Why 'Lover' Might Be Taylor Swift's Most Important Album Yet
By Meredith B. Kile
If 1989 was about stepping out on your own, and Reputation was about figuring out who you want to be, then perhaps Taylor Swift's upcoming seventh studio album, Lover, is the one that marks the feeling of blissful contentment when you leave the chaos of your twenties for the comfort of adulthood.
The singer is gearing up to drop her latest offering on Friday, and stepping into a new era as an artist, with an album she describes as "a love letter to love, in all of its maddening, passionate, exciting, enchanting, horrific, tragic, wonderful glory."
Lover arrives at an interesting time for Swift, both personally and professionally. Her 2017 album, Reputation, came on the heels of a controversial period for the singer's public image -- following feuds with Katy Perry, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West -- and was top-loaded with hard-driving pop tracks that took aim at the feelings of anger and betrayal she found in those very public squabbles.
But the very first shot of the music video for Lover'sfirst single -- the bubbly-fun "ME!" featuring Panic! at the Disco's Brendon Urie -- is the image of a snake, poised to strike, before it explodes into a kaleidoscope of colorful butterflies. Swift loves a visual metaphor, and while this one may be a little on-the-nose, it is also significant -- an indicator that she's ready to move past the petty and embrace life's little beauties.
“It’s so strange trying to be self-aware when you’ve been cast as this always smiling, always happy ‘America’s sweetheart’ thing, and then having that taken away and realizing that it’s actually a great thing that it was taken away, because that’s extremely limiting,” the singer recently told Voguein an interview for their iconic September issue. “We’re not going to go straight to gratitude with it. Ever. But we’re going to find positive aspects to it. We’re never going to write a thank-you note.”
Sonically, the album also seems to be veering away from the heavier, beat-driven pop of Reputation, as Swift returned to work with 1989 collaborator Jack Antonoff and teamed up for the first time with New Zealand producer Joel Little, who is perhaps best known for working with Swift's pal, Lorde, on her debut EP and album.
There's evolution to be found in the lyrics as well. Lover'ssecond single showcased another major theme in Swift's new era, the promised "political undertones" that the singer has long been criticized for avoiding in both her art and her public life. "You Need to Calm Down" took aim at Swift's critics, but swung its hardest punches at conservative bigots and homophobes, showcasing the singer's allyship in big, rainbow-tinted letters.
To Swift's credit, she did more than just sing about being a friend to the LGBTQ community. She put her money where her mouth is, casting a cadre of queer icons for her Pride party-themed music video, including Ellen DeGeneres, Laverne Cox, Dexter Mayfield, Billy Porter, Adam Lambert, Queer Eye's Fab Five (Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, Bobby Berk, Tan France and Jonathan Van Ness), and RuPaul, as well as a beauty pageant scene where some of the most iconic drag queens on the scene portray the world's biggest female pop artists. (She also publicly made good with Perry in the video, hugging it out with her former frenemy while the pair was dressed as fast food.)
The video concludes with a message outlining Swift's support for the federal Equality Act, spurring her fans to real-world action following the fun frivolity. The singer revealed in her Vogue interview that it was a conversation with friend and collaborator Todrick Hall that ultimately inspired her to lend her voice to the cause in a bigger way.
"Maybe a year or two ago, Todrick and I are in the car and he asked me, 'What would you do if your son was gay?'" she recalled. "The fact that he had to ask me… shocked me and made me realize that I had not made my position clear enough or loud enough. 'If my son was gay, he’d be gay. I don’t understand the question.'"
"If he was thinking that, I can’t imagine what my fans in the LGBTQ community might be thinking," she added. "It was kind of devastating to realize that I hadn’t been publicly clear about that."
Swift said her perceived lack of support in the past was simply due to an ingrained fear of speaking out of turn or saying the wrong thing -- easy to understand for someone who's been under the spotlight of public scrutiny since her early teenage years.
"I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of. It’s hard to know how to do that without being so fearful of making a mistake that you just freeze," she explained. "Because my mistakes are very loud. When I make a mistake, it echoes through the canyons of the world. It’s clickbait, and it’s a part of my life story, and it’s a part of my career arc."
Of course, Lover wouldn't be a Taylor Swift album if there weren't a few songs about her personal life. The singer is in what seems to be her most serious relationship yet, with British actor Joe Alwyn, leading fans to speculate wildly over wedding references and apparent shout-outs to her British beau in the album's title track. However, Swift has also become incredibly guarded about sharing details of this relationship, keeping her private life private in a quieter, more mature way. (In other words, no more "I ❤️ T.S." tank tops.)
She's also shied away from playing out love stories in her music videos, eschewing male leads in favor of female-focused narratives that put her front and center. That the birth of this trend seems to line up with the beginnings of her relationship with Alwyn may be a coincidence -- or maybe not.
Swift even issued a mea culpa to her ex, Joe Jonas, earlier this year for putting him, and their upsetting breakup, "on blast" publicly during an early appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "We laugh about it now," she admitted to DeGeneres in May, "but that was mouthy, yeah, some teenage stuff there."
As Swift prepares to turn 30 in December, this new album seems to be a marker of maturity, in more ways than one. Gone are the days of a public "Dear John" letter, now she's singing about something "borrowed" and something "blue" in the soft, waltzy title track. (Maybe those are wedding bells after all?)
Apart from the lyrical and musical content, there is another reason Lover is poised to be a major step in Swift's already storied career. The album will be the singer's first release under Republic Records, following her public and messy split from Scott Borchetta's Big Machine Records. Manager Scooter Braun purchased Big Machine in June, giving him majority ownership over Swift's masters with the label, leading the singer to pen a lengthy Tumblr post accusing Braun of bullying her throughout her career and calling the deal her "worst case scenario."
"When I left my masters in Scott's hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them. Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words 'Scooter Braun' escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to. He knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn't want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever," she claimed.
Swift said in her post that she would "always be proud of my past work," but called her new album with Republic "a healthier option."
"Thankfully, I am now signed to a label that believes I should own anything I create. Thankfully, I left my past in Scott's hands and not my future," she concluded. "And hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make."
The concept of past and future came up again when Swift was asked about the sale in her Vogue interview. Though she didn’t elaborate on the topic, when asked if she tried to get her masters from Big Machine, Swift replied, "It was either investing in my past or my and other artists’ future, and I chose the future."
It's clear that the singer is ready to leave the worries about her reputation behind, and take her next steps -- towards a new chapter of personal growth and professional freedom -- with an open heart.