The world of pop culture has been going crazy for the last week over Taylor Swift's big comeback. Both the song and the accompanying video have broken the internet with reactions, almost universally bad. Taylor Swift has undergone a heel turn, it seems, and is now pop's most hated villain. While Adele is breaking sales records, and Rihanna is racking up #1s despite not being very good, and Beyonce is the cultural zeitgeist, poor Taylor is left to wonder what her place in the pop world is. That last bit is where the real problem lies.
Taylor Swift's problem is not that she has a phony image. That criticism has been with her the whole time, and it didn't stop her from amassing huge sales and a legion of loyal fans. She was obviously playing up her innocence, but she did it in a way that empowered young girls, which was commendable in a time when plenty of other pop stars were busy twerking rather than singing. Plenty of stars have been phony, and as long as the music still works, they have been able to make out just fine. No, that's not her problem.
Taylor Swift's problem is not that her new song is awful. Don't get me wrong, it most certainly is, but that can be survived. "Shake It Off" was barely a mediocre song, but Taylor's machine was able to turn it into an anthem that launched the biggest phase of her career yet. And in a time when the charts are so starved for a single decent song that Justin Beiber is the key to racking up huge hits, Taylor doesn't need good music to thrive. The people she reportedly is feuding with aren't good either, so playing down to their level would not preclude Taylor from having success. "Look What You Made Me Do" is horrible, but it's not worse than anything Fifth Harmony have ever put out. No, that's not her problem either.
Taylor Swift's problem is that she has become what she was always fighting not to be; a boilerplate pop star.
The appeal of Taylor Swift was always that she was a (nominally) country artist who could cross-over to the pop world and garner attention in a way that no one else has been able to for quite a long time. "1989" was the first step in changing her persona, but it was one that was done with enough care that she could make the transition without alienating people on either side. It was an unabashedly pop album, but she was the same person she had always been, so we could accept that she wanted to try some new things.
With this first foray from her new album, that Taylor is now gone. She admits as much in the lyrics, but she misses the symbolism of her statement. Not only is the naive and innocent Taylor gone from her music, the Taylor that had the benefit of the doubt from the public is gone now too. Pop stars are given no leash anymore. If they don't produce hit after hit without so much as a hiccup, they get tossed aside. By putting out just this one flop, Taylor will be pushing a boulder uphill.
The bad girl schtick is also the height of cliche. Every young woman in pop goes through something like this at one point or another. Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus basically went insane, Christina Aguilera went through a provocative phase that came across as cheap, so Taylor's portrayal of herself as a villain is right in line with what we should have been expecting. This new image is supposed to catch us by surprise and give us a new perspective on her as both a person and an artist.
It doesn't. Taylor Swift is still the carefully constructed public figure she has always been. If we were getting anything from her that felt remotely authentic, maybe this would all work out. But it's hard to listen to her work her way through a song like she's trying and not know she's playing a part. That's the problem. Yes, pop stars have always been actors, in a sense, but they were better at making the role seem convincing. Taylor can't do that yet. She's the heel who doesn't understand that a heel has to be justified in why they've turned to the dark side.
Taylor Swift turned to give her new record a story-line. That's not a good reason, and it isn't going to work.