Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital. See his coverage of the Reputation Tour here.

How Does Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ Fit in with The Current Political Climate?

Like an alchemist, Taylor Swift turns stray thoughts and abject emotions into global cultural touchstones—and into piles and piles of cold, hard cash. What do her fans get out of it?

On the Reputation Tour, this insularity comes off as mostly banal, with a few exceptions. At the best of times, it generates intimate connections with fans, yet at the worst, it becomes grotesque. I’ll start with the grotesque, an adjective I wrote in my notes twice: first, during “King of My Heart” (my nomination for the worst song on Reputation), when Swift’s ignorance of racial appropriation hit a low point. Performance aside, the lyrics lay bare her tendency to play fast and loose with black musical tropes. The line “So prove to me I’m your American Queen / And you move to me like I’m a Motown beat” positions Swift as a (white) American Queen who lays full bodily claim to “a Motown beat”, whatever that sloppily generalized signifier even means.

The performance confirmed my worst suspicions about that line’s implication, as Swift play-acted at sexual seduction with a black male dancer who was scantily clad yet given no part in the narrative beyond his deferential and adoring physical presence. The scene called to mind Swift’s “Shake It Off” video, which invited criticism for the way it positions Swift’s body amidst her non-white backup dancers. Oh—and I almost forgot about the fake African drums that other shirtless dancers were banging at various points during “King of My Heart”. This moment confirmed, in sharp relief, Swift’s hegemony over the entire spectacle, from the garish snake-themed visual aesthetics to her command over the humans sharing her stage.

Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital

The second “grotesque” passage arrived at the very end, when the set transformed into a simulacrum of a stone mansion, perhaps a reference to the “Blank Space” video (but with no evidence of that video’s self-parody). Swift and her dancers don formalwear and strut the grounds of this reference to moneyed real estate, swanning around a fake fountain and eyeing each another’s ensembles approvingly. Two songs play out on this set: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which works well as a girls-just-having-fun anthem, and then “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, Swift’s latest shot at Kanye, who released a damning phone recording last year that inspired a new wave of Swift criticism and, according to the song, completely ruined Swift’s year of “throwing big parties / Jumping to the pool from the balcony / Everyone swimming in a champagne sea”. Whatever you think of Kanye and his latest string of questionable public statements, he’s recently addressed his struggles with mental illness and other traumas, and Swift’s performance of opulent self-congratulation during this number felt tasteless at best.

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Read through a historicist lens, Swift’s performance here reflects twenty-teens American culture at its absolute worst: its drooling devotion to the pursuit of wealth, its celebration of the excessively rich and famous, its chronic blindness to racial inequity, and our collective tendency toward extreme narcissism with little regard for others’ feelings. The Swift spectacle seems to have absorbed all of these energies and given them concrete form: gaudy, over-the-top, completely blind to how it all relates to the world outside the stadium.

Like many who object to the current American status quo, I spend many waking hours in righteous condemnation of others. The live show made me confront, in a slightly new way, my own complicity in late capitalism and its manifestation as politics. I paid too much for this ticket; I’ve streamed her albums. I’m guilty, and maybe so is everyone else who’s done similar acts. But experiencing the Reputation Tour also forced an exercise in letting some of that condemnation—of myself and of others—go. I recall the girl behind me wearing a vintage Taylor shirt, or the tiny kids sitting on their parents’ shoulders to get a better view.

The show’s best moments occur after Swift rides a glittering gondola to two side stages so she can play to the outfield fans with more intimate proximity. When she performs on these smaller stages, it’s just her and her guitar. At this show, she played acoustic versions of “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” and “Haunted”, missing the occasional strum and reverting to Awkward Taylor mode during the instrumental passages, rocking back and forth like a teen playing her first coffee shop open-mic. Moments like these, I believe, create a bridge between young people and the big, glitzy-chic Taylor they see projected on jumbotrons, billboards, and the sides of UPS trucks. These minimalist moments visualize a certain possibility for young fans, a first step toward pursuing a passion or cultivating an innate talent themselves.

Throughout the past century of American history, popular music has chugged along, sometimes vapid, sometimes intensely engaged with the world outside itself. It would be easy to write the Swift spectacle off as mere escapism, a carefree night out to distract from what ails us on both personal and societal levels. But I believe there’s another element involved in generating the electric charge between Swift and her fans, especially during these passages where the scale collapses, the cinematic visual effects take a pause, and the squad of musicians and dancers cede focus to Swift alone and her acoustic instrument.

Putting politics out of play recenters attention onto the form itself: in Swift’s case, the hundreds of short stories she’s authored, set to music, that together comprise a formidable anthology. The small descriptive details—the slamming screen door, the necklaces exchanged between lovers, the “candlewax and Polaroids on the hard wood floor”—give this world visual, tactile, and emotional precision. If we discount the value of that world-building, then we are also discounting a certain kind of creative agency that we all possess to reimagine our own lives, and perhaps even to craft something beautiful out of them. When the world feels like it’s falling apart, this agency to imagine something different can become a potent source of emotional sustenance. Swift is a fine singer, a decent guitar player, and an average dancer. For these reasons, she’s less qualified to be a pop star than Beyoncé and a less remarkable country singer than Carrie Underwood. But her ferocious imagination is what’s kept her at the center of American pop culture for over a decade. And it’s also what drew a skeptical music critic, a pair of waist-high twins in tutus, and tens of thousands of diverse spectators together in a suburban football stadium on a sweltering July night.

Walking back to the car, passing hybrids and pickup trucks alike, it felt strangely invigorating to be back in the real world, as hellish and horrifying as it remained while I was temporarily somewhere else.