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Taylor Swift’s ‘“Slut!”’ and the Evolution of a Pop Star Feminist

A few weeks ago, when Taylor Swift revealed the names of the “From the Vault” bonus tracks that would appear on the rereleased “Taylor’s Version” of her blockbuster 2014 album “1989,” one title stood out, encased in quotations and emphasized with an exclamation mark: “‘Slut!’”

That barbed, loaded word is one that Swift has never before used in a song, and it would have been a shock to hear her sing it in the “1989” era, when she was a 24-year-old former teen star carefully calibrating her public transition into adulthood and pop superstardom. Like every Swift album before and since, “1989” was scrutinized for the slightest hints of sexuality and perceived moral transgression; save for the errant “damn” and “hell,” it was deemed sufficiently — almost suspiciously, her critics thought, for a woman her age — clean.

On a few moments of “1989,” Swift gestured toward the public fascination with her love life (the “long list of ex-lovers” on “Blank Space”; the accusation in “Shake It Off,” that she goes “on too many dates”). But she kept her language safely PG, and kept her anger, if she had any over the way she was portrayed in the media, buried beneath the surface.

Now in her mid-30s, Swift is revisiting the album that made her a global phenomenon, and with it those five previously unreleased, newly recorded vault tracks. Sonically, they’re more in line with “Midnights,” her moody, verbose 2022 album, than the taut, sparkling pop of “1989.” The standouts are two sharply written, synth-driven relationship post-mortems: the surging “Is It Over Now?” and, even better, the pulsating “Now That We Don’t Talk,” where Swift sizes up an ex with sharp lines like, “I don’t have to pretend that I like acid rock, or that I’d like to be on a mega yacht/With important men who think important thoughts.”

And then there’s “‘Slut!’” Those expecting Swift to go full riot grrrl — like the Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, who would sometimes perform with that word provocatively scrawled on her stomach — probably shouldn’t have judged a song by its title. “‘Slut!’” is a dreamy, mid-tempo reverie that combines florid, rainbow-hued imagery (“Flamingo pink, Sunrise Boulevard”) with moments of casual social commentary (“I’ll pay the price,” she says to a man of their tryst, “you won’t”). That titular syllable is exhaled breathily on the chorus and later, as the song’s intensity builds, shouted like a slur from the cheap seats. “If they call me a slut,” she sings, in a love-struck, lavender haze, “you know it might be worth it for once.”

That lyric feels flippant, even half-baked. Though the song is self-aware and occasionally insightful about the double standard Swift experienced as a young woman in the public eye, its edge is blunted by the way it centers the salvation of romance, as if the affection of a decent man — “In a world of boys,” Swift swoons, “he’s a gentleman” — can rescue a woman from the systemic scrutiny of sexism.

But it’s also important to remember where, in 2014, Swift was in her evolution. After distancing herself from the word “feminist” as late as 2012, she had only recently begun identifying as one, thanks in part, she said at the time, to conversations with her friend Lena Dunham. Two years later, when she shot a video for Vogue’s “73 Questions” series, Swift was asked what advice she had for her younger self. “If I could talk to myself at 19, I would say, ‘Hey, you’re gonna date just like a normal 20-something should be allowed to do, but you’re going to be a national lightning rod for slut-shaming.”

“Slut” was generally the subtext of the way Swift was talked about then, though it was rarely a term hurled explicitly in her direction. Her whiteness protected her from certain kinds of scrutiny — contrast the perception of Swift with that of Amber Rose, who in 2015 organized her own version of a “SlutWalk” protest in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault — and she also seemed to have been censoring parts of herself to appeal to the widest possible audience. “Shake It Off” may have hinted at the effects of “slut-shaming,” but it was still wholesome enough to appear on the soundtrack of the 2016 animated children’s movie “Sing,” in which it was performed by an anthropomorphic pig voiced by Reese Witherspoon.

“‘Slut!’” is not a great Taylor Swift song, though it is an interesting one. Given that her more recent work has come to critique and revise the fairy tale stories her music once told, I don’t think it’s a song she would have written today. But I prefer it to the “Taylor’s Version” of her 2010 song “Better Than Revenge,” in which a line that was perceived as Swift’s own “slut-shaming” of another woman was replaced with a more benign lyric. For all its messiness, this track feels like a more honest snapshot of who she was at a certain moment in time — a young woman, wielding words, still figuring it all out.

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