For Taylor Swift, love — or the idea of it — has always represented a refuge, an escape, a shelter in a storm.
When she emerged, just over a decade ago, romance was a means of lifting herself out of the too-smallness of high school; later, its enduring promise cushioned her after any number of messy breakups.
Swift’s idealizing impulse resonated with fans, who were using her music the same way she was using her imagination, and she quickly became one of the biggest and most closely observed pop stars on the planet.
Now, on her sixth studio album, “Reputation” — which came out Friday and sold more than 700,000 copies in 24 hours, according to Nielsen Music — love is an antidote to the celebrity she so doggedly cultivated (and then fumbled as soon as everyone was watching).
Again and again, she describes a relationship in terms of the protection it provides from both the glare of public scrutiny and the perverse value system that scrutiny allows.
“My reputation’s never been worse / So you must like me for me,” she tells a lover in “Delicate,” before turning to her perceived enemies in “Call It What You Want”: “All the drama queens taking swings / All the jokers dressing up as kings / They fade to nothing when I look at him.”
With his deep-blue eyes and his effortless sensitivity, the guy Swift sings about on “Reputation” still has a storybook quality familiar from her early work — a good thing, given that he’s tasked here with helping to purify several years’ worth of tabloid toxins.
“All the boys and their expensive cars / With their Range Rovers and their Jaguars / Never took me quite where you do,” she tells him in “King of My Heart.”
What’s striking about “Reputation,” though, is how skillfully she inhabits the world of those drama queens and Jaguar boys. Swift famously pivoted from country music with 2014’s Grammy-winning “1989,” which she referred to as her first “official pop album” after having established herself in Nashville.
Yet this time she’s fully embraced the hip-hop and R&B sounds that rule Top 40 radio and streaming services such as Spotify (even as she’s held “Reputation” back from streaming in order to boost sales).
Working with A-list producers Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff, Swift deploys whooshing synth textures and skittering trap beats similar to those in songs by Drake (“Delicate”) or Rihanna (“So It Goes…”) or her foil-turned-nemesis Kanye West (“…Ready for It?”). And for the first time her vocals emphasize rhythm over melody; “End Game” even features an improbably comfortable appearance by the rapper Future.
The result exudes an impressive unity of form and function; it accurately embodies the modern pop culture that Swift compares to a witch hunt in “I Did Something Bad.”
But what if the real Taylor isn’t actually searching for the sanctuary she lays out?
On “Reputation” her singing is most convincing in the songs concerned with her supposed mistreatment — by haters and backstabbers, by men talking trash, by West and his wife Kim Kardashian, who are all but named in “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”
Swift has long used her music to accuse and to spell out grievances, of course; her belief in justice (at least as she sees it) runs a close second to her belief in happily ever after.
Here, though, she seems to take real pleasure in the recriminations, as though she’d finally found her true calling — and is no longer worried about upholding anyone’s notion of sweetness or decorum.
In “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” there’s a moment when Swift, almost through a line about how “forgiveness is a nice thing to do,” breaks off and erupts into laughter.
“I can’t even say it with a straight face!” she says, and it might be the most concentrated burst of emotion on the album.
A cynical reading of “Reputation” — and the one I find myself leaning toward the more I listen to this excellent record — suggests that the love songs constitute mere damage control in Swift’s bumpy transition to pop avenger.
After all, her image has taken some serious hits over the last couple of years, whether from her ill-advised tussle with Nicki Minaj, her unwillingness to endorse a presidential candidate or recent reports that the American Civil Liberties Union had criticized her for threatening to sue an obscure blogger.
And if you listen carefully, you realize that so many of the intimacies she depicts happen in public places: bars, parties, “our secret moments in a crowded room,” as she puts it in the gorgeous “Dress.”
Even at her most private, she can’t shake the feeling of being watched.