And it didn’t help that she was taking her controversy head-on.
Her first Reputation single, the dancefloor-ready “Look What You Made Me Do” declared the “old Taylor dead,” but some critics found her fierce, combative rebrand unconvincing. “For all the serpent-themed hype leading up to the launch of the song, Swift’s words lack venom, fangs, and smoothness,” wrote Vulture’s Frank Guan. “They have the consistency of wet flour, and their meaning could be converted into a series of impotent hisses without any loss in translation.”
The public also didn’t latch onto it quite like expected. Sure, the song debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it never quite became the kind of hit “Shake It Off” did as a similar advance offering. And yes, “Look What You Made Me Do” found a place in cultural ubiquity, but it felt more like an obligation than an outright choice.