Almost exactly three years ago, Taylor Swift sat on a small leather sofa, beaming, as she revealed the details of her upcoming album, “1989,” to a select group of fans in New York City.
“I’m so excited, I can’t even,” she exclaimed, as the audience cheered and screamed upon hearing news that she had a new single. “I want to play it now. Will you get up and dance with me?”
Suddenly, “Shake It Off,” an ode to ignoring the haters, blasted out of the speakers. ABC News and Yahoo live-streamed the spectacle worldwide, starting with Swift standing on top of the Empire State Building. As Swift announced that this album would mark a switch from country music to pop, the message became clear. So long Nashville, hello world pop domination — but she was still the superstar who had a dance party with her fans. It was a relatable, everywoman narrative that carried through her massively successful “1989” era.
On Wednesday, Swift sent another missive with the reveal of her sixth studio album, “Reputation,” which will be released Nov. 10. (The first single drops Thursday night.) Her previous carefree demeanor was nowhere to be found. The album cover art appeared out of nowhere on Instagram and Twitter — the only warning that something was brewing in Swiftland were videos of a snake posted to her social media profiles through the week, after she wiped all of the accounts clean last Friday. There was no dance party.
Then again, these are different times. Last year, Swift suffered some unusual backlash, as her ex-boyfriend, Calvin Harris, accused her of trying to “bury” him when she spilled that she actually wrote his hit song, “This Is What You Came For.” Then, Kim Kardashian posted an edited recording of a phone call between Swift and Kanye West, who name-checked Swift in his controversial track “Famous.” Though Swift previously made it seem like she was caught off guard by the song, Kardashian’s footage appeared to show Swift joking with West about some of the lyrics. Even though Swift shot back that she was being “falsely painted as a liar,” the Internet declared her a “snake.”
So, with the snake imagery, combined with the phrase “Reputation,” plus the cover art with her name printed all over a newspaper — symbolizing her status as one of the most famous celebrities on the planet — Swift isn’t pretending all of the controversy didn’t happen. In fact, it seems like she’s directly calling it out. She might have spent the past year out of the spotlight, but she’s not hiding. She knows what people are saying about her. She is noting the media’s role. And she’s ready — oh, she’s ready — to respond.
The dead-eyed, black-and-white Swift is a marked difference from when she first started in Nashville, with her signature long, curly blond hair, colorful sundresses and cowboy boots. When her self-titled debut album dropped in 2006, it was a risk, as she turned down a major label to sign with Big Machine, an independent start-up that, as Swift said, “didn’t have any furniture” when she started. She depicted herself as an underdog, telling the story of sitting on the floor of the label, stuffing envelopes with her album to send out.
Although her debut album was a breakout hit, her sophomore record, “Fearless,” in 2008, catapulted her to stardom with the pop crossover smashes “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me.” She leaned into a fairy-tale theme, with “Love Story” casting her as Juliet in an epic story with Romeo. “You Belong With Me” showcased her as an outsider looking in, in a T-shirt sitting on the bleachers — until the boy she loved (who was dating a cheerleader) realized she was the one he wanted all along.
As Swift’s star skyrocketed, she took a savvy step back with the launch of her third album, “Speak Now,” as she declared (in a 2010 live stream) that she had written all of the songs herself. “It just so happened that the songs that made the cut on the album were the ones I wrote myself, so, wish me luck!” she said excitedly to her fans. Translation: To observers who had heard only her commercial hits, she wasn’t just the teen singing about high school crushes. She was a serious songwriter.
“Red,” in 2012, was an abrupt turnaround, the start of her very lucrative collaboration with Swedish pop maestros Max Martin and Shellback. She announced it in much the same fashion, on a Google Plus hangout for the world to see. The Hollywood Reporter noted that she was “wearing a red dress, red earrings and bright red lips” to match the album name. She played the first single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” cheekily dedicating it to a “lovely ex-boyfriend.”
Now, following the traditional “1989” livestream in 2014, we have “Reputation” — no fanfare except some creepy snake videos and a no-frills social media announcement. Swift has recently made a concerted effort to stay out of the public eye, but as always, she’ll be along soon to make her message very clear.