On the first day of 2018, the New York Post trumpeted a headline: “Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ tour shaping up to be a disaster.” The piece quoted an anonymous music industry insider who called sales “a mega disappointment” and detailed how fans were upset about the high ticket prices.
Swift, of course, never responded to the naysayers. She didn’t need to. When the tour kicked off in May, she posted Instagram photos after nearly every concert, showing stadiums packed to the brim. In August, Billboard announced that after 27 dates, it was already the highest-grossing U.S. tour by a female artist, raking in nearly $200 million. The previous highest-grossing amount was by … Swift, whose 1989 World Tour previously broke the record in 2015.
As usual, Swift — the master of hidden messages and small gestures filled with meaning — said a lot without saying much at all. That has been true for the majority of the “Reputation” era, which is starting to wind down. The North American leg of the tour ended last weekend, with two sold-out nights at AT&T Stadium near Dallas. The tour continues in Australia next week and concludes in Japan in November. At the American Music Awards on Tuesday, Swift accepted the trophy for favorite pop/rock album for “Reputation."
“I always look at albums as chapters in my life, and to the fans, I’m so happy that you like this one,” she said. “But I have to be really honest with you about something: I’m even more excited about the next chapter.”
That wasn’t a surprising sentiment, as there was a reason she pointedly named her album “Reputation.” As she briefly discussed on the first night of her tour in Arizona, Swift received significant backlash in the past two years and decided to drop out of the spotlight for the longest stretch of her career.
“A couple of years ago, someone called me a snake on social media, and it caught on,” Swift said. “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.”
True to form, she didn’t name names: Everyone knew she was talking about the much-discussed 2016 dust-up with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian over West’s song “Famous,” after which the Internet branded Swift a “snake.” So, Swift told the crowd, she decided to embrace the moniker. Snakes became a major theme with “Reputation,” popping up in music videos and merchandise; a gigantic serpent (apparently named Karyn) glowered from the stage at every stadium show.
“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,” Swift said. “The lesson is that you shouldn’t care so much if you feel misunderstood by a lot of people who don’t know you, as long as you feel understood by the people who do know you.”
That was the first and only time Swift addressed the incident, as she stopped talking to the media in 2016. She didn’t give a single interview when “Reputation” dropped last November. With that first night’s speech, the narrative was set: Swift, who launched her career as the underdog (the one “on the bleachers,” if you will) was once again portraying herself as fighting an uphill battle.
So she trekked across North America, selling out stadiums left and right, showing she can ignore the critics and conquer every obstacle.
She proved she can still land any famous musical guest she wants: Bryan Adams appeared at the Toronto date in August to sing “Summer of 69.” Selena Gomez joined her for “Hands to Myself” in Pasadena, Calif. Robbie Williams sang “Angels” in London. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill surprised the Nashville crowd for a collaboration on “Tim McGraw,” Swift’s first single.
At the same time, Swift used her massive platform to promote others: She invited newcomer Hayley Kiyoko to sing “Curious” in Foxborough, Mass. Breakout country star Maren Morris showed up in Arlington, Tex., to belt out “The Middle.” And Swift showed she will never forget her Nashville roots: The last night of the tour, Sugarland arrived to sing “Babe,” a Swift co-wrote that is climbing the country radio charts.
She continued her tradition of long concert speeches, which made headlines: In Chicago during Pride Month, she told the crowd, “It’s very brave to be vulnerable about your feelings in any sense, in any situation, but it’s even more brave to be honest about your feelings and who you love when you know that it might be met with adversity from society.” In Minneapolis, she gave a rare performance of “Tied Together With a Smile” and urged fans to remember that appearances aren’t everything: “Just because somebody looks happy doesn’t mean they are."
The day after the U.S. tour ended this past Sunday, Swift dropped that 400-word political post on Instagram, effectively silencing criticism that she never addresses current events in this incredibly divisive era. It seemed like a shocking move, but in retrospect, it’s the perfect pivot as Swift starts to get ready for her next chapter.
Swift knows she will upset some people for taking a political stance. Clearly, she doesn’t care, as she already saw what happened when your reputation takes a hit. She got through it and reestablished herself as a superstar, making the point more clearly than ever before: Nothing can bring Taylor Swift down, so don’t even try.