Over the past few years my excitement for Taylor Swift’s album releases has dwindled. The lead up to 2017’s reputation was tainted by the drama that surrounded it , and the catchy but cringey song (and accompanying music video) for “Look What You Made Me Do” . While I grew to love reputation, it still didn’t feel like Swift’s best work (I would argue that Red, her 2012 album, is her best). I was even less excited for Lover which saw Swift return to a brightly coloured, pure candy pop.
If reputation was an attempt at growing up—an overly performative and seemingly forced attempt—then Lover is Taylor giving up on clarifying the grittier details, instead going for a sound (and image) that’s sweeter, brighter and bubblier. Songs like “ME!” and “London Boy” are inane and hollow, centimetres away from becoming the leading tracks for Kidz Bop 257. Despite that, Lover still has these moments of subtle snark and uncertainty and sharp perspective, which feels more genuine than reputation. Swift is not the badass that she was trying to be on that album, but she’s no longer trying to be everyone’s best friend. There are things that she has seen that she can’t unsee, and she confronts them in the best way she knows how. On “The Man,” a song I truly love, she addresses how much her media image is distorted by her position as a woman. She calls out criticism that she dates too many people (“They'd say I played the field/before I found someone to commit to”; “And they would toast to me, oh let the players play/I’d be just like Leo in Saint-Tropez”) and criticizes how braggadocious women—about their money, about their talent—are portrayed as rude, bitches, bad women. It’s a message that people quickly bristle at, especially coming from Swift who’s known to self-victimize, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Songs like “The Man” and “I Forgot That You Existed” display how fed up Swift is with trying to please everyone, a powerful move for someone whose brand is likability.
On Lover, Swift’s world has grown—on “Soon You’ll Get Better” she documents the experience of her mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment; “You Need to Calm Down” is a shallow defense of the queer community and a fuck you to trolls—but it’s still Taylor’s world. It’s still a world in which it’s Taylor Swift against the big bad wolf. It’s still a world in which high school is the best metaphor for the complexities and joys of life (“Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince”). And it’s still a world where Taylor always comes out on top.
There are many moments in Lover that feel genius, that are Taylor Swift at her best (“Cruel Summer”; “False God”). But at the end of the day, after seven albums, I wish she’d given more.