In the video for Taylor Swift’s new single—the first off her next album—the polarizing superstar tries on a number of new looks. She hoists a boombox, Radio Raheem-style, beside some breakdancing hip-hop heads. She pirouettes with some ballerinas, sporting a tutu straight out of Black Swan. She dons a sparkly tracksuit apparently meant to convey some sort of EDM kid. She almost twerks. (Her new album is called 1989, but her references don’t exactly stick to that year.)
If this all sounds cringe-inducingly awkward, that’s the point. Taylor Swift may be one of the most popular stars in the world, but for years her appeal has been based on her insistence that she’s not like the popular girls. She’s not one of the “cool kids,” she tells us on “22.” She’s not some indie-record-listening hipster, as she tells us on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Or as she put it on the self-defining “You Belong With Me”: “She wears high heels/ I wear sneakers/ She’s cheer captain/ And I’m on the bleachers.”
Here the looks are different, but the game remains the same. If some, recalling that last line, see Swift dressed up as a cheer captain in “Shake It Off” and think it’s a betrayal, they should look again. She’s getting hit in the face by pompoms. She’s fumbling all her moves. She would make a terrible cheer captain, the video tells us, just like you and me. Later, when she’s shaking her booty beside some twerking dancers (batten down for the think pieces) she positions herself as the anti-Miley. The message isn’t that she’s down with them. The message is that she could never appropriate something like twerking and make it convincing. Everyone knows she’s a bad dancer, so she gave her haters a whole video of bad dancing. Or, as the chorus puts it, “Haters gonna hate/ I’m just gonna shake it off.”
Which brings us to the one look you won’t see in Swift’s new video: country star. In a live-streamed announcement just before the music video dropped, Swift referred to her next album as her “first pop album.” We’ve known this was coming for a while, despite all Nashville’s pleas for its biggest star to stay. If Red was her breakup album with country, this is our first look at what Taylor Swift looks like when she’s untethered to any one genre.
So the video gives us all these new looks—and leaves the old one behind—but it’s meant to reassure her tens of millions of fans that, deep down, she’s still just the same. She’s still happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time. It’s up to you whether that’s miserable or magical.