So, the wait is finally – nearly – over.
Preceded by the none-more-2017 deleting of her social media history and the three-part posting of a snake video, Taylor Swift has finally announced the details of her new album: it’s called Reputation, it’s coming out on 10 November, and the lead single will be released tonight (Thursday 24 August).
Already half the internet is criticising the album artwork – “It’s ripping off Prince” (kinda true), “It’s worse than Born This Way” (absolutely not true) – while the other half is speculating that she’s cynically timed the release to cash in on goodwill – that’s been lacking with the backlash against her in the last few years – from her successful sexual assault court case judgement.
Meanwhile, the use of the snake is apparently some kind of statement on the whole Kim Kardashian row over the lyrics to Kanye West’s song ‘Famous’ (tl;dr Kanye’s controversial lyrics "I think that me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous" were approved by Taylor (according to Kanye), then not approved (according to Taylor), then apparently approved (according to Kim, on national snake day, using lots of snakes in a tweet)), and she’s either going to bury the hatchet with Katy Perry (who she referenced on ‘Bad Blood’ on the last album) or keep it going.
But you know what? I don’t care. Because that, for me, is not what Taylor Swift is about. It entirely misses the point of why you should be interested in her.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, she’s fully embraced the fame game. She is immersed in it. She made the conscious decision that simply being one of the biggest music stars in the world in the wake of her fourth album, 2012’s Red, was not enough for her. No, she wanted to be a pop star.
And not just any pop star, but the biggest pop star in the world – peak-Madonna levels. Thus, Swedish uber hitmaker Max Martin was drafted in to help write 1989, out went the acoustic guitar, in came a full-on embrace of shiny synths and immaculate programming, out went ‘traditional’ singer-songwriter live performing and in came choreographed dance moves and multiple costume changes.
Swifty, bless her, is clearly unfathomably driven, to almost ridiculous levels. “No, being huge is not enough for me,” she thinks. “I need to be stratospherically enormous in order to feel satisfied.”
Meanwhile, there has been the constant churn of boyfriends – and, if you believe the internet, girlfriends – some more authentic than others (I’m not sure I’m really having Hiddleswift, but who knows for sure), which have kept her constantly in the news cycle, and forever in the gossip magazines.
But again, you know what? I don’t care.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad she’s had all these boyfriends/girfriends – and I’m glad that between the recording of 1989 and the upcoming new album she’s had a few more – because whatever elements they consist of, it gives her the material to write truly unbelievably brilliant songs.
Swift’s genius, and something that is clouded by all the rumours, the theories, the gossip, is that she can write songs that speak directly to you. That speak to the 15-year-old girl feeling alone in their bedroom, confused by life. That can speak to a much-older man like me, equally confused by life. In the best Swift songs, there is no celebrity. There is no pretence, no facade. There are just stunningly observed and poignant lyrics that constantly leaving you thinking: “God, that’s so true, that’s so simple, and yet I’ve never heard it expressed like that before.”
Of course, I love the upbeat, fun stuff: the hater-slaying ‘Shake It Off’, the schoolyard chants of ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, the updated Shakespeare of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – and she is brilliant at this also; but the true Taylor fans will tell you that really, what it’s all about is the Swifty slow one.
Just listen to ‘I Almost Do’ from Red. It’s incredible, as Swift describes a specific, agonising point in the process of trying to move on from someone when you desperately want to reach out again, but you know you can’t. The lyrics are devastating; it’s a total masterpiece.
Another stunning track can be found on Red in the shape of ‘All Too Well’, an intricate, incredible five-and-a-half-minute study of (another) failed relationship with no chorus, where every single lyric is amazing. The minutiae, the detail, the observations; I challenge you not to find something in that song that you identify with.
From ‘Back to December’ on Speak Now: “It turns out freedom ain't nothing but missing you.” What a lyric.
It continues: “Wishing I'd realised what I had when you were mine / I'd go back to December, turn around and make it all right / I go back to December all the time.”
That tinge of regret, that introspection; we’ve all felt it at one time or another, and she just articulates it perfectly.
On ‘Fifteen’ from Fearless: “When all you wanted was to be wanted / Wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now.”
When all you wanted was to be wanted: at 15, isn’t that just so simple and so true?
As far back as her first self-titled album, on ‘I’m Only Me When I’m With You’ (admittedly a more uptempo one): “Well you drive me crazy half the time / the other half I'm only trying to let you know that what I feel is true / And I'm only me when I'm with you.” What a simple, beautiful sentiment.
‘Style’, the undisputed best track on 1989, exquisitely captures that excitement of doing something you know isn’t good for you – but you just can’t resist.
“Could end in burning flames or paradise,” before the immaculate delivery of that killer line of pure jealousy: “I heard, oh, that you've been out and about with some other girl”. Excitement, illicit behaviour, jealousy; pure emotions, perfectly expressed.
I could go on, but we haven’t even got onto the music yet.
Melodically and vocally, Swift is sensational, a talent undoubtedly helped by having to learn her craft in the world of country, where you’ve somehow got to come up with something new over the same old four chords that have been around since time began. To choose but one minor example, ‘State of Grace’, on Red sees her use just two chords for the majority of the song, expertly raising and lowering the dynamic and her vocal range. Watching her on the Red tour you could see she was a brilliant guitarist and pianist, she is no pretender. The move from a traditional drums/bass/piano/guitar to a more pop-oriented sound on 1989 was also carried out with aplomb, taking the elements of ‘80s production (as on ‘I Wish You Would’), marrying them with contemporary stuff (as on ‘Blank Space’) but bringing back the ‘real instruments’ when necessary, as on the stunning ‘This Love’.
All of the million thinkpieces on the ‘mansplaining’ Ryan Adams version of 1989 completely obscured what that record was actually all about – what he told me himself in an interview, and I see no reason to disbelieve him – he just made it because he thought they were brilliant songs.
So let’s put the elements together.
She can write the anthemic, fun songs to address the ‘haters’ with humour. She’s got three years’ worth of new relationship experiences to draw on. She’s a brilliant musician who has never, ever let the quality slip (the bonus tracks on 1989 were better than most artists’ singles). She’s probably been working with Max Martin again, a man who has never let us down before. And she never forgets to write those personal, direct songs, straight to her audience’s hearts. At her heart, I suspect, when she gets in the studio and gets recording, she’s just a musician who loves making music.
The world’s eyes are upon her and she wants to be the biggest star in the world. She’s just too smart, and too talented, to get this wrong. No one thought Jacko could follow up Thriller, and he gave us Bad – ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘Man in the Mirror’ and all the rest.
Don’t bet against her doing the same.