I was 19 when I first got suspended from a job. It was my summer gig cleaning the middle school. I remember yelling, “Fuck you, Larissa!” at my supervisor, my head too big for it all, and being sent home from the day.
At 24, I was suspended again. This time because I angstily unpublished an editor’s edits on my piece, and I was given the week off at MTV to think about my attitude. Honestly, they could’ve fired me on the spot.
There were other times where my ego got in the way of my work — like the time I stormed out of my cashier job at McDonald’s, face red with anger as my manager begged me not to leave during a busy hour. Or the time my college newspaper editor had to sit me down after I disparaged our publication in a blog post… while I was still working there.
I never blamed these clashes on myself — only the idiots that provoked me. I kept plowing through my career unapologetically, listening to only the people I wanted to — friends who nodded along to my rants eagerly, my parents who encouraged me to quit my first well-paying job during drama, and my boyfriend, who commiserated with me as if he were going through the same workplace bullshit. I knew subconsciously I was wrong. I knew I had a problem with professionalism. But I needed some cheerleaders to make me feel less guilty.
Taylor Swift has made me her cheerleader. Although far less loyal than some of her biggest Swifties, I defend her questionable missteps and stroke her ego and tell her it’s going to be OK. We’ll always love you, us Swifties coo at her — though it’s a struggle during her neo-Nazi silence, her anti-resistance, her Spotify pettiness, her attack on a tiny blog and her malicious timing of revealing her pen name, Nils Sjoberg. I still maintain that, while messy, Taylor wasn’t completely wrong about the Kimye drama of 2016, but that’s a separate convo.
I have to admit, when I first saw reputation’s album cover and heard its first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” a bit of my chest dropped. For some reason, I was hoping she’d take the high road through all the media criticism. I think a lot of us hoped for that — especially during an era in U.S. politics that seems driven by revenge and power and spite. I wanted her to be the light. Instead, Swift was more like me at peak ego, lashing out and peeling away angrily. I got flashbacks to when I fed myself on my own toxic tweets, subtweeting my bosses as I counted my Twitter followers like a snickering cartoon robber inventories his loot. But reputation had more in store than just its first campy single.
“You know, you were wrong,” Pete told me a few years after my MTV suspension. It was fucking weird to hear, especially since he’d agreed with me every time I’d come home with another complaint. During those nights, we’d make dinner as I unloaded my latest grievances against my editor, him responding in a manner that mirrored my boisterous disgust until we moved on altogether, making our kitchen a place where my angst just melted away.
Reputation is about situations like that. There’s the angry denial, sure. Vengeful Taylor has always satiated our gross hunger to justify our own egos — there’s the self-righteous “Look What You Made Me Do” and the condescending “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” that do the trick. But it’s also about finding solace in someone who cools those fiery feelings. It’s about finding that person who handles you gently while you figure yourself out. He gives you space and makes you safe, so you can reflect on your own missteps. My favorite line that details this comes from “Call It What You Want”:
“All my flowers grew back as thorns
Windows boarded up after the storm
He built a fire just to keep me warm
All the drama queens taking swings
All the jokers dressing up as kings
They fade to nothing when I look at him”
It can dangerous to put yourself in that bubble. When the people around you agree more often than disagree, you’re not challenged. The result is an even bigger ego and a reckless drive to tackle those who dare to disagree. That explains a lot about Taylor’s narrative, why she would come after a small blogger who dared to dissent or why she would drop her entire discography on Spotify the same day as rival Katy Perry released her new album.
But it’s also incredibly human and natural to surround yourself with supporters. Our instincts tell us to find a safe refuge. So while half of reputation seems to be about her vindictive, hardened personality (a bit satirical with a hint of truth in each lyric), the other half sings with vulnerability. To grow, you have to recognize your faults and then move past them. Taylor may never speak plainly about her troubled 2016, but we can witness her internal struggle laid out in her music.
After you look past “Look What You Made Me Do” and the reclamation of the snake imagery (more of a marketing tactic than anything, I believe), there’s a lot of reflection on reputation. On four different songs, she references the word “mistake”: “And I know I make the same mistakes every time,” she sings on “Call It What You Want.” “Flashback to my mistakes / My rebounds, my earthquakes / Even in my worst light, you saw the truth in me,” she sings on “Dress.” “But I stay / When it’s hard or it’s wrong or we’re making mistakes,” she sings on “New Year’s Day.” Even Ed Sheeran grasps the theme on “End Game,” when he raps, “I’ve made mistakes and made some choices, that’s hard to deny.”
Reputation is the reactive and the reflective. It’s the “Fuck you, Larissa” and the journal entry, years later, when you’ve realized from your mistakes and you’ve calmed down.
It’s about being an imperfect egotistical human that still needs love. Like Taylor, who sings with a theatrical stubbornness “I’m perfectly fine, I live on my own,” I pride myself on independence and my ability to accomplish things without the help of others. However, the reputation era owes a lot to the people waiting at home, “high above the whole scene,” who come out on the other side with you, stronger than ever.
While Swift’s discography has been an open diary for fans, reputation is the beating heart. The beauty in reputation is that it exposes both what we want to be and what we really are — the defiant and the vulnerable. And when you peel back its crusty layers, it comes down to love.
It’s an ode to that person who sticks with you through the shit, even if you’re wrong.
“I’ll be there if you’re the toast of the town, babe
Or if you strike out and you’re crawling home”
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