Taylor Swift’s reputation album and the culture of surveillance

Presented at the TiLTing perspectives Conference as part of the GiKII panel.
Tilburg Universtiy, The Netherlands
14 May 2019

In his recent book ‘The culture of surveillance: watching as a way of life’ David Lyon suggests that surveillance has become one of the fundamental features of contemporary, interconnected life. A key text used by Lyon to explore this thesis is Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle. Given the subject of Eggers’ book, this choice seems obvious. However, in this presentation, I propose using a radically different work of art: Taylor Swift’s 2017 album reputation

Reputation topped the Billboard 200 in both 2017 and 2018 as the best-selling album in the United States of America (US), and was followed by the highest grossing US tour ever. It not only marked a commercial high in Swift’s career, an artist lauded for both her catchy tunes and her autobiographical lyrics, but also a conscious break with earlier work; Launch single ‘Look what you made me do’ ends with the spoken text:

I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, 'cause she's dead!"

In this GikII presentation I will argue that this departure should be understood as a rejection of the culture of surveillance. Swift’s breakthrough singles ‘Love story’ (2008) and ‘You belong with me’ (2009) reflected common high school anxieties such as parental surveillance and keeping an eye on romantic interests. Her ability to tap into the current culture and give voice to the concerns of a generation quickly propelled her to global stardom. However, this newfound fame made it impossible for Swift to engage in the culture of surveillance on equal terms with the rest of society. In 2014, Swift scored two number one hits in which she embraced and celebrated this singular status: ‘Shake it off’ and ‘Bad blood.’ On the accompanying 1989 album, however, we also find the the track ‘I know places’ in which she sings that:

Something happens when everybody finds out.

But luckily:

Baby, I know places we can hide.

With the benefit of hindsight ‘I know places’ can be seen as a precursor to reputation. The media campaign launching reputation consisted of a deletion of all the content from her social media pages. On these blank pages Swift performed obscurity in the spotlight, turning the culture of surveillance on its head with predictable results: a flurry of media attention and wild fan theories. When the album was released, the lyrics contained a two-sided treatment of surveillance culture. On the one hand there is a stoic indifference towards these new facts of life. Swift muses to a lover that:

Reputation precedes me; they told you I'm  crazy.

But that she does not care because:

They're burning all the witches even if you aren't one; so light me up.

To rival superstars Kanye West and Katy Perry she directs the biting lyrics:

I've got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined.

And that therefore:

Maybe I got mine, but you'll all get yours.

On the other hand, a deep concern that her hypervisibility prevents her from engaging in meaningful relationships can also be found in various tracks, most notably in ‘Dress,’ ‘Dancing with our hands tied,’ and ‘Delicate.’ The latter describes a date in the back of a bar, hidden away from prying eyes. When the date goes surprisingly well, she sings that:

My reputation's never been worse, so you must like me for me.

Her lyrics on and usage of social media surrounding the launch of reputation are not just savvy sales drivers. They also reflect the very real concerns of someone who is both a masterful player of the culture of surveillance and the victim of some of it’s most extreme excesses. When she is confronted with its unsettling effects, her performed nonchalance quickly fades. Read like this, Swift’s album is a preeminent product of its time: a highly autobiographical documentation of the private struggles of a celebrity with her status as such, posted publicly on Spotify, Netflix, Apple Music, and YouTube.

PDF of the presentation
Freely available here.