There’s a process Taylor Swift goes through each time she sits down to write a song.
It’s not as if she steps into the studio, list of former paramours in hand, rubs her hands together gleefully and thinks of all the ways she can call out her bad boy exes. Rather, her method of pulling lyrics from life experiences means she needs to be working through something, an issue spinning in her mind until she’s able to memorialize it in verse.
Take the time she penned “All Too Well” about an unnamed ex-boyfriend who invited her over to his sister’s house before casually discarding their relationship (but not her striped scarf). The hit, she shared during a Texas tour stop last October, “was born out of catharsis and venting and trying to get over something.”
Which is pretty much how everything she creates springs to life. “When I write a song,” she told the crowd, “it’s usually me just trying to get past something and understand something I’m going through by writing about it.”
And when she sat down to craft her latest disc, reputation, well, she had some things to say. The album was every bit the commercial success of her previous five, moving 1.2 million copies in its first week en route to becoming the bestseller of both 2017 and 2018. She added another three Billboard Music Awards to her trophy case, bringing her career haul to a record-breaking 23 and this Sunday she’s up for Best Pop Vocal Album at the Grammys, where she’s previously collected Album of the Year honors for both Fearless and 1989, making her the first female solo artist to do so twice.
An argument could certainly be made that the immensely popular disc was snubbed in the top category this year. But while those accolades would have been nice, it was never about that.
Rather, this time T. Swift had some important things to get off her chest.
Because her decision to remain out of the public eye for much of 2017 was never about a fear of oversaturation. The back half of 2016 hadn’t been particularly kind to the 29-year-old, thanks to another highly publicized breakup and a handful of feuds, including one with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West that left the pop star fairly pointing out that she shouldn’t have to be cool being reduced to the term “that bitch.”
Not that it mattered. Sides had already been taken in the #KimExposedTaylorParty and those that weren’t labeling Swift a snake were wondering if maybe she was kinda over.
So she laid off social media, ceased with her immaculately dressed trips to the gym and managed to disappear as she spent a solid year putting the finishing touches on reputation.
Her absence only served to make her fans’ hearts grow fonder.
When she released her first single “Look What You Made Me Do” one Thursday night in late August 2017, a completely different sound dripping with revenge-laced lyrics such as, “Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours,” it became the most played song in a single day on Spotify. After the video dropped, appropriately at MTV’s Video Music Awards, it received 43 million YouTube views in 24 hours, besting Adele‘s previous record for “Hello” as viewers parsed every frame looking for the easter eggs that might provide a further glimpse into her disagreements with Kardashian, West and frenemy Katy Perry.
Like Swift’s eventual tour, which would feature pyro explosions, oversized inflatable serpents and a 63-foot cobra named Karyn, it was heavy on the snake imagery, a choice Swift made quite deliberately. “A couple of years ago, someone called me a snake on social media and it caught on,” she shared with those gathered at her May 8 tour opening.
“Then a lot of people were calling me a lot of things on social media and I went through some really low times for a while because of it. I went through some times when I didn’t know if I was going to get to do this anymore.”
Then she rose up from the dead and realized she wasn’t about to go down without showing some fight. Now reveling in her rebirth, she shared, “I wanted to send a message to you guys, that if someone uses name calling to bully you on social media, and even if a lot of people jump on board with it, that doesn’t have to defeat you. It can strengthen you instead.”
And, then, just as it seemed as if the whole disc would be singularly focused on telling off those who had wronged her, she flipped that script, unveiling “End Game” and “Delicate” the types of romance and butterflies songs generally found in the Swift oeuvre.
“There was a bit of a bait-and-switch that happened with this album when we put out ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and we’re like, ‘Guys, this album is gonna be one thing.’ And then the album came out,” she shared last August with the intimate crowd gathered at an AT&T-hosted Taylor Swift NOW concert in Chicago. Instead, she shared, per Us Weekly, people realized “it’s legitimately an album about finding love throughout all the noise.”
The journey began where she was at during the close of 2016, frustrated with the criticism and misinformed attacks on her character. “It starts with the noise and how that makes all you feel and how it makes you feel when people are saying things about you that you feel, like, aren’t true and living your sort of life in defiance of that,” she shared. “And then, sort of, in the middle of the album you kind of realize, ‘How much do I really value that?’ If you can find something real in spite of a bad reputation, then isn’t that what matters the most to you? And doesn’t it matter the most to you that you know who your real friends are now?”
Because what she had spent 2017 developing with boyfriend Joe Alwyn was undoubtedly real. Suddenly Swift was in love again and the unlikeliness this would occur while she was enduring the worst headlines of her career just made her treasure it all the more.
For the first time she realized she didn’t owe anyone an unvarnished look at her most private relationship. Leaning heavily into the private jets and blacked-out sedans at her disposal along with UK customs officials willing to check her passport on the tarmac without her having set foot in any of London’s airports, she had managed to keep her romance with the British actor, 27, completely under wraps until The Sun outed “Taylor’s Secret Brit Love” in May of 2017. And being able to build a romance without, as she once described it, “20 men with cameras” tagging along, had only served to cement their bond, an insider telling E! News, “It’s made things more special and sacred.”
Having found the formula for a private romance that had alluded her the whole of her dating existence, she’s hesitant to let it go. While the pair aren’t hiding per se, Alwyn tagging along to a few tour stops and Swift quietly joining him at his premieres, their love simply isn’t up for public consumption.
“I don’t think anyone you meet on the streets would just spill their guts out to you, therefore why should I?” Alwyn reasoned in a recent interview with Mr. Porter’s The Journal. “And then that is defined as being ‘strangely private’. Fine. But I don’t think it is. I think it’s normal.”
Should they be photographed, say, making the rounds together at the Golden Globe afterparties, so be it. But The Favourite star isn’t going to feel obligated to share the details about their night. “I think there’s a very clear line as to what somebody should share, or feel like they have to share, and what they don’t want to and shouldn’t have to,” he noted in Esquire‘s Winter 2019 issue.
And if this new-found discretion of Swift’s should cost her points with a fanbase that’s come to expect unguarded peeks at her love stories, so be it.
Not that she’s ever struggled to hold onto the approval of her devoted Swifties.
Her decision to initially withhold reputation from Spotify and Apple Music meant fans had to shell out the $13.99 to listen to it, which they did in droves, also spending their hard-earned cash to catch her international tour. She broke the attendance record for her debut show at University of Phoenix Stadium en route to having the highest-grossing U.S. tour by a woman—continuing a trend of shattering her own standards by besting her 1989 excursion. By December she had earned the title of highest-grossing U.S. tour overall.
Those same fans voted to award her Tour of the Year at October’s American Music Awards—a night that also saw her accept hardware for Favorite Pop/Rock Album and Artist of the Year.
“You have been so nice to me and so fun and you’re so funny and you’re so cool and so loyal and I am so—like, it’s not lost on me,” she gushed while holding the trophy that helped her edge out Whitney Houston as the show’s most decorated artist.
“I understand how lucky I am to have anyone that cares about me or my music. Every time that you have made me lucky enough to ever get to stand on a stage and have something really sparkly in my hands and say thank you, every single time this happens, it means something differently to me.”
This time, she shared, “It represents encouragement and motivation for me to be better, work harder and make you guys proud as much as I possibly can. So thank you for this incredible symbol of encouragement.”
Critics offered up their own brand of reassurance.
Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times, dubbed her disc, “her most focused, most cohesive album yet,” while USA Today‘s Maeve McDermott raved, “Swift takes ownership of her narrative in a way listeners haven’t heard before. She’s the predator, the person holding all the control, the gatekeeper to her own heart, flipping the script.”
Vulture writer Craig Jenkins, meanwhile, gave some constructive criticism. “At the end of the day, reputation strikes the exact mix of necessary roughness and personal reckoning needed to shake off a calendar year of mounting turmoil,” he said of the blend of Swift’s darker tracks and more traditional love songs. “If we could get her to use her platform to denounce the big bads running 2017 off the rails and not just the people keeping her name hot on TMZ, the campaign would be a public-relations victory.”
He didn’t know she had one final trick up her sequined sleeve.
After years of staying silent on a subject sure to fire up half of her fan base while alienating the other, she finally showed her political cards. In an Oct. 7 Instagram, posted just before Tennessee’s voter registration deadline, she threw her weight behind Democrats Phil Bredesen and Rep. Jim Cooper, explaining she couldn’t support Marsha Blackburn‘s record of voting against equal pay for women and the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
And while her candor had some of the expected consequences—some who had believed she shared their views suddenly denounced their allegiance and former Gov. Mike Huckabee suggested her thoughts only carried weight with 13-year-old girls as if none of the singer’s fans had spent the previous decade growing up alongside her—the move overall was a winning one.
Droves of previously apathetic voters showed a sudden interest in civics with Vote.org reporting they had a spike of 65,000 registrations in the 24 hours after Swift’s post.
Her contemporaries applauded her unprecedented reach with friend-turned-enemy-turned-colleague Perry amongst those that gave her post a double tap. “Of course,” she told Us Weekly, “because she’s setting such a great example.”
And the “Swish Swish” singer wasn’t the only one won over by the new Swift. Rumored former flame John Mayer, who once complained when he’d felt Swift had penned a song about him, calling it “a really lousy thing for her to do,” labeled reputation “a fine piece of work.”
Meanwhile, Kardashian’s sister Kylie Jenner gave a wink toward her fandom by labeling the pinky-nude products in her Valentine’s Day Forever lip kit set after some of Swift’s old hits, allowing Kylie Cosmetics devotees to line their pucker with Forever and Always and top it off with Story of Us.
Even the reality doyenne herself labeled their feud as “over” on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen Jan. 14 days before posting a Snapchat of herself rocking out to Swift’s “Delicate”.
So while the results of Swift’s first foray into politics were split—Cooper held onto his seat, but Blackburn bested Bredesen—the singer emerged from 2018 as a clear winner.
Not that she’s allowing victory to dull her edge. Already back in the studio, she’s projecting big things for her forthcoming seventh disc. “Guys, I always look at albums as chapters in my life. And I’m so—to the fans, I’m so happy that you like this one,” she said while accepting honors for Favorite Pop/Rock Album at October’s American Music Awards. “But I have to be really honest with you about something. I’m even more excited about the next chapter.”