How Taylor Swift used love, loss and public spats to make another smash
It took just four days for Taylor Swift to sell one million copies of her new album and break this year's record. From the feuds to the fans, Phoebe Luckhurst unpacks the making of a masterpiece
She's done it, inevitably. Earlier this week, it was announced that millennial hype-beast Taylor Swift had sold more albums in the US than any other artist this year.
Reputation, the 27-year-old's sixth album, sold 1.05 million copies between Friday and Wednesday morning - beating close pal Ed Sheeran, the previous best-seller, who sold 919,000.
Swift's not satisfied, though. On Tuesday night she turned up at a Target store in Nashville to buy her album and bump up the numbers. Swifties jostled for selfies. The singer has form: her previous album, 1989, surpassed a million sales in seven days, as did Red and Speak Now. But this time, we're not dealing with a Swift-by-numbers product.
Reputation is a very different proposition: the alchemy darker and more jaded than any of her previous albums. In the past year Swift has been in the headlines for her cataclysmic relationship with Tom Hiddleston and a he-said-she-said furore with Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian West. The album comes after a long down period in which she temporarily deleted her social media accounts.
But given her propensity - and talent - for using the personal as material, a Taylor Swift album has become a compelling proposition, even for those who profess to dislike her.
The album is supposed to be a 'meta' meditation on Swift's public persona - hence, Reputation. She's a fallen angel partly culpable for her own demise - both sinned against and sinning. In Call It What You Want, she bemoans that she brought a "knife to a gunfight".
In Look What You Made Me Do, she invokes a vendetta list of names. "I check it once, then I check it twice", she threatens, like a furious Santa.
The album's imagery is a portrait of Swift, starkly monochrome, against newsprint printed with her name in different sizes and typefaces.
Compare this to the soft-focus, nostalgic Polaroid of her previous album, 1989. This is darker and more real, the newsprint suggesting competing narratives.
This has not been a textbook publicity tour. In August, Swift deleted her posts on Instagram - where she has 104 million followers - and uploaded three looping videos of a snake, writhing hypnotically. A few days later, she released Look What You Made Me Do, and the juggernaut was in motion.
On Twitter (85 million followers) she has been more recognisably herself, sharing pictures of Swifties clutching copies of the Reputation magazine released with the album, using hashtags #reputaylurking and #reputation. She is letting her potent fanbase do her publicity for her - though Twitter also helped, crowning the album with its own emoji, the abbreviation 'rep' in black and white script.
Keeping the album off streaming services fuelled the frenzy and drove sales: it is expected to drop there next week and the singles are already available. For a gilded elite Swift held the uproarious Reputation Sessions: invitation-only listening parties in locations including London, New York and LA.
There were about 100 fans at the London event last month. According to one attendee, Swift hand-picked the group after thorough Twitter stalking. Fans sobbed, screamed and ate chicken nuggets, Reputation-themed cookies and M&Ms. One said Swift was "the happiest she had ever been".
While Swift has never commented on her relationship with 26-year-old north London actor Joe Alwyn, it's thought they have been dating since 2016. At a listening party she apparently confessed that single Gorgeous is about him.
"Taylor made us promise that if anyone made accusations of who this song is about, we tell them it is about her angel boyfriend of one year", wrote a fan on Tumblr who claims to have attended a party. "She wanted us to tell people."
The song sheds light on the Swift-Alwyn timeline: she sings about having an older boyfriend in "the club", who could be her ex, the DJ Calvin Harris, and meeting a new guy who she wants so badly it makes her furious.
Incidentally, the song also features her friend Blake Lively's daughter, who babbles "gorgeous" at the beginning.
Swift is a dexterous lyricist - and the fact that her songs are so personal makes close reading even more salacious. The most famous lyric on Reputation is on Look What You Made Me Do, when Swift exclaims in a dramatic voiceover: "I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, cause she's dead." It's the album's clarion call.
The lyrics about Alwyn are by turns syrupy and overwrought: "Ocean blue eyes", she croons on Gorgeous, "looking in mine."
Then: "I feel like I might sink and drown and die."
Swift cannot please all of her fans, though: apparently her dad temporarily left a listening party after hearing the saucy lyrics to Dress, in which Taylor admits that she "only bought this dress so you could take it off".
Swift's feud with Kanye and Kim Kardashian West is thought to have informed the revenge anthem Look What You Made Me Do. Lyrics including "I don't like your tilted stage" seem to point to West, who staged a tour on a tilted stage.
The beef is over West's single Famous, released last February, in which he notes, "I made that b*tch famous" - the b*tch being Swift and the claim referring to the time West interrupted an awards ceremony to note that the trophy a fledgling Swift was clutching should have been Beyonce's.
West maintains that Swift okayed the lyrics, but Swift denies it.
In June last year Kardashian West claimed she filmed the phone call in which Swift agreed. Kardashian West allies spammed Swift's Instagram account with snakes; Swift's use of snakes to launch her publicity tour is a riposte.
The video to Look What You Made Me Do stars a Katy Perry lookalike - the pair have been quarrelling for years, apparently over whether Perry stole backing dancers from Swift.
Bad Blood is said to be about this rift, and after Swift gave an interview to Rolling Stone in 2014, discussing an unnamed rival, Perry tweeted: "Watch out for the Regina George in sheep's clothing."
Quite a reputation.