Another foray into unknown territory for me! This past year I accidentally dove head first into Taylor Swift’s music after years of avoiding it. Well, I’m pleased to say that Taylor Swift has quite the repertoire. I did a fair bit of digging into people’s reviews of her reputation Stadium Tour, a 2018 Netflix special, and didn’t find a whole lot of analysis contained therein, so here we are! I thought I’d take some time here to explore how her storytelling translates to a whole concert tour in a really long post. Enjoy!
Unlike her previous tours, I felt that reputation really contained a story. Swift sets up questions and answers to bookend the tour, she arranges her set list in a way that not only showcases songs from reputation, but also in a way that recontextualizes her other music to reflect the messages she puts forth in reputation. There are some great lessons in storytelling that I see in Taylor Swift’s reputation Tour through the use of insert videos, the set design, and the audience involvement. I hope that this unusual addition to my analyses can get you thinking! I’m not a music expert; this analysis is focusing on how reputation tells a story, nothing to do with how Swift’s songs are written or played. I am however, a film person, and this Netflix special provided me with many opportunities to analyze Swift’s storytelling through the means of watching a film.
What is reputation About??
reputation is arguably Swift’s most context-heavy album. Many say it’s weighed down and hard to enjoy as-is. I totally get that! Well-documented skirmishes such as her upsets with Kanye West, her abundance of boyfriends, and her eventual disappearance from the media for a bit led to the creation of reputation, an album that responds to the pressures felt as a highly criticized celebrity and musician. reputation explores a darker, edgier persona for Swift that highlights musical influences from hip hop, rap, and techno or electronic music with bass drops, spoken word sections, and sustained vocal effects.
While each new album of Swift’s seems to explore a new style, reputation marked a very noticeable departure from her more sentimental, whirlwind love ballads and breakup songs. reputation is punctuated with bitterness, satire, and an ownership of character. In many ways, reputation explores a sort of coming to terms with events that shook Swift’s public image in a process similar to the stages of grief, with a cathartic outcome. Let me make one thing clear: reputation, the album and the tour, are not dense or complicated. They tell the story of Swift getting over the hate and embracing herself in spite of the haters. In that sense, if we wanted to know what reputation was about, this article would already be over. However, I want to look at how the tour addresses the themes of reputation and turns them into a story through a single coherent performance.
Insert Videos and the Story of reputation
So then, how does the reputation Tour turn itself into a story? The first big stop for us is the use of 3 insert videos in the concert. What makes the insert videos so noteworthy for me, is that they are not just for the viewers at home, like you would find on other DVD edits of tours. They aren’t interview clips or behind the scenes moments. They are instead crafted with the intention of being in the performance. They contextualize songs and guide the audience. Experiencing the videos during the performance is what makes the narrative of the reputation Tour unfold. They are integral to the flow and understanding of the reputation Tour’s core themes of rising up and letting go.
Swift’s first insert video happens before she appears onstage. In it, media mentions of Swift slowly get drowned out as she emerges dressed in snakeskin, with the word “reputation” repeated over and over. Pretty straightforward; Swift’s reputation has taken over her music. She opens the show with the edgier “…Ready for it?” and “I Did Something Bad,” then immediately transitions to some classics, such as “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me.” Guided by the first insert video,we see that Swift’s sweeter songs are now tainted with bitterness. This juxtaposition introduces the conflict for the rest of the performance: what will her reputation do to her? Can she overcome it? And furthermore, she asks the audience: who do you think I am? This is our inciting incident in the reputation narrative. Swift is showing the audience a wound that will heal throughout the concert.
This leads into the second insert video, where Swift’s old music videos are spliced and cut together with her new snake persona, styled in a way that reflects her lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” This midsection is where the performance really hits its stride. Swift’s audience engagement is at its peak, and her snakeskin slowly begins to shed. There’s a shift from vengeful songs to a more nuanced reading of her reputation around the time she sings “Delicate.” The set list shows how Swift’s reputation may have its edges, but it’s not all black, like her marketing made it seem. Instead, through a back and forth of snakey and sweet, we get to see how Swift’s life experiences do not paint her as any one shade. Her reputation isn’t the true her, just as her music videos are acts. Again, the audience is asked to question who Swift is. At this point, there are infinite answers.
I would argue that the climax of the reputation story happens during “Don’t Blame Me,” after which Swift leaves her edgy side for good and devotes the rest of the concert to softer or cheekier songs. This shift is signaled by the third insert video, the final arc in the reputation narrative, where she finds “a love that was really something, not just the idea of something.” In this last video, Swift recites a spoken word poem describing how she got back on her feet after all of the bad press and backstabbing by comparing it to a relationship. The performances that follow all contain notes of redemption, as though reputation is an act of healing.
The reputation Tour concludes with Swift embracing her new self, thanking those that stuck by her and letting go of the haters. At this point in the tour, Swift is singing more sentimental and cheerful songs, declaring a new identity. The closing screen shows a completed arc of self-discovery and acceptance that bookends the start of the show. So who is Taylor Swift? What is her reputation? The answer seems to be that her reputation no longer holds any water. She’s none of the things people pin her as, and will continue to make music exploring her experiences.
Set Design: Split Screens and the Big X
While the actual content of Swift’s songs and the way she uses video to tell a story is important, it’s not the only thing that creates meaning. How you use your space also matters. The reputation Tour uses its space extremely well, from stage layout to pyrotechnics, to set pieces. The stars of the show in terms of the reputation set are the huge rigged LED screens, and the X-shaped stage. These form the backbone of most of the performances and work as the main projection screen. Throughout the concert, the LED screens move up and down, breaking apart to reveal the scaffolding behind where dancers, back up musicians, and acrobats perform. This happens a few times in the show, but is the most noticeable during “Bad Blood.”
Narratively, the LED screens work to peel back layers and show the chaotic presence behind a polished front. Swift’s reputation is in danger, and the stage responds the same way she did in creating her reputation era. In this sense, the LED screens can also be seen as an open wound in need of healing. As the scaffolding is exposed, the concert hits its highest points and the edge of reputation starts to dissipate. Towards the end, this exposed look becomes playful as the performers all do their curtain call.
It’s hard to express the narrative genius of reputation’s stage design, but I’ll keep it short here. Shaped like a giant X, the reputation stage reaches into the crowd. For the most part, the stage serves its usual purpose, but things change during the third insert video. Swift uses an X to declare that she’s “arrived here,” referring to her public and personal image in the video, but also referring to her location at the time of her tour. Not only does the stage work as a stage should, but it’s suddenly also a physical manifestation of the reputation story. As such, the audience is also “here” with Swift, in this moment of her reputation, and witnessing her steps to overcome it. It’s these direct appeals to a reputation narrative that make the stage design important to mention in this analysis.
Stadium Space (and How to Film It)
Since the reputation Tour is a Netflix special, this raises some questions on how the reputation narrative was captured to suit a film. The answer to this lies in how much the special makes you feel like a part of the audience. Many of the shots used in the filmed version of reputation weave through the crowd or feature the film audience’s reactions to the performance. There are a lot of hints that this tour experience is meant to speak to fans, from how Swift walks through the crowd, how she encourages their song-specific cosplays (let’s be honest here), and of course the motivational speeches. reputation’s film edit doesn’t back away from showing that. There were even moments like this next screencap, which have (I think) a phone filter over a shot of Swift:
The filming decisions of the Netflix special show off the stadium space by filling shots with the audience. The stage interprets Swift’s reputation through her fans. She confides in them, praises them, and creates jokes and memories with them. Even the discomfort of staking out her house is laughed off. If we were to take this narrative further, the stadium itself is mediated for those who attended the show. After all, even the live audience is viewing the stage through a camera (their phones, or the jumbotron for example). Similarly, Swift’s reputation is also mediated by what is curated for us to see, whether from her or outside sources. reputation may be a statement, but it’s also a spectacle that fans paid to see.
The Big Picture of the reputation Narrative
Taylor Swift’s reputation era is so much more riddled with story than her previous confessional, diary style of songwriting because it’s all built on and reacting to the stories being told about her. This isn’t just applicable to the songs or the music videos, it’s also the tour, also her social media, also her style and publicity. reputation changed a bunch of things for Swift. I don’t want to pretend that I can analyze the reputation Tour in a vacuum, because like I said, reputation is impossible to listen to without context. reputation wiped her track record and bundled it all back to audience and critic alike. Because of her digital restart in 2017, stories about her from before this time can only exist in what we have been told about her, furthering the narrativity of reputation.
Swift’s fanbase has a history of overanalyzing her work, so let me just say that while I definitely spent a long time looking into this tour, it could all be malarky. I was inspired to write this because of how Swift used her storytelling on a stage as opposed to just in a song. Not even just on stage, but how the stage experience was delivered through Netflix. And I kept finding things to talk about because of how intentionally the tour was presented and filmed. When Swift famously said “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative,” it seems to me that reputation was a way to build a new narrative from the pieces scattered around how people thought of her, fan, critic, or otherwise. When she said “there will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation,” it speaks similarly to a desire to rewrite her narrative. In this way, reputation was a story about stories –a meta-narrative.