“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.
From there, each successive Reputation single found more and more tepid reactions. “…Ready For It?,” which itself felt like a direct reference to West’s Yeezus production, failed to hit No. 1 and quickly faded from the public consciousness after debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. “Gorgeous” topped out at No. 13 and “End Game,” boasting appearances from Future and Ed Sheeran, fared even worse, barely cracking the top 20. “Call It What You Want,” the first ballad to be released from the album, just snuck into the top 30. And the thing that all of these songs shared was that their debuts were their best charting moments, which is the antithesis for how big singles often work, taking time to embed themselves into the radio and streaming realms.
It was all enough for Justin Charity of The Ringer to wonder “Why Taylor Swift Doesn’t Have A Hit,” determining that the domination of hip-hop and more diverse offerings has now becoming much more fashionable. And even though Reputation scored colossal numbers upon its eventual release in November of 2017 — the biggest album since Adele’s 25 in 2015, the tenth biggest first week sales from any album since tracking began — the narrative of Reputation, as a bit of a recession in Taylor Swift’s do-no-wrong career, had already been written.
Now, nearly a year later, it feels like that narrative was written too soon. One aspect changing how this cycle for Swift is viewed is her mammoth Reputation tour, an all-female stadium run in a world where women rarely play such large spaces by themselves. It has broken attendance and money records in places like Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Seattle, but maybe more importantly, it’s been remarkably well-received.
The set puts a heavy emphasis on her latest batch of songs and is delivered in a way that strips Reputation of all of its negative rollout press, delivering each song as if they held a special place in Swift’s discography. In a way, it feels like willing something into being, because suddenly many of Reputation‘s deep cuts found their way into being fan favorites, the singles that died on the charts rang out like anthems to the masses of fans that still hold Swift up like an idol.
Better than on the 1989 tour, she managed to incorporate music from throughout her country years as well as her recent pop gems, putting her newest work in a context that simply listening to the album on Spotify doesn’t quite capture. In short, Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour reclaimed her place as a career artist, making it unsurprising when the album crept back into the top 20 on the Billboard 200 last week. Unlike the early singles from the album, the chart life of Reputation as a whole has shown surprising, rare longevity.
This kind of endurance has also been seen in Swift’s latest single, “Delicate.” Already a standout for anyone that spent significant time with Reputation, “Delicate” didn’t receive the same kind of single-bomb treatment as her advance releases did. It has a memorable, if Sia-apeing, video, but it came out in a time when Reputation already brandished the label of being hitless. But as Song Of The Summer talk escalated in 2018, it was one of those tracks that gradually picked up steam, becoming omnipresent at department stores, coffee shops, and across various radio formats. It was a rare song that people who don’t even listen to Taylor Swift might know, not even realizing it was a song by one of the most popular artists in the world. This is the pathway to a hit that most artists have to traverse, allowing their song to lodge into their listeners’ psyche with repeat listening. Nearly a year into the Reputation cycle, Taylor Swift had a hit through delivering a grower.
During the summer, “Delicate” would top Billboard‘s pop airplay to the chart and become a fixture in the Hot 100’s top 20. Even the song’s lyrical content felt like a sea change. In his Billboard article chronicling the sleeper-hit nature of “Delicate,” Andrew Unterberger noted that the song is a thematic departure from her earlier, more vengeful offerings. “‘Delicate’ puts the drama to bed,” he wrote. “‘My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like for me,’ Swift concludes in the opening lines, the only reference to her feuding days in what otherwise unfolds to be the kind of tender, irresistible pop song that few artists do better.” Even the video found Swift returning to a more relatable persona, feeling invisible to the outside world, free to be herself outside of an existence where she is constantly put under the microscope.
Recently, one of the big topics of conversation regarding Taylor Swift has been the upcoming fulfillment of her record contract. Having signed her deal with Big Machine at the age of 15 and sold around 32 million records in the meantime, Swift is in line for what many are speculating could be the biggest record contract ever signed by anyone. Reputation could have been the one blemish in her otherwise stellar career, an album that indicated a popularity recession could be on the horizon as her songs resonated a bit less at radio and among the streaming youth.
But this late-game rebound for Reputation, with Swift proving her ability to capital-S support an album through her touring (with, coincidentally, is scheduled to conclude the same month her record contract expires in November) and still landing a hit song when expectations were at their lowest, has come at the best possible time. It’s the equivalent to hitting 50 home runs in a contract year, the last thing that whatever label that does sign her will remember when they are coming up with a final offer. In a career that’s been full of unprecedented successes, Taylor’s latest victory might be her most crucial one yet. And there is no one but her who can take credit for that accomplishment.
Reputation is out now via Big Machine. Get it here.