At the start of 2023, Taylor Swift was undeniably at the top of her game.
17 years after she first burst onto the scene — and seven after her reputation was left in tatters — Taylor had finally righted the wrongs of her past and reached the peak of her career.
In October, the star released Midnights, her most commercially successful album to date. This led to unprecedented demand for her 2023 Eras tour which opened to huge acclaim in March, with critics and fans alike lauding her impressive performance throughout a three-hour, 44-song setlist.
But just seven weeks into her tour, Taylor’s reputation fell apart once again when she embarked on an ill-advised relationship with British singer Matty Healy, who is renowned for his long history of problematic comments and controversial behavior.
On Monday, it was reported that Taylor and Matty’s romance had ended almost exactly one month after the news first broke. But this four-week public affiliation with Matty was all that it took for Taylor to single-handedly undo the years of hard work she'd poured into rebuilding her reputation.
In fact, in a stark contrast to the scandals that she has risen from in the past, Taylor’s relationship with Matty saw her fall out of favor with both pop culture enthusiasts and her most devoted fans — suggesting that this is perhaps the biggest PR disaster that Taylor has ever faced.
Here's how Taylor spent years working tirelessly behind the scenes to finally reach her long-coveted position of beloved global superstar, only to destroy it all in just four weeks.
As she was accepting the award for Video of the Year, the rapper stormed the stage and declared that Beyoncé should have won instead. At the time, it was universally agreed that Taylor was the victim in this situation, with then-president Barack Obama even branding Kanye a "jackass."
But before long, the autobiographical nature of the songwriting that had initially set Taylor apart from other artists, earned her a reputation as a serial dater. And, as her star power grew, the love interests that inspired her songs went from high school boyfriends to her fellow celebrities, reducing her craft to tabloid fodder.
Taylor also faced criticism over the ethics of presenting a one-sided view of her relationships that vilified both men and women in the public eye, including John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Camilla Belle, who she was accused of slut-shaming in one of her songs.
But while actively encouraging speculation around her love life was a key component throughout Taylor’s early career, she had a change of heart in 2014 that coincided with the release of her fifth studio album, 1989.
During this promotional cycle, Taylor admitted that she’d discovered the true meaning of feminism, and was quick to utilize it by calling misogyny on the public perception that surrounded her love life — an apparent bid to detract from the serial dater narrative that she’d now become renowned for.
She also began to surround herself with a “girl squad” as an apparent protest against the dual narratives that she was boy-crazy and not exactly a girls' girl.
However, critics quickly highlighted that the squad felt both performative and exclusionary on account of it predominantly consisting of beautiful, slim, white women whose feminist politics appeared to begin and end with self-serving ideologies.
This was never more apparent than in Taylor's response to Nicki Minaj tweeting about the systemic racism in the music industry after her video failed to receive a nomination at the 2015 MTV VMAs. Taylor immediately centered herself as a victim, and drew on her newfound weapon of misogyny to publicly call Nicki out.
The star tweeted at the time: “I've done nothing but love & support you. It's unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your spot.” In her reply, Nicki pointed out that her original tweet wasn’t even about Taylor, it was simply an observation of a wider issue within the music industry.
Despite apologizing to Nicki, Taylor herself would be accused of pitting women against each other just months later, when she rallied her girl gang to wage war against fellow popstar Katy Perry.
The feud was triggered by Taylor feeling blindsided after some of her backing dancers ditched her tour to join Katy’s instead. She expertly used her music to fuel the media interest in this apparent betrayal while making sure that her version of events was front and center — as seen in her 2014 single “Bad Blood” and its accompanying music video.
But it wasn’t until 2016 that Taylor’s attempts to manipulate the media narrative around her massively backfired, and it was at this point that her career dramatically imploded.
In February of that year, Taylor’s old nemesis Kanye West premiered his song “Famous,” which featured the lyrics: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.”
What happened next is well documented — Kanye claimed Taylor had approved the lyrics, whereas Taylor’s rep said she’d actually “cautioned” Kanye over releasing a song with such a “misogynistic” message. This was a narrative Taylor reiterated at the Grammys soon after, where she referenced the song in her acceptance speech, and warned young women about people who will “take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.”
However, unbeknownst to Taylor, Kanye had recorded their phone conversation about “Famous,” and his then-wife, Kim Kardashian, leaked it to Snapchat that summer. In the recording, Taylor could be heard laughing about the lyrics, and suggesting a plan to reveal that she’d been in on it the whole time on the Grammys red carpet.
In response, Taylor’s rep insisted that the singer hadn’t been made aware of the fact that Kanye would refer to her as a “bitch” in the song, and this context changed everything for her.
After negative stories about him had emerged in the press following their split, Calvin accused Taylor of using the media to keep herself in the headlines. One of his tweets read: “I know you're off tour and you need someone new to try and bury like Katy ETC but I'm not that guy, sorry. I won't allow it.”
This wider context made Kim’s Snapchat leak all the more damning for Taylor, and it proved to be the final nail in the coffin for her fast-declining reputation. As the public rejoiced in calling her a snake and #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trended worldwide, Taylor retreated from the public eye. She wouldn't be seen again for almost a year.
But when returned to the spotlight, it was with a palpable desire to win the public back.
In August 2017, fans noticed that Taylor’s Instagram account had been completely wiped — teasing that something was brewing. Just days later, Taylor leaned into her new internet identity by posting three glitchy videos of a hissing snake.
She showed even more self-awareness in the music video for her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which opened with a cemetery scene and a lingering shot on a gravestone that read: “Here Lie’s Taylor Swift’s Reputation.”
The video was full of references to her newfound notoriety as a snake, and ended with Taylor acknowledging pretty much every other criticism that she has faced over the years in a lineup of her past selves.
Here she expertly poked fun at her “annoying” surprise face before referencing the fact that people think that she is “so fake” and always “playing the victim.”
Taylor’s tactic was simple yet genius; instead of trying to rebrand herself away from the reputation that she had earned in 2016, she was going to own it.
But people still weren't entirely on board. While Taylor was seemingly embracing her villain era, she still failed to actually take accountability for her actions, with "Look What Made Me Do's" title and lyrics deflecting the blame elsewhere.
While Taylor’s 2014 single “Shake It Off” spent 12 weeks at number one before being bumped off by her next single, “Blank Space,” “Look What You Made Me Do” enjoyed just three weeks in the top spot. Her follow-up, “Ready For It,” peaked at number four in the charts, leaving no doubt that Taylor’s star power had faded.
There was evidently work to be done, which Taylor dutifully delivered as she prepared for the release of her aptly-titled album, Reputation, in November. In a huge break from tradition, Taylor decided against any promotional interviews or appearances, and instead marketed it with the tagline: “There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation.”
This vow of silence only fueled the interest in both her life and her music — but people would have to listen to the album to get the answers they wanted.
The songs were certainly satisfying. Reputation consisted of a revealing mix of vengeful songs about the Kimye saga, combined with more emotional reflections on how she recovered.
During her hiatus, Taylor had embarked on a new romance with little-known British actor, Joe Alwyn, and the album was filled with love songs inspired by him.
However, Taylor herself has said that she intended the album to be a "bait and switch." Listeners assumed from the titles and tone of the two lead singles that Reputation would be filled with pure anger over the backlash against her. Instead, the album mainly told a story of blossoming romance.
Choosing to bury the songs about Joe was perhaps the first time she'd ever protected her love life instead of exploiting it for content. And the songs themselves gave insight into Taylor's vulnerability, reminding people that despite all the backlash and snake imagery, she was still only human.
This softer side of Taylor was also seen in Reputation’s accompanying material, which included Target exclusive magazines featuring her poem, “Why She Disappeared,” which exposed Taylor’s more emotional and hurt reaction to her 2016 ordeal in a way that the sassiness of “Look What You Made Me Do” didn’t allow.
Taylor’s expert combination of self-awareness, humor, and vulnerability teamed with her already-established songwriting prowess was a recipe for success, and by the time that her Reputation tour kicked off in May 2018, she was certainly no longer a social pariah in the celebrity world.
Seemingly on a mission to address every misstep of her career so far, 2018 is also when Taylor finally ventured into politics. This was a clear attempt to clean up the outcry around her lack of stance during the 2016 election, where she'd received widespread criticism for failing to use her power and influence to denounce Donald Trump — a stark contrast to other celebrities who were taking action and galvanizing their fanbases.
After a decade of speculation that she was a closet Republican, Taylor made her feelings clear in an emotional Instagram post during the 2018 midterms, where she threw her support behind the democratic candidates.
This sparked a new era for Taylor, and her hyperfixation on social justice became a key part of the promo cycle for her 2019 album, Lover.
Unlike Reputation, Taylor didn’t back away from traditional promotion with Lover, but she was still much more selective over her appearances compared with the 1989 era.
While the reason behind her silence during Reputation’s era was explained in her tag of “there will be no explanation,” Taylor’s decision to scale back promo surrounding Lover could perhaps be attributed to a telltale line from her phone conversation with Kanye back in 2016.
Fresh off the back of the media circus that surrounded 1989, Taylor said to Kanye during the candid conversation: “I think I’m very self-aware about where I am, and I feel like right now I’m like this close to overexposure.”
The comment showed Taylor's hyperawareness over her public image, which is partly why the 2016 saga was so personally damaging for her. But it's also perhaps the reason she has since maintained a perfect balance of building hype around her music without veering into over-saturation.
This more measured approach was reflected in the maturity of Lover.
In contrast to all of her past releases, this album was free from petty feuds or bitter mud-slinging at exes. In fact, the only song seemingly about an ex is Lover's jovial opening track, “I Forgot That You Existed,” which deviates from a typical breakup song with the lyrics: “It isn’t hate, it’s just indifference.”
Lover also didn't require Taylor to drop easter eggs or subtle clues around the identity of each song's subject — her muse was obvious, and this subsequently eliminated the usual tabloid gossip.
And when it came to the love songs on the album, the lyrics were more introspective than ever before. They not only marked the first time Taylor had ever taken full accountability for her actions in her work, but demonstrated a self-awareness she'd been accused of lacking before.
In "Afterglow," and "False God" she takes responsibility for deliberately picking fights with her partner. In "The Archer," she details her insecurities, candidly admitting that a lot of her relationship issues stem from her own immaturity. "I never grew up," she sings, "It's getting so old."
However, despite the growth, this era wasn't without scrutiny. Thematically, the album was about "all forms of love," which allowed a foray into LGBTQ+ advocacy that ultimately triggered backlash and accusations of performative activism.
Lover's second lead single was "You Need To Calm Down" — a rebuttal of the anti-gay rhetoric that was dominating American politics at the time.
But as with her embrace of feminism in the 1989 era, Taylor’s efforts here fell flat for many. While her actions were ultimately lending themselves to good, many were cynical of her intentions and they noted that her decision to speak out had perfectly coincided with the release of a new album.
The messaging was clunky, with Taylor centering herself and appearing to compare her brief experience of being trolled online with the abuse and violence faced by the LGBTQ+ community on a daily basis. Others accused her of using these issues as a trend, and said she was unqualified to speak out on a topic she'd never publicly engaged with before.
But, just as renewed backlash was brewing, COVID-19 hit.
As with the rest of the world, Taylor completely retreated from the public eye during this time and spent most of lockdown hidden away in her London home with Joe.
While maintaining an incredibly low profile, Taylor quietly worked on her music and ended up delighting fans by surprise-dropping two brand new sister albums — Folklore and Evermore — just months apart in 2020.
The surprise element of these releases alone proved to be a power move. Taylor had now completely abandoned her long, drawn out promo cycles of easter eggs and interviews in favor of simply dropping the music without so much as an official lead single.
The songs on these two albums helped Taylor completely redefine herself in the eyes of the wider public. The indie folk-inspired tracks were a complete departure from her usual incredibly mainstream music, which subsequently highlighted her songwriting at its absolute best.
While Taylor had already established herself as a talented popstar who is more than able to deliver a catchy radio hit, the music on Folklore and Evermore asserted her position as a truly prolific and adaptable artist.
In addition, Taylor described the sister albums as being mostly composed of songs about totally fictional people and scenarios in lieu of her usual diaristic work that ultimately courted backlash. Folklore, for example, has a trilogy of songs charting a teenage love triangle, whereas Evermore contains songs told from the perspective of both a murderer and two swindlers.
By keeping the subjects fictional, listeners were able to focus wholly on Taylor’s craft and lyricism instead of overlooking both in favor of identifying the celebrity subject of any given song.
And even the more personal tracks on the albums continued Lover's theme of identifying her own flaws as opposed to deflecting blame. On "Mirrorball," for example, she sings about how hard she tries to attract attention. In "Long Story Short," she admits that her past feuds were "petty," and in "Peace" she acknowledges how difficult it is to be in a relationship with her.
Folklore and Evermore captured Taylor at her creative and personal best, and the low-key releases, shift in genre, and poetic songwriting delighted her most devoted fans while also winning a whole new legion of supporters.
And in an apparent confirmation that these albums were the final piece of the jigsaw that Taylor needed to completely evolve away from the scandals that triggered her downfall, Folklore was awarded Album of the Year at the 2021 Grammys — Taylor’s first Grammy win since her 1989 era prior to her reputation’s demise.
In the wake of Folklore and Evermore's success, Taylor capitalized on her broadened fanbase by releasing the first two of her album rerecords.
She'd initially announced her plan to rerecord her first six albums in 2019, amid a bitter feud with her former record label boss, Scott Borchetta, who refused to allow her to buy her back catalog and instead sold the master recordings to her arch nemesis, Scooter Braun.
By rerecording her masters, Taylor took ownership of her work and undercut the value of the originals. It was a huge undertaking, and Taylor's savvy marketing of the new albums, including everything from never-heard-before songs "from the vault” to short films, ensured the new versions ended up outperforming the originals.
Not only did she win respect for sheer determination to the cause, but also her business acumen that perhaps would've been dismissed as "calculated" or "money-grabbing" at the height of the backlash against her.
Keeping a low profile and ultimately letting her craft and hard work do the talking proved to be the key to Taylor not only reestablishing herself as one of the world’s most beloved stars, but actually exceeding her own past peaks of popularity. And this perfectly set the stage for a grand return to the limelight — something Taylor had been masterminding behind the scenes for months.
The release of Midnights in October catapulted Taylor back into the forefront of public consciousness in spectacular fashion. The album received 186 million streams in its first day, and sold 6 million units in two months.
She became the first musician in history to claim the entire top 10 on the Billboard 100 with songs from the album, and Midnights has since broken 73 other records to date. It's now surpassed the success of 1989 — a career peak that seemed impossible to emulate.
Kicking off the record-breaking Eras tour in March was the ultimate victory lap. After years of PR missteps, public scrutiny, and criticism, Taylor was finally executing the most flawless phase of her career so far. But it wasn’t to last.
When it was reported in April that Taylor’s six year relationship with Joe had come to an end, the good favor that she had spent years earning remained.
In a complete 180 to the way that Taylor’s previous breakups had been received, the overwhelming consensus at the time was sympathy. Gone were the days where Taylor’s relationship choices were the butt of everyone's jokes; instead she was lauded for continuing with the tour amid her heartache, and praised for seemingly embracing the single life as she was papped strutting around New York City surrounded by her closest friends.
But just three weeks after the Taylor and Joe split broke, Taylor was reported to be dating The 1975’s seriously divisive lead singer, Matty.
The two had previously been linked in 2014, and Matty courted backlash two years later when he denied the rumors by insisting that it would be “emasculating” to be Taylor’s boyfriend.
Since then, his controversies have only escalated. Throughout his career, Matty has been repeatedly accused of misogyny, antisemitism, and racism. As recently as in January of this year, he was filmed seemingly doing a Nazi salute on stage.
In February, a podcast that Matty appeared on was removed by Apple Music and Spotify because of his and the hosts’ highly offensive and racist comments about the rapper Ice Spice. In the same podcast, Matty nonchalantly admitted to masturbating to Black women being “brutalized” on an extreme pornography website that is renowned for its controversial videos that have been branded “abuse porn.”
More recently, Matty was spotted in merchandise that supports his friend’s podcast, Red Scare. Matty’s friend, Dasha Nekrasova, and her cohost Anna Khachiyan once devoted half an episode of this very podcast to brutally dragging Taylor by cruelly bodyshaming her and calling her mother "Miss Piggy."
Despite his history of concerning behavior and her recent history of keeping her relationship private, Taylor seemed keen to flaunt her rumored new boyfriend. Just two days after they were linked, Taylor invited Matty to the VIP tent at her Eras tour dates. Here, he appeared cozy with her family as well as her best friends, and before long he was even on stage performing with Taylor’s opening act Phoebe Bridgers.
While Matty and Taylor’s relationship has come and gone with neither of them explicitly commenting on it, they also did nothing to dispel it. They were pictured holding hands, spotted kissing, and filmed looking cozy as they left a party together.
Matty was also seen entering Taylor’s New York City home, and perceptive fans noticed that both stars had mouthed the exact same words during their respective shows in an apparent secret declaration of their love.
During Matty’s May 3 concert, he was seen mouthing “This is about you. You know who you are. I love you,” while on stage. Taylor mouthed the exact same thing during her May 5 show in Nashville.
Needless to say, many of Taylor’s fans were left hurt and disappointed by her decision to associate with Matty considering his problematic history. Understandably, Black, Asian, and Jewish Swifties were particularly devastated.
But as exposé after exposé on the concerning things that Matty had done started to emerge, Taylor remained defiant. Despite constantly teasing that she sees everything that her fans say about her online, she made a point of ignoring the growing offense that her relationship was causing.
If anything, it seems that the upset from her followers led to Taylor doubling down on her decision to date Matty. At one of her May shows — just days after Matty’s comments about masturbating to Black women being “brutalized” had resurfaced — she made the uncharacteristic decision to speak out on her personal life.
In a pointed statement, the star hinted that she was unfazed by the online discourse, saying: “I’ve just never been this happy in my life – in all aspects of my life — ever before.”
In addition, some of Taylor’s defenders weaponized misogyny and attempted to discredit the criticism by arguing that Taylor shouldn’t be held accountable for her boyfriend's actions.
However, it was quickly pointed out that Taylor was being criticized for her own actions — the decision to align herself with someone who had made so many problematic statements diametrically opposed to the views she claims to hold.
Unlike the response to her previous PR fallouts, most of this criticism wasn’t coming from online cynics, critics, or naysayers, but from Taylor's most loyal and dedicated fans. In fact, many of her already marginalized supporters felt so let down by her association with and silence over Matty, that they canceled their pre-orders for her upcoming album, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), and demanded refunds for their tour tickets.
Throughout her career, Taylor has acknowledged that the speculation around her personal life — specifically her romantic relationships — detracts from her craft. And in her six-year relationship with Joe, she proved that it is entirely possible for her to keep this aspect of her life under wraps if she wants to. Which is why Taylor’s decision to let her love life dominate the news-cycle once again feels like regressive self-sabotage.
But perhaps this was always inevitable.
While public opinion and respect for Taylor was at an all time high when she was quietly releasing impressive music and keeping her relationship firmly away from the headlines, her most recent songs highlight an overwhelming desire for fame.
Tracks like “Bejeweled,” where she sings about missing “sparkling,” and “Midnight Rain,” where she describes “chasing” fame at all costs, have made it clear that being successful isn’t enough: she wants icon status, and that’s incumbent on media attention. But, as the controversy with Matty proves, this yearning could be her ultimate downfall.
While the relationship may have now ended, Taylor's silence is damning.
If she wants Matty to be anything other than a permanent stain on her reputation, she needs to address her fans' valid criticisms and concerns head on.
Otherwise, Taylor risks losing all of the adoration that she's worked so hard to finally achieve — and that she desperately desires above all else.