Reputation and redemption: Taylor Swift returns to poppy form, but the bar is set high for her new music

After weeks of fan speculation and clues on her social media accounts, Taylor Swift released new single ME! and accompanying video. The initial fan reaction is positive, but Swift's new music will have to convince a lot of naysayers.

Swift's last album, Reputation, did not sell as well as her previous records

Taylor Swift poses for one of the promotional photos accompanying her new single, ME!, released on April 26, 2019. (Valheria Rocha Photography/Universal Music)

Pastel trench coats and neon briefcases. Seafoam bicycle. Iridescent tiles.

For the uninitiated, these images may have seemed like a Pinterest mood board or inspiration for a spring renovation.

But for millions of Taylor Swift's fans, the sequence of visual clues, released on her Instagram account and accompanied by the numbers 4.26, were "Taylor tea leaves" revealing one likely conclusion: their favourite singer was about to release some new music on April 26.

On the evening of April 25, their suspicions were confirmed by Swift, who appeared during the NFL draft, broadcast by ABC from Nashville. During an interview with host Robin Roberts, Swift said she would release a new music video and a song simply called ME! It's a duet with Panic!, at the Disco's frontman Brendon Urie, which she described as "a song about embracing your individuality and really celebrating it."

True to her promise, at midnight, a video was released on YouTube, a brightly coloured nod to 1950s musicals like An American in Paris in which Swift and Urie prance about candy-coloured cobblestone streets.

There are fantastical elements, like Swift's skirt turning into a pink waterfall. And there are elements near-and-dear to both Swift and her fans, like cats. At least three cats. That, alongside a boppy, hummable melody positions it as the next in the vein of Swift's positive, self-affirming anthems, and early reactions from fans certainly seem to suggest that.

Watch Swift's new video:

Still, a lot is riding on the success of this song and video, and whatever music may come on its heels. Swift's last album, Reputation, did not do quite as well as her previous offerings, and pop's new contenders, from Ariana Grande to BTS, are nipping at the heels of her YouTube streams and sales records. Can the 32-time-Grammy-nominee reclaim her throne?

Stakes for Swift

To be fair to Swift, 2017's Reputation was not a commercial flop by any standards other than those she herself helped set. While being the lowest-selling album of her career, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, it still sold more copies than most musicians can dream about. In March last year, it became the only album released in the previous two years to sell more than two million copies in the U.S. 

Tennessee-based public speaker and entrepreneur Brittany Hodak co-founded The Superfan Company, a firm that creates fan experiences on behalf of entertainers and corporations. She's also a huge Swift enthusiast.

"I think what was disappointing to a lot of Taylor fans, myself included, is that it felt like she made an album for her critics, rather than for her fans," said Hodak. "Here's this person that we've looked up to for all these years, and we would hope that she would be able to rise above the idea of revenge as a muse."

"And it wasn't fun," she adds of a key element of Swift's formula for success that ME! serves up in dollops. 

Hodak said the new song is "everything fans were hoping for and more."

Even Swift's masterful lead-up to the new song's release, in which fans discussed the Instagram clues and felt involved in the creation of the new Swift product, shows she has not lost the Midas touch, she said.

"She is an absolute wizard at creating experiences for her fans," said Hodak. "The thing that you've got to do is connect your story to the stories of people you're trying to reach. And there's no one who does that better than Taylor Swift." 

Stakes for Universal Music

Also banking on success of Swift's new music: Republic Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. Last year, Swift was finally able to leave her 14-year-old recording contract with the Nashville-based label Big Machine, which first signed her as a teenager. 

After a fierce bidding war among labels, Swift decided to sign with Universal, already home to a staggering roster of young stars: Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande and Drake, just to name a few. 

George Howard, associate professor of music management at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, said the commercial success of Swift's new music may even impact the price tag attached to Universal Music Group, a portion of which is up for sale later this year.

"The stakes are astronomically high for Universal, especially because they're trying to increase their valuation for some type of sale," said Howard. 

Music after ME!

So how well would ME! have to do to be considered a success, and to quell any rumblings that Swift's best days are behind her?

It all depends on what happens next. The new single is the first taste from a new album, according to Swift. Fans have been referring to it as TS7 on social media, though Universal Music Canada representatives did not comment on it.

Brittany Hodak believes Swift's upcoming album will aim for a particular target.

"Taylor is a perfectionist, Taylor loves breaking records, Taylor loves innovating, and so I'm sure for her, the stakes here are incredibly high because she wants this to continue her streak of having an album that sells more than one million copies first week."

George Howard said the success of Swift's new music will be best gauged by what it does for her overall image. A working singer for over 15 years, he said, she will have to cement her status as an entertainment legend with a voice that matters.

"She's also come out politically against Trump, which is a bold-ish statement that she didn't necessarily have to do," said Howard, reflecting on Swift's past year. "All of this is sort of in line with her coming of age, and moving from musician to icon."

However, she will still have to put out music that resonates and feels authentic to her fans.

Whether lyrics like "I'm the only one of me. Baby, that's the fun of me," will help her achieve that impact, remains to be seen. But it's historically proven unwise to bet against Swift: people have also said a country singer would never become the world's biggest pop star before.


Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Senior Education Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a senior education reporter for CBC News. Appearing on The National and CBC Radio, she has previously reported on arts and entertainment, and worked as a current affairs producer.