Taylor Swift was the big sister that tween girls looked up to. The Facebook friend teen girls wanted to have. The I’m-so-proud-of-you daughter parents wished they had.
“Was” is the operative word. Swift’s reputation changed big time last fall with the release of her “Reputation” album.
“She doesn’t sound authentic,” says Dani Dahlseid, 17, of Robbinsdale, who has seen Swift in concert three times but won’t be at U.S. Bank Stadium this weekend for either of her two shows Friday and Saturday. “She doesn’t sound like Taylor Swift anymore.”
Dahlseid has moved on to indie-rock and hip-hop.
At 28, Swift has moved on, too.
For a decade after her emergence in 2006 as a teenage Nashville star, authenticity was the key to Swift’s appeal. She sang about being her age — whether 17 or 22 — more effectively than perhaps any other singer-songwriter in the history of popular music.
Even when she transitioned from country to pop four years ago with the Grammy-winning blockbuster album “1989,” her music remained accessible and believable. Her songs were fresh, catchy and melodic, albeit featuring synthesizers instead of acoustic guitar.
“Welcome to New York,” the newly minted New Yorker declared in the opening song. “It’s a new soundtrack, I could dance to this beat forevermore.”
Yes, a new sound. A new city. A newly grown-up woman. But a voice that was distinctively Taylor Swift, just a little wiser and maybe more cynical but as clever as ever.
“I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” she warned in the smash “Blank Space.”
Swift has long been self-referential — and self-deprecating — in her songs. But another new Taylor surfaced on “Reputation,” her sixth album. She’s dark, mean and full of herself, singing about being some guy’s “American queen,” having dated fellows with their Range Rovers and Jaguars, and fantasizing about being “a jet-set Bonnie and Clyde.”
No longer relatable
Welcome to Taylor’s new life. She’s no longer the girl next door. She’s not America’s sweetheart anymore. She’s no longer aspirational for her fans.
“She doesn’t have everyday things anyone can relate to,” says Lena Brakel, 22. A recent University of Minnesota graduate, Brakel sat in the second row for Swift’s Red Tour in 2013 in Fargo but says she can’t afford a Minneapolis ticket, which costs from $47.50 to $725 for VIP.
Swift is well aware of how people are judging her.
“We think we know someone,” the ever-smart star wrote in the liner notes to her latest album, “but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us.”
True that. But beyond the persona she’s showcasing, “Reputation” itself is a bit off-putting: fashionable electronic dance music with dense synthesizers, monotonous drum machines and bloodless programmed sounds.
In effect, Swift, long a leader, has become a follower.
“She’s made some concessions to whatever the current trends in music are,” acknowledges Twin Cities-based radio tastemaker Gregg Swedberg, who programs country stations around the nation and K102 locally.
Swedberg has followed Swift’s career closely even though she doesn’t make records for country radio anymore. Over the years, he has spoken with her many times. And he’ll see one of her shows this weekend.
“Her evolution is logical,” Swedberg said. “She’s still true to who she is as a writer and having a viewpoint.”
He praised “Reputation” artistically but added, “I’m kind of surprised that it didn’t have more commercial success. She’s held to such a high standard by everybody. It’s the curse of being a superstar.”
“Reputation” made a big splash when it arrived in mid-November. A master at marketing, Swift plastered ads on UPS trucks, hosted private fan-listening parties and offered special configurations of the CD at Target — including magazines with photos, handwritten lyrics, poetry and paintings by the singer. The CD also contains a preferred access code for tickets to her Reputation Stadium Tour.
The album was hardly a flop: It was 2017’s second biggest seller, topping 4 million worldwide, despite being released so late in the year.
But for the first time, a Swift record hasn’t gotten much traction on radio. Twin Cities pop station KS95 is more likely to play a Taylor oldie than any of the songs from “Reputation.” KDWB is showing some love for “Delicate,” the album’s most poppy and catchiest song, but the tune hasn’t cracked Billboard’s Top 10.
“My reputation’s never been worse so you must like me for me,” Swift coos in “Delicate.”
$12 million video
That reputation may have been tarnished by the video for the album’s first single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” The lavish, self-indulgent clip, which reportedly cost a staggering $12 million, features at least 16 different settings and many more outfits.
It opens in a cemetery with Swift dressed as a grave-digging zombie, and a headstone proclaiming “Here Lies Taylor Swift’s Reputation.” Then she spends 4 minutes and 15 seconds on a vengeful mission to diss her haters while perching on a throne surrounded by snakes and luxuriating in a bathtub full of diamonds.
The self-aware singer also makes fun of herself by mocking her usual look of surprise at award shows and her dorky appearance (glasses and handprinted T-shirt) in the massive 2009 video “You Belong With Me.” But if the graveyard scene didn’t make things clear, the star answers a phone call midway through the video: “I’m sorry the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because she’s dead.”
The final scene hammers home the point. Clutching a Moonman trophy in her sparkly gown from the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, she scornfully proclaims, “I’d very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”
OK. Message received.
Swift wasn’t included at the recent VMAs, a ceremony that has been a mainstay in her video-propelled career. “Look What You Made Me Do” wasn’t nominated for video of the year, though it did make the finals in three technical categories.
Imagine Taylor Swift not winning. That’s a changed reputation for sure.