Lover is the Weakest Album of Taylor Swift’s Career
2016 brought Taylor Swift the end of the 1989 World Tour, her second Album of the Year award and her titular lover. Though in “Famous,” Kanye West insists that he “made that bitch famous,” Taylor persevered, and turned this accusation into part of her feminist awakening. She was at the height of her career; she was selling out stadiums, in a seemingly happy relationship with Calvin Harris, and beloved by the general public in a way she had never been. However, 2016 also marked the most public trauma Taylor Swift had faced since Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs.
After a sudden breakup between Calvin Harris and Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian tweeted at her followers in mid-July to follow her on Snapchat if they were not already, then released a video of Kanye West on the phone with Taylor. In the video, it appeared that Taylor had actually given Kanye permission to take credit for her fame. Taylor was branded a snake, and after “#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty” trended #1 worldwide, she disappeared. This year, Taylor explained in her documentary, Miss Americana, that this worldwide slam of her was what she couldn’t bounce back from. Breaking down to her mom, she cried that the hatred“just gets loud sometimes” going on to explain that “nobody physically saw [her] for a year. And that was what [she] thought they wanted”.
What came from this sudden upheaval of Swift’s public image was her 2017 album reputation. After a year of silence, Taylor Swift erased the entirety of her digital life on August 18th, 2017. Her Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and website were suddenly blank, with her also unfollowing everyone on Twitter and Instagram. Three days later on August 21st, she uploaded her first snake video to Instagram, this one showing a glitchy video of a snake tail. Finally, on August 23rd, the final snake video was uploaded to Instagram, showing the snake striking at the camera. This was followed by the announcement that her new single would be released the following night as well as the album cover, and the announcement her sixth album would be titled reputation, released November 10th, 2017.
The album was a bombastic, significant shift from the earnest country and pop music she had been releasing since 2006. Her Instagram was redesigned in grey, black and red, and the former media darling informed the public vid Instagram caption, “there will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation.” Just as Swift promised in her lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” the old Taylor was dead, and the new Taylor was designed to embody every criticism lobbed at her over the past year dialed up as far as it could go. Swift promises revenge from a bathtub filled with diamonds, throws every iteration of her past self off a mountain, and calls the 2009 version of herself a bitch as she forces her most iconic looks to take a curtain call. In “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift finally recognizes herself as a character, replacing the caricature of American innocence and girlhood she had once portrayed herself as with her own rewritten version of the snake persona Kim Kardashian gave her.
Through reputation, Swift utilized the storytelling skills that had made her such a powerhouse in the music industry for so many years. reputation mythologized her own life, telling the story of a woman who internalized years of public scrutiny until she truly believed she was the villain in her own life. In songs such as “…Ready For It?”, “Don’t Blame Me,” and “I Did Something Bad” Swift fully leans into her evil persona, insisting that not only does she know she’s a bad person, she’s unapologetic about it. She creates a persona so ridiculously evil, it highlights just how unreasonable most of the public hatred towards her was.
Yet, as the album continues, Swift lets herself become more vulnerable. After embodying the reputation that was forced upon her for four songs, she finally begins to reflect on the fifth track “Delicate.” When considering her budding relationship with boyfriend Joe Alwyn, Swift muses “my reputation’s never been worse / so, he must like me for me” allowing a moment’s pause after this as though she is finally taking it all in. Swift then begins a theme of questioning her every move throughout the album in her more vulnerable tracks regarding her relationship. She asks Alwyn, “is it cool that I said all that?” then wonders to herself “is this the end of all the endings?” finally, she gives her final question, “will you run away with me?”
On the last track of reputation, Swift avoids questions all together, instead giving Alwyn an answer of his own. No matter what, Swift promises “I stay,” ending her most explosive album yet with a tender moment between her and her lover. reputation is an album about finding love amongst all the noise, yet it is also about getting the last word regarding her own reputation. She takes the persona that was created for her and rewrites it, then discards it. Taylor Swift is the monster you heard about, but the story does not end where the media decided. The story ends when she says it does.
Though reputation received mixed critical reviews — it has the lowest rating of any of her albums on Pitchfork — and remains my least favorite of her albums sonically, it is Swift at her most honest. She isn’t pretending to Shake It Off, she’s admitting hurt, defeat, and committing to rebirth.
In 2019, Swift’s Instagram aesthetic suddenly went from the dark tones of reputation to an explosion of pastels and sparkles. Swift has trained her fans — called swifties — to understand that she does nothing without meaning, and they quickly began to speculate that something new was coming. Something antithetical to the last year and a half. A countdown was started, though Swift did not give away what was coming, and swifties waited for the big announcement that would come April 26th, 2019.
Finally, what Taylor Swift was counting down to was revealed: the lead single for her next album. “ME!” would be coming out, debuting with a music video. The music video opened with a snake exploding into a swarm of butterflies. Symbolically, Swift let the world know that she was leaving the reputation-era darkness behind her. She had emerged from the cocoon the media had forced her into and she was coming out more powerful, beautiful, and palatable.
“ME!” came out to much fanfare, yet mixed reception from critics and fans. In one of the most embarrassing moments regarding the song, swifties began hopefully theorizing that the song was actually for the movie The Secret Life of Pets 2, rather than her album. Never have I ever seen a more passive aggressive smiley face than the one Swift used in her Tumblr post assuring fans that this song was, in fact, for her album.
Though it may not be a fan favorite, “ME!” definitely set the tone for Lover, setting aside the evident self-hatred in reputation for a proclamation that “I’m the only one of me / baby that’s the fun of me” instead. This anthem of self love is surrounded by other sugary pop songs blaring the same message, combined with songs of Swift insisting that she was entirely over everything that happened in 2016. If reputation was the album that allowed Swift to finally publicly grapple with the trauma of public ridicule, Lover was the album assuring that same public she could be what they wanted again. Lover is Swift looking back at her rightful anger and hurt and assuring those who abandoned her that she didn’t even care anymore, they could come back and she would perform for them they way they liked her to during her 1989 era.
“I Forgot That You Existed” is one song that falls into this category, the opening track on Lover. Swift acknowledges the events leading up to reputation, but shrugs them off rather than reflecting. “I thought that it would kill me but it didn’t,” Swift laughs, as though a year earlier she hadn’t been singing that she “rose up from the dead” to hundreds of thousands of people. In Lover, she no longer appears proud of her work to rebuild herself after all she went through, she’s instead attempting to convince the general public that she’s over all that, and they can like her again. She can’t even allow herself to feel anger, instead insisting “it isn’t hate it’s just indifference,” setting the tone for the rest of the album. Lover does not attempt and reconcile with the pain of 2016 three years later, instead it commits itself to feeling nothing. Lover is that friend that not only refuses to admit when they’re upset, but refuses to let you be upset either, attempting to put a positive spin on your deepest miseries.
On “You Need To Calm Down,” Swift again insists she does not care about something she will not stop referencing on the album. After forgetting they existed, Swift explains “you are somebody that I don’t know / but you’re taking shots at me like it’s Patron / and I’m just like damn / it’s seven a.m.” The track is clearly meant to capitalize on the same positive attention she received for “Shake It Off” back in 2014, but it is difficult to believe in Swift’s insistent indifference when just back in 2017 she was explaining how much she cared. Not only that, but for a woman who has made her entire career on explaining just how much she cares about everything, just how vulnerable she can be, it feels disingenuous to watch her then insist over and over that nothing matters to her. Who is this performance for? After Swift wrote reputation purposefully to be a confession of just how deep her hurt went for the fans who cared to stay, Lover feels as though she sidelines the fans that stuck around to hear it in order to return to her 1989 glory.
Indifference is not the only emotion felt on the album, though. There are a few songs that shine with their vulnerability, harkening back to the Swift that she wishes to remind her fans of by selling her diary entries as part of the deluxe album — an insight to Taylor Swift for just $20! The titular track “Lover” shines as a ballad to her boyfriend Joe Alwyn, sounding like a song themed after her insecurities presented in reputation. Yet again, she asks him questions as she expresses her love, wondering aloud if they can “always be this close” after reminiscing a track earlier on screaming “I love you, ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” Though the existence of these songs gives the impression that Swift is far more secure in her relationship than she was an album before, they also demonstrate how the events that caused reputation still are in play in her relationship with Alwyn.
“The Archer” sounds like it could be straight off of reputation as Swift reminisces on being both “the archer” and “the prey,” taking more responsibility for her actions that led to the creation of reputation than she does on most tracks from that album. After promising on the final track of the last album that she will stay, she wonders “who will stay” for her, before finally realizing “you can stay” and preparing for the battle that will come from having yet another relationship in the public eye. The public that has willingly turned on her before. Songs like “Cruel Summer,” “Lover,” “The Archer,” “Soon You’ll Get Better” and “Cornelia Street” do not pretend to be anything but vulnerable, highlighting the insecurities she attempts to erase on songs like “London Boy,” “I Think He Knows,” “You Need To Calm Down,” “I Forgot That You Existed” and “ME!”
However, unlike the mixture of vulnerability and weaponized songs on reputation that work to explain the difference between Swift’s public and private personas, it feels extremely unbalanced on Lover. Here, both the indifference of certain tracks and the earnestness in others are all meant to represent the same woman’s emotions toward the same events. Swift never seems to understand, or care to acknowledge, the connection between her fear of being left with the entire general public abandoning her after love-bombing her for years. Rather, she presents them as separate issues, never to coincide.
On “Daylight,” the closing track on Lover, Swift approaches her trauma with some finality, singing that now she “only sees daylight.” She insists at the end of the track that she “wants to be defined by the things that [she] loves not the things[she] hate[s].” This is meant to shut down any more discussion of 2016, telling the public flatly that she refuses to any longer be defined by what happened to her then as she had been throughout the reputation era. Now, she wishes only to be seen as the persona she portrays in Lover, someone who cares little about public opinion while desperately chasing it, and someone who is in a happy relationship yet can’t quite wrap her head around it. Lover ends a story that is still continuing even now, tying a bow around a present Swift still intends to work through.
It’s not until folklore and evermore, Swift’s most recent albums that happen to also be her most fictional, that she is at her most honest. While Swift attempted to combat the old Taylor being dead by insisting through the bubblegum pop of ME! that she had found the new Taylor somewhere in the wreckage, Swift insists on the track “happiness” that she “hasn’t met the new me yet.” On Lover, an album that was meticulously marketed and planned, Swift had time to craft a new persona, introducing her as some combination of the Taylor Swift the public knew in 1989 combined with a Taylor Swift who had finally let the events of reputation roll off her back. However, in evermore, Swift admits what many felt to be true from Lover: there is still a lot of hurt and sensitivity buried underneath the pastel and glitter of the Lover era.
folklore and evermore also allow Swift to do something that she has been doing since her debut album. Rather than write songs that reference her most public moments, allowing fans to feel as though they were there, she writes fictional narratives she is able to project her feelings onto, thus creating some combination of fiction and total honesty. On Fearless there was “Love Story” that told the story of her relationship as compared to Romeo and Juliet, using the play to explore her own experiences with forbidden love. On evermore, Swift continuously uses The Great Gatsby to explain herself and her relationships, allowing her to explore her emotions in a way that she can hide within a common narrative, while also speaking in a language her fans are used to. Swifties enjoy looking for meaning in her songs, analyzing and writing about them as if they are in a literature class. The literary references give her fans more to look at, comparing Swift to existing characters and viewing the original characters she has created as equal part fact and fiction.
However, Swift explained in the press tour leading up to Lover that she was purposefully leaving easter eggs in her music videos and singles for her fans to discover, each one linking the songs either to other songs in her discography or to real life events that had been heavily documented. Rather than allow her fans space to interpret the stories however they wanted, Swift rewarded her fans with likes and attention for correctly interpreting the songs off of Lover, leaving little breadcrumbs for them to pick up. Unlike when Swift told the public that “there will be no explanation,” in Lover she gives nothing but explanation. The only song based in fiction is “Death By A Thousand Cuts” though Swift quickly assures fans that this song is also not up for interpretation, rather it is about the film Someone Great, thus giving yet another correct narrative for the songs off of Lover.
Though Swift does utilize her storytelling skills on Lover, she wraps up each song nicely, leaving nothing to the imagination. She’s completely over everything in 2016 so we should be too. She refuses to be defined by anything but her own words, so let her write her entirely autobiographical songs. reputation told a story that had already happened, but caught up her fans to where she was left now, leaving her story open-ended. In Lover, the story being told had already happened, and the present was defined by happy endings and joking indifference.
This explains why folklore and evermore choose to parallel the themes of reputation far more than they do Lover. Lover sold the public manufactured dishonesty, a happy ending without discussion. These albums instead tell a story of a woman grappling, creating stories for herself to cope and finding love along the way. She calls back to the whimsy of earlier albums such as Fearless and Speak Now, yet creates space for her pain like she does on reputation. If Lover exists entirely in the past and present, folklore and evermore plant roots across every timeline. However, rather than disregard Lover entirely, Swift calls the lyrics into question, proving herself from a year earlier wrong. On Lover, Swift insists that she not only is over her pain, she cannot even remember receiving it. Yet, on “Hoax” from folklore, Swift acknowledges the “scars… from when they pulled me apart.” This follows the narrative of Lover, acknowledging that she has done some healing, yet also acknowledging that the wounds caused in 2016 are still there right on her surface.
Again, Swift argues against the concrete ending that she gave herself on Lover on her final track “evermore.” She reminisces on her feelings that “this pain would be for evermore” as she attempted to cope with the trauma she faced in 2016, giving her pain more credit than she did in “I Forgot That You Existed” where she reduces the pain she felt to “shade” that had been thrown at her. While in “Daylight” Swift gives herself an ending by insisting that she “only see[s] daylight,” she instead gives herself a hopeful yet open ending by mediating on her feeling that this “pain wouldn’t be for evermore.” She does not say that she is happy now, or that she has finally gotten over all of her pain. Rather, she sees a light at the end. The daylight she sees is not a finality, rather it is the hope that someday there will be an ending.
Swift also revisits her song “The Man” from Lover, where she sings about how differently she would be perceived if she were a man. While this is obviously true, and it would be false to insist that Taylor Swift has not faced a lot of sexism throughout her career, the song also fails to acknowledge that Swift’s career is built almost entirely on earnest girlhood. What spoke to people about Swift’s early albums were her honest portrayals of growing up as a girl, and the way this manifested in her relationships. If she were a man, those songs would never exist. In folklore she seems to revisit sexism in a much more pointed way, harkening back to her reputation persona as she sings that “no one likes a mad woman / you made her like that.” No longer does Swift lament that her career would be celebrated far more if she were a man, instead she recognizes how she has long been criticized when she fights back, yet the criticism never seems to land with those who threw the first punch.
Though she calls out her behavior on Lover, letting her audience know that she is far more hurt than she led them to believe, Swift still has moments on folklore and evermore where she again minimizes her pain. These songs are also reported to be the least fictional. On “invisible string” she sings that “hell was the journey but it brought me heaven,” insinuating that the journey she has been on since reputation is over, and she has found her happy ending. Yet again, she simplifies what she feels in order to convince her audience that her relationship with Joe Alwyn is happy, unwilling to believe that her audience can understand both that she is in a happy relationship as well as still hurt over her past trauma. On evermore, her track regarding both 2016 as well as the purchase of her masters by Scooter Braun is summarized as “long story short” again implying that she is done revisiting her pain. She sings “long story short it was a bad time / long story short I survived” reminding her audience that she “thought that it would kill [her] but it didn’t” yet without reminding them of the scars she still has.
For Taylor Swift, it appears that she still has not grappled with how to write about her pain in a way that approaches it honestly. She can acknowledge her scars on tracks that are mostly fictional such as “cardigan” or “hoax,” but fails to give it the space that it deserves on “invisible string” and “long story short.” Still, she is blatantly aware of the ridicule she could receive for still being caught up in what she felt was traumatic yet the rest of the world viewed as petty drama. Even on her most honest albums, she cannot let herself be as earnest as she once was, especially after the release of Lover, where she promised the public her story was over regarding Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Scooter Braun, Scott Borchetta, and other players in this narrative. Lover has ruined Swift’s chances of earnestly revisiting her own pain, as her critics will simply point to songs like “I Forgot That You Existed” now as proof that Swift is lying about shaking it off.
Though folklore and evermore exist as Taylor Swift’s most honest albums since reputation, the existence of Lover requires her to work through her life fictionally, leaving songs here and there to insist to her fans that she’s perfectly alright. Just as there is no telling what would have come after 1989 had 2016 never happened, there is no telling how Swift’s albums would sound after reputation had she not felt the need to assure everyone she was fine through Lover. Similarly, without being in lockdown, there is no telling what would have followed Lover. Certainly, Swift’s insistence that Lover is almost entirely autobiographical, with details being able to be tracked to specific moments left whatever came next to exist on fictional side in order to continue threads left by reputation without undoing what Lover portrayed. What is clear, however, and what has been clear since 2006, is that there will always be truth within the fiction that Taylor Swift weaves into her songs. Swift is a storyteller as much as she is a truth-teller — for her, those two identities have always been synonymous.