Taylor Swift has gone full vill. With the November 10 release of her new album, Reputation, America’s former sweetheart has finally completed her full transformation into pop culture’s premiere villain. Perhaps sensing the tide was turning on our willingness to buy into her previously cultivated good girl image, Swift retreated after the blockbuster success of 2014’s 1989 and returned this summer shilling a completely new brand.
In wrestling, they call it the heel turn. A hero, known as a “face” (short for babyface), will shock the audience by turning into a heel (wrestling speak for a villain). Beyond drawing on new, duplicitous tactics in the ring, most heel turns are also cosmetic. When Hulk Hogan became Hollywood Hogan back in 1996, he traded in his trademark yellow tank and red bandana for a New World Order tee and black tights embossed with lightning bolts; a sartorial signal shift not so different from Swift swapping the soft, flowing blue dress she wore in 1989’s final video, “Out of the Woods,” for head-to-toe studded leather in the video for “Look What You Made Me Do.”
The aesthetic for the Reputation-era leaves little room for interpretation. The cover has Swift in an artfully ripped sweater, glaring from behind her eyeliner. Her face is hidden in her hands in another promo image, directing us to the gold snake ring on her middle finger, no doubt a nod to the serpent emoji plague her on her social media pages. The brand message is clear: old Taylor is dead, but bad girl Taylor is alive and well.
This image swap is less than convincing. It’s a little like Sandy donning a motorcycle jacket to impress Danny in Grease. Swift has all the visual cues, but the sell is a stretch. The best villains are loathsome in a delicious, mesmerizing way. We don’t just hate Cruella de Vil or Gossip Girl‘s Georgina Sparks. We love to hate them. And I’m not sure I’m ready to love this new incarnation of Taylor Swift.
Part of the reason Swift’s new persona in a such a tough sell is because for most of her career, she has played the victim to a series of perceived villains, from early boyfriends like Joe Jonas, who famously dumped her via a 25-second phone call, and John Mayer to, frenemies turned adversaries like Katy Perry and, most famously, Kanye West. Her feud with the latter culminated with West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, exposing a lie Swift told about having never signed off on a much-debated line (and, yes, misogynistic) from his song, “Famous,” which was the major turning point in Swift’s persona shift. Swift is now selling the fallout from that incident, and the associated snowball effect from her past melodramas, back to us dressed in dark lipstick.
It’s hard to play both the victim and the villain, but in many ways, Swift’s heel turn is a respectably risky—and admittedly fresh—approach to the Madonna reinvention. Pop music demands its stars re-brand with nearly every era and Swift leaning in to the way she’s being perceived may prove to be shrewd. Her label, Big Machine Records, is forecasting that Reputation’s first week sales will near 2 million copies, making it the strongest debut for a new album this year. While it’s doubtful many critics would call the singer’s latest singles Swift’s strongest work as a songwriter, she without a doubt has another titanic hit on her hands.
Swift has successfully cannibalized all the negative hits to her public persona and spit them back out as marketing. It may not be sustainable, but for the moment, it’s working like a charm. And it makes sense: in the wrestling world, heels can be super popular. Mick Foley and The Undertaker were beloved despite—and actually because of—their heel status. Even The Rock has taken his turn as a heel. And who could imagine hating Dwayne Johnson?
The Rock, in fact, flip-flopped back and forth between heel and babyface status during his wrestling career, as many wrestlers do—I’m betting Swift can do the same. Taylor Swift was once the ultimate face. She grew up on a *literal* Christmas tree farm, then peddled self-penned songs to record labels in Nashville as a teenager. The story she told about herself pleased both entertainment’s need for girl-next-door starlets and country music’s demand for authenticity. Lest we forget that all those snake emojis were preceded by kitten photos.
Taylor the good will be back. An album cycle or two from now, we’ll look back at Reputation, laugh, and say, “Remember when Taylor Swift tried to be bad?”
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