Route No. 1: play the heel
To her detractors, Taylor Swift has always been a villain. Ever since she broke into the mainstream with Fearless in 2008, her public persona has been predicated on calculation, maintenance, and control. In a pop-music landscape that claims to prize authenticity, that type of cautious management tends to resonate as forced to skeptics, and fake to people who Swift would probably refer to as "haters."
In a 2011 New Yorker profile, writer Lizzie Widdicombe noted, "Swift's aura of innocence is not an act, exactly, but it can occasionally belie the scale of her success." In 2016, it's officially an act -- and an old one at that. The events of the last couple weeks strongly indicate she needs new schtick. While it's difficult to imagine her label, corporate sponsors, or PR team jumping on board with the idea, her next phase could be incredible. You already know what I'm taking about: a pro-wrestling Hollywood Hogan-style heel turn that sees her embracing the role she was born to play.
[Cue the Jimi Hendrix N.W.O. music.]
Like Hogan in the mid-'90s, Swift has reached the height of her profession, won all the shiny championship belts, and has never been more popular, but an exhaustion has set in. As many critics have pointed out, the performative #squad feminism of the 1989 tour often bordered on self-parody. It's telling that Swift mentions "overexposure" in her leaked conversation with West. She knows she's teetering on the edge. And, like the Hulkster, she loves bandannas.
A heel turn wouldn't be completely out of character for her, either. The 1989 release cycle included two videos, "Bad Blood" and "Blank Space," with darker, more sardonic themes than the sun-speckled, aw-shucks clips for older hits like "You Belong With Me" and "22." At this year's Met Gala, she dressed like a character out of a William Gibson novel. Her new bleach-blonde hair has a Bond-villain quality. And she's been doing preliminary work establishing herself as a villain for years: just ask John Mayer, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Carrie Underwood, Ed Droste, Bob Lefsetz, and whoever killed her in that one episode of CSI.
Plus, in the Kardashians, Swift has the perfect foil. The Kardashians are skilled at playfully acknowledging, subverting, and poking fun at the artifice of celebrity life. They tell you how to eat a Kit Kat bar. They release coffee-table books filled with selfies called Selfish. They thrive on the chaos of social media. While Swift's previous controversies have often hinged on public embarrassment and relationship drama, thereby making it easy for her to position herself as a victim, these recent scandals stem from backroom deals, media manipulation, and gigantic egos: the stuff of villainy. Embrace it, Taylor!