A new sound. A philanthropic call to action. A scathing blog post. The preamble to the pop star's seventh album has been one of major statements and admirable deeds

By Maura Johnston
August 20, 2019 at 02:03 PM EDT

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When you’re a megaselling artist like Taylor Swift, every move you make is up for scrutiny. As one of the first pop stars to have fully grown up in the era of social media’s endless feedback loop with the celebrity-industrial complex, Swift has always been aware of that fact.

For the bulk of her career, her albums — in sound and in packaging — have squared the circle between big gestures and personal statements. Take her Instagram posts right after she finished her new album, Lover: Their tonal shift from casual behind-the-scenes photos of Cats and her cats to pastel-hued shots of palm trees and fence posts signified that something was coming. What that “something” was wound up being fodder both for Swift’s fans, who put on their detective hats to deduce clues from each photo’s array of subjects, and for media outlets in search of news items on one of music’s biggest names.

The Tumblr post where Swift revealed her feelings on manager Scooter Braun’s purchase of her former label Big Machine Records (which includes her back catalog) was another example of her opening up on a massive scale. The late-June entry, with its detailed descriptions of what Swift viewed as Braun’s offenses along with her broken-heart sign-off, was as well constructed as Swift’s best songs: personal and seething, each word meticulously chosen. It sparked not only reactions from her devoted listeners but rafts of headlines and supportive posts from fellow A-listers like pop firebrand Halsey and country belter Kelsea Ballerini.

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Amid all the cat photos, cleverly framed art shots, and callouts to support GLAAD and Democratic candidates, Swift has continuously cultivated a close online relationship with her die-hard fans — the ones who have “swiftie” in their handles or are invited to her “secret session” album previews. Being a superstar would, theoretically, not allow for much time spent diving into one’s Tumblr stream, but Swift scrolls through hers long enough for “#taylorliked” and “#taylurking” to trend.

Yet dissecting her public moves in the context of what Lover (her seventh album) ultimately might be is a tricky notion, in large part because “sincerity” and pop have always been uneasy bedfellows. Once a piece of music is put up for sale, the notion of it being a fully personal gesture becomes complicated; add marketing departments and corporate tie-ins to the mix, and you’re further muddying the waters. This is as true for artists on the margins of Bandcamp as it is for Good Morning America headliners, although the latter get put under the microscope for it far more often.

That’s been changing in recent years, though, because of the rise of social media as a place not just for people to keep up with old friends but for companies to market their products, making the idea of the self as performance utterly plain. An online persona being seen as separate from a person’s “real” self holds whether you’re a platinum-plated songwriter or someone with five followers, four of whom are bots: You’re selecting parts of yourself to present to the world. By extension, everybody’s putting on a show. Swift, as a child of the share-everything digital era (she turned 10 in 1999, the year the let-it-all-hang-out platform LiveJournal was introduced), is keenly aware of this — and so are her fans.

Lover‘s social media rollout is a breath of fresh summer air compared with the icy prologue to her 2017 album, Reputation, which was introduced by glitching snake posts on Instagram and big-budget videos in dark hues. Even though that record actually had a much lighter ballast than its diamond-hard first two singles (the sneering “Look What You Made Me Do” and the cacophonous “…Ready for It?”) implied, it still had a note of defiance. Lover, on the other hand, has been all about mending fences and being kind to the self — even the gently self-flagellating third single, “The Archer,” has an air of forgiveness about it. Feeling comfortable in one’s skin and opening up to kindness runs through Swift’s recent lyrics and Instagram Live hang sessions with fans — and also drove much of her March Elle piece on lessons she’d learned in her first 30 years on the planet.

Perhaps the large-scale honesty Swift seems to be embracing is a side effect of that growing up; Swift’s prominence means she’s living the performed-life ideal on a grander scale than even the most influential Instagram celebs, but putting up fronts for so often can be taxing. Sure, the tabloid headlines about her feud with Braun or her relationship with actor Joe Alwyn might garner rubbernecking from people more interested in gossip than music. But those breathless reports won’t be pealing out of radios or appearing on “the 2010s’ top hits” playlists five or 10 years from now, while the standouts from Lover just might.

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