Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf and Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’: an essay

In the linear notes to her album Red, Taylor Swift wrote, in reference to a love that doesn’t fade or spontaneously combust, “maybe I’ll write a whole about that kind of love if I ever find it.” And she has. But like all art, her newest album Reputation isn’t just one thing. The album has it’s many sides and angles, some of which are hidden beneath the surface. Above the surface as Swift has said, Reputation is a record that deals with crime(s) and punishment(s). But beneath the surface, if you quiet the white noise outside and listen carefully, Reputation is more about being watched versus being seen as you really are; it’s about what we don’t see, or perhaps, what we think we see or want to see of someone, or a situation.

 “Someone who will still choose us even when they see all the sides of the story, all the angles of the kaleidoscope that is you.”

Taylor Swift

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Alongside this, for me at least, the album is about Swift, and to a big extent, women and girls embracing their darker sides and doing away with the idea of perfection that has been placed on them. I’m not just talking in terms of sex or sexuality, though obviously that plays a part, but it is more than that. Simone de Beauvoir said, “Man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female. Whenever she tries to behave as a human being she is accused of trying to emulate the male”. In other words, man is the standard and therefore their behavior – good, bad, attractive or ugly – is just what makes them human. However, if a woman embraces ugliness or badness in her character or persona, she is immediately deemed a bad woman rather than just being seen as human.

Swift takes Beavoir’s statement and weaves it into her stories, pulling it this way and that, looking at it through a kaleidoscope of characters, experiences, and feelings on Reputation. ‘I Did Something Bad’ is the epitome of this, with Swift taking pleasure in playing the bad girl in this story.

“I never trust a narcissist/ But they love me/ So I play them like a violin/ And I make it look oh so easy.”

Even as it transpires that maybe the protagonist didn’t actually do anything that awful but because she has stepped outside the feminine persona, the “angel of the house”, she is already deemed guilty and deserves to be punished. Like Virginia Woolf who murdered the aforementioned angel, Swift has no qualms about tying herself to the stake.

“They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one/ They’ve got their pitchforks and proof/ Their receipts and reasons/ They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one/ So light me up.”

The damned if you do, damned if you don’t mentality was all over Swift’s first single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. The difference here is that instead of pointing the finger and lusting for revenge, ‘I Did Something Bad’ is fully embracing the not-so-understanding facet of Swift’s personality, and not apologising for it either.

“If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing/ I don’t regret it one bit, ‘cause he had it coming.”

‘Getaway Car’, an 80’s electro-pop song continues in this thread, except that this time playing Bonnie and Clyde has its consequences. Swift paints an epic tragedy in the making; fast cars, money, a love triangle, and a girl desperate to escape at any cost.

“The ties were black, the lies were white/ And shades of gray in candlelight/ I wanted to leave him/ I needed a reason.”

The inevitable sadness of a love affair that was never going to be and heist gone wrong. If ‘I Did Something Bad’ was embracing the not-so-nice side in joyous and liberating way, ‘Getaway Car’ is the sadder side. The one where despite our best intentions, we can leave damage and destruction in our wake.

“I’m in a getway car/ I left you in the motel bar/ I put the money in a bag/ And I stole the keys/ That was the last time you ever saw me.”

Away from the crime and punishment motif, outside of the caged bars and behind the smoke and mirrors, is the more fragile side of the kaleidoscope. The being seen as you really are, not as what the world thinks you are or wants you to be.

‘Delicate’, a tentative love song, a moment when you realise just how much you really like a person, and how much you hope that they see you for you, and not a single mosaic of one bad day.

“This ain’t for the best/ My reputation’s never been worse so/ You must like me for me.”

Swift employs a vocoder on this track, evoking a simultaneously world and love worn weariness, and an intense childlike vulnerability. Like every beginning to a love affair, she knows one wrong move and the delicateness and newness, could crumble like a house of cards. But the flipside to this fear, is that exhilarating and magical feeling when someone sees you as you are really are, in all your weirdness. No explanation needed.

“Is it cool that I said all that?/ Is it chill that you’re in my head?/ Is it too soon to do this yet?”

 The caveat at the end of each soft, sensual and image laden verse, is Swift singing “cause I like you…” As a way to perhaps temper her feelings, or perhaps to say with downcast eyes, “I like you and I hope you like me to”.

“Echoes of your footsteps on the stairs/ Stay here, honey/ I don’t want to share/ ‘Cause I like you…”

‘So It Goes…’ is the half way point of Reputation, where the bombastic sound and bravado of the beginning falls away to introspection and subtlety. Subdued and heavy, ‘So It Goes…’ is filled with echoes, distorted drums and an ambience that builds into a rock-esque chorus. It takes the being watched versus being seen idea further, with nods to magicians and illusionists, dark shadows and voyeur crowds.

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“See you in the dark/ All eyes on you, my magician/ All eyes on us// Met you in a bar/ All eyes on me, your illusionist/ All eyes on us.”

There is a beautiful inevitability with the song, a gravity of falling, of powerlessness. Like the repeated line on ‘Delicate’, the title of ‘So It Goes…’ becomes an understated yet inescapable observation and statement on Swift’s part, becoming part of the end of each verse and refrain.

“And all the pieces fall/ Right into place/ Getting caught up in a moment/ Lipstick on your face/ So it goes…”

Or the parts of the song where Swift perfectly sums up the good girl/bad girl dilemma, and what it means to be you outside the cage of being watched.

“I’m yours to keep/ And I’m yours to lose/ You know I’m not a bad girl but/ I do bad things with you/ So it goes…”

Reputation comes to a close just like Red did, with the possibility of new beginnings and new ideas about love, in the form of the sparse piano ballad ‘New Year’s Day’. The instrumentation and lyrical imagery paints a scene in the life of a stranger; you can almost picture the “girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby/ Candle wax and Polaroids/ On the hardwood floor”.

I remember hearing ‘New Year’s Day’ for the first time in November, and the words that stuck with me the most were the ones that Swift had saved for a moment such as this song. They were the ones that made me think of my best friend in the whole world and how much I would miss him and the emptiness that would be left if we were to ever become strangers.

“Please don’t ever become a stranger/ Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere/ Please don’t ever become a stranger/ Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.”

The song closes with the piano fading in and out, stopping and starting, as if replicating memories coming and going, and coming back again and new ones being made.

“Hold on to the memories/ They will hold onto you/ And I will hold onto you.”

The crimes and their punishments have been swept away as have the ideas about perfection, and public voyeurs. The party is over, and what is left are the people that truly matter the most. ‘New Year’s Day’ isn’t just a love song in the romantic sense, it perhaps could also be Swift’s love song of sorts to her listeners and fans, who stuck around to clean up the bottles with her on New Year’s Day.

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