By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
A songwriter receives a shock of inspiration. She picks up a guitar, hits record on her Voice Memo and begins working the transformative magic that turns that creative spark into a song you one day find yourself singing as you step out of the shower.
(Shake it off, shake it off.)
How that little spark goes from the song it inspired to the final recording you stream or download has become as important, if not much more so, than the song itself. As much a producer’s medium as it is an artist’s, mainstream pop music has never been so sonically sophisticated. Before it gets released, a simple song that just got out of bed in the morning has to get dolled up like it’s going to the Grammys — if it wants to have a shot at making it to the Grammys, that is.
What, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with Taylor Swift, who rides her epic Reputation Tour into Hard Rock Stadium this coming Saturday (Aug. 18)? Quite simply, and perhaps more than any artist of her stature, she is the living, breathing, tweeting personification of the journey a song makes from its simple, conventional inception to a fully fresh musical elaboration. It’s a metaphor for the stylistic arc of her career.
That arc has morphed incrementally from the innocent, precocious, down-homey country of her 2006 eponymous debut to the vaguely vindictive, rhythmically evolved, sexy synth-pop of her latest, Reputation — two albums about as sympatico as her relationship is with Kanye West. The new album has such a seductively contemporary veneer that you could take it as a dare to Ryan Adams, the alt-rocker who remade her previous 1989 album song for song: OK, Ryan, let’s see you cover this one.
In 12 years, Swift’s gone from banjo and pedal-steel overtones to flourishes of hip-hop and R&B, from traditional narrative lyricism to provocative images clipped from an unlocked diary, from teen Nashville darling to global pop superstar well before her 28th birthday last December. The message at the top of her Twitter homepage sums it up: “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.” The voice on the phone in the album’s breakout single, Look What You Made Me Do, adds the reason: “She’s dead.”
Take her 88.5 million followers in the Twitterverse (fifth-most) and 107 million on Instagram (sixth-most) and throw in her intergalactic talent and heat-seeking romantic persona, and it’s practically a no-brainer that the reincarnated Swift has staked her claim atop the constellation of pop’s young femme fatales: “Tay” is Diva of the Millennials.
Her bona fides are hard to argue. She’s sold 40 million albums and 130 million single downloads, been named among Time‘s 100 most influential people in the world (twice) and Forbes‘ 100 most powerful women, and won so many awards — including 10 Grammys and 23 Billboard Music Awards — that her shocked reactions at the announcement of her name have become fairly laughable. Oh, and she won the CMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award — at age 23!
Then, of course, there’s the musical game of Name That Flame, as Swifties decode her lyrics for references to reported celebrity entanglements, skipping from singers John Mayer to Harry Styles and actors Jake Gyllenhaal to Tom Hiddleston, among others. Further certifying her diva cred are Twitter tiffs with Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian and, of course, West, which may have ultimately punctured a hole or two in her reputation. Therein lies not only the derivation of the album’s and tour’s title but also their apparent subtext.
Whether or not the tour polishes or tarnishes Swift’s rep, it’s bound to grow Reputation’s aggressive rebrand — and not simply because the album dominates the show playlist and pushes older numbers into medleys (sorry, Swifties). No, the show is a visual snakefest, turning Swift’s thing for snake emojis into a campy, serpentine spectacle with 20-foot-high snake statues, large snake puppets and dancers in snake-like outfits. And Swift is the snake charmer with the wicked smile.
“A couple of years ago, someone called me a snake on social media and it caught on,” Swift told her opening night crowd. “And then a lot of people called me a lot of things on social media. And I went through some really low times for a while because of it.”
She’s apparently working through it.
“This is definitely the most fun show we’ve ever put on,” Swift told an interviewer at the tour’s outset. “It’s the biggest stage I’ve ever gotten to play on. There’s fireworks and all these costume changes. We got to plan the show for over a year before we put it on, so it’s really fun.”
Despite uneven ticket sales, the tour’s drawn strong reviews. And the album has surpassed 2 million sales, the first since Adele’s 25 in 2015 to do so.
For Taylor Swift, the music may no longer be sweet. But its revenge may be.
ONLINE BONUS: Video from Saturday night’s rollicking concert, pic.twitter.com/Ug3xyX6yrL