"The Old Taylor Can't Come to the Phone": The Taylor Swift Evolution
by Grace Blondell | published Oct. 9th, 2017
It’s 2006. You’ve been sprawled across your bed for an entire weekend listening to Taylor Swift’s self-titled album on your sticker-covered portable CD player as you doodle your crush’s name all over the inside cover of your diary. You didn’t even know you liked country music but you’ve never been so emotionally attached to an album.
Fast forward to 2017 where you’re anxiously awaiting the release of Swift’s sixth album, "Reputation." After being teased with singles and mysterious posts on social media, you’ve begun counting down the days until Nov. 10. Swift's musical style has changed drastically since you first heard the opening notes of "Tim McGraw" back in middle school, but your life has changed drastically as well as well. The one constant is that you remain a diehard Taylor fan.
Taylor Swift launched onto the scene as a teenage country sensation. Not yet 17 when her first album was released, the eleven tracks — all written by Swift — gave us more than just a glimpse into her life. Each track read like a page in her high school diary, with “Tim McGraw” about an impending breakup while “Teardrops On My Guitar” was about a crush that is oblivious to her feelings. Swift divulged secrets about herself, her friends and her relationships to the listener over the sounds of an acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle. She demonstrated mature songwriting and storytelling, proving herself destined to become one of the greatest musicians of a generation.
In the months after her debut, Swift worked overtime, both touring to promote the album and writing songs for her next album. These tracks would become "Fearless," which was released in 2008. Swift held true to the diary-style lyrics of her first release for her sophomore album, but despite the similar themes of high school romance and heartbreak, "Fearless" was distinctive from its predecessor. With songs clocking in around four or more minutes, Swift weaved her stories in over the staple guitar and banjo, but, as Jody Rosen described in a review for Rolling Stone, the album was “not overtly country.”
Continuing to turn her romantic drama into musical masterpieces, Swift released "Speak Now" in 2010. As a whole, the album was the perfect balance of country and pop, upbeat jams and acoustic ballads, all about boys and breakups, of course. “Mean” was perhaps the most country-sounding song in her entire catalog, while “The Story of Us” served as a preview of the shedding of her country roots in favor of the pop realm. Hidden gems on the album included “Better Than Revenge,” a bitter rock anthem supposedly about her break-up with Joe Jonas and the achingly beautiful “Haunted,” which included a full string section.
With "Red," Swift continued her departure from country music, incorporating everything from dance pop, rock and dubstep into the 16-track album. Swift recruited several of her favorite songwriters to help craft some of the album’s tracks — a first for her — but nonetheless, the album felt very much Taylor. This may seem surprising considering "Red" is Swift's greatest experimentation with different styles of music — there was the catchy “I Knew You Were Trouble,” a blend of pop and dubstep, “The Last Time,” a mature power-ballad duet with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol and “Stay Stay Stay,” one of the album’s few songs rooted firmly in country. Although it was all over the place sonically, "Red" served to showcase that Swift’s talent covered every genre.
By the time "1989" had released in 2014, Swift had fully abandoned her background in country to establish herself as a pop sensation. While "Red" was described as a mishmash of “disco banjos and piano ballads and dubstep drops” by Rob Sheffield for Rolling Stone, "1989" is cohesive. She still sang about her exes, but not so much about the pains of heartbreak anymore; we saw Swift at her most mature and confident, singing about breakups in a “your loss” type of way. She also acknowledged her reputation for relationships gone sour with lyrics like, “You look like my next mistake/Love’s a game, want to play?”
While many of us have had “Bad Blood” and “Shake It Off” on a constant loop in our heads since 2014, Swift has been busy crafting the songs that comprise "Reputation," due out Nov. 10. On Aug. 24, the first single from the album was released. Sampling the melody of “I’m Too Sexy,” a 1991 song by Right Said Fred, “Look What You Made Me Do” is a shift towards darker pop; critics have given mixed reviews on the track. Maura Johnston at The Guardian called the lyrics “sloppy” and the interpolation of Right Said Fred’s tune “a ridiculous touch.” Randy Lewis at the Los Angeles Times,on the other hand, lauded Swift for “[using] her artistry to root out the salient lessons in her life experiences.” The official video, which premiered at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, features Taylor in Madonna-esque jumpsuits and a motorcycle scene reminiscent of the cover of the Pussycat Dolls' "Doll Domination." Furthering the suspense for her album release even more, Swift dropped “... Ready For It?” on Sept. 3. While it isn't as bitter or dark as the earlier released single, it’s certainly no “Shake It Off."
Based on the two singles released so far, "Reputation" is sure to break any notions we may have had about where Swift’s musical career is heading. The only thing that is certain is that both she and her career are continuing to evolve, with the badass, confident Swift of today much different from the sweet, shy teenage Swift we were first introduced to. As if hinting at just how different "Reputation" will be from her earlier music, “Look What You Made Me Do” features Swift answering the phone with, "I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now ... Why? Oh, cause she's dead!"