Taylor Swift's Albums Are the Stages of a Breakup, and "Reputation" Is Anger
If you’ve been broken up with lately, 1. I’m sorry, they’re probably a jerk, and 2. Taylor Swift has got you covered for your Break Up Journey soundtrack. I don’t know who did what to her between 2008 and 2010, but it must’ve been something huge because Swift has spent the last seven-ish years working through the aftermath, and we’ve all been here to hear it.
Everyone who’s been through a breakup that wasn’t their idea knows there are five stages of recovery after the initial love: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Of course, everyone’s different, so the order in which a person goes through those stages is bound to be different. Swift has done us the interesting honor of letting us listen to her go through the stages in the order of love, depression, bargaining, denial, and, now, anger. Her latest release, reputation, is stage Anger, with a touch of Acceptance.
Breaking it down by album, we have Fearless as the springboard Love stage. Released in 2008 when Swift was just 19, it’s a happy-go-lucky country album that conjures up images of innocent young love, white daisies sparkling in the sun on the sides of dirt roads, and isolated little ponds just big enough to tempt you to learn how to skip rocks all the way from one side to the other, surrounded by tall, whispering grass or whatever. It has a couple of sad-ish songs, because it’s country, but the defining singles “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” are happy, and, for the most part, the album feels the same. All was reasonably well in Swiftville. If you’re already post-relationship, skip this album for your personal soundtrack, telling yourself that lovey dovey stuff is dumb.
Two years later, Speak Now came out, sounding like stage Depression. It’s still country, so the genre hadn’t switched yet, but its lyrics are melancholically wistful. The titular song “Speak Now” is about watching her ex get married to someone else – not the happy-go-lucky high school romance she sang about before. The album starts off positively with “Mine,” but even that one isn’t definitively positive: it ends looking into the future and seeing happy things, but nothing concrete has actually happened. The rest of the songs follow more in the vein of “Speak Now,” becoming increasingly sad, until it ends with the lines, “If this was a movie, I don’t like the ending” in the second-to-last song called (three guess what) “If This Was A Movie,” and “I watch Superman fly away/ I swear I’ll be with you someday./ I’ll be right here on the ground/ when you come back down” in the final song, “Superman.” Things had not gone as expected in Swiftville, and if you’re still a little in shock over your breakup, this is the album for you.
Then Red came out in 2012, and that was the beginning of the change, the metamorphosing album that hinted at New Taylor, with more pop-sounding songs than country. The biggest hit off this one was, of course, “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which was definitely not rock-skipping and daisies. This album is stage Bargaining, half happy, half struggle, trying to deal with the fact that things are different now, but not wanting to let go of the past. Like remembering the time you went on that walk with your ex, but starting to want to be able to go to those same places again without feeling that memory, yet wanting to be able to relive it all just the same...fine, it’s over, but maybe you can get it back? Maybe you can “watch it begin again,” like Swift does in Red’s final song?
But no. Not only did Swift not see it all begin again, she swung around into stage Denial with 1989 in 2014. This was the album that was irrevocably pop. Gone were the daisies, replaced by dramatically thorned roses. Gone were the dirt roads, paved over by blacktop, driven on by the latest little sports car instead of an old pickup. Gone is the lake, filled in and built over with a high-end mall and rooftop bar. It’s glitz and Hollywood romance and a feeling of partying hard while trying to ignore the fact that you’re actively giving yourself a terrible hangover. Like maybe if you don’t think about it, if you have another cocktail instead of admitting you’re already over your line, the hangover won’t happen. As if it needs your acknowledgement to exist. As if the breakup needs the same. As if the sparkling new life you’re trying so hard to create and throw yourself into, that’s so totally, completely different from who you were before, will not only fix the fact that you’ve been broken up with, but will also erase your entire history. Like the breakup never happened.
But as the night goes on and the alcohol starts to kick in as a depressant instead of a party catalyst, you start to get a little sad as you acknowledge what’s happened, like the ending of 1989. As you sit contemplating the ice melting in your glass, you realize you’re actually kind of over it. You’re “finally clean,” as Swift sings. She even went on a long vacation after the album tour. (10/10 would recommend.) All ends relatively quietly in Swiftville as you go to bed.
Something has happened, and now Swift is back with a vengeance, high on stage Anger, raging against the world in reputation, because it turns out she’s not actually over it yet. Most of reputation feels like you just found out via Snapchat that your ex is dating your best friend – the one you went to after the break up first happened, the one you’ve been partying with trying to forget about it – and now you’re out for revenge. The daisies are crushed underfoot, the roads are full of potholes and rocks that scratch the paint on your shiny car, and the new mall is haunted by all the people you’re trying to avoid for the rest of your life, including your ex and best-friend-turned-enemy. Nothing left to do but date everyone in sight, including your other best friend like Swift does in “Dress,” and try not to give into the insecurities and the sense of how fleeting it all is, which Swift only lets out occasionally in reputation.
The album as a whole feels frantic, a whirlwind of high emotion, but it ends with the quiet and love-based fear of “New Year’s Day,” calling the past calmly to mind even as Swift looks forward to whatever comes next. She’s disillusioned but easing into stage Acceptance as she settles down again in revamped Swiftville.
All we can hope for is that 2020 brings us a Taylor Swift album singing to us all about stage Acceptance, ending our breakup soundtracks on a happy note to move on, with daisies growing in the potholes of Swiftville.