Taylor Swift had a message for her fans on Sunday night at the Billboard Music Awards: The Old Taylor Swift isn't dead after all.
Last fall, Taylor Swift put forth a good-girl-gone-bad persona with the release of her sixth studio album, Reputation, with singles like “Look What You Made Me Do.” Her lyrics did nothing but play up—and dig into—the rumored feuds between her and stars like Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
The album has an urban, club-anthem ring to it, and the clothing she’s worn to promote it follows suit. The “Look What You Made Me Do” video contains over-the-waist fishnet tights, sky-high Christian Louboutin boots, Balmain dresses, Gucci swag, and even a sexy biker-chic moment. On stage, she’s kept it decidedly edgier, with black, rhinestone-studded body suits, tees, sweatshirts, and chunky boots, a far cry from her ever-so-girly and prim 1989 aesthetic. Her hair is messy, wet, relatable.
At the Billboard Awards, we expected Swift to hit the red carpet in something risqué and capital F Fashion. How about a scintillating Alexander Vauthier lamé dress a la Dua Lipa, or maybe a belted, wrap-around number akin to Christina Aguilera’s 16 Arlington piece, a dress that screamed, “I’m back, bitch.”
Instead, Swift turned up in a spring 2018 rose-colored Atelier Versace gown that looks like it could have been plucked from her very own archive. Don’t get me wrong—the dress is gorgeous. Donatella’s one-shoulder, intricately embroidered and feathered gown featured a floor-grazing train plus a thigh-high slit that could rival any of J.Lo’s. But there was no trace of Reputation's badass glam.
As Swift wrote herself, the look was “delicate," which itself is a bit of a nod to her song of the same name, in which she bereaves her soiled reputation. But it was nonetheless soft and untouchable. Her loosely styled updo plus that iconic red lip would have gotten her publicist’s approval during her Red phase (remember when she was drama-free, just "feelin' 22"?). The look is sexy, yes, but Swift is a pop star making a red carpet comeback after 2 long years, and for her, this is subdued.
Sure, we may have momentarily thought Reputation was the “f— you” anthem of 2017, but nah—at the album’s core, it's replete with cute, boppy pop songs, ones that make you want to think about your crush and, if you dare, sip an Aperol Spritz. The narrative of the New Taylor is engaging and refreshing, but as she proved with her romantic look on Sunday, the Old Taylor is still alive and kicking—thriving even.
Though she didn't give an outright statement as to why she chose the BBMAs as the event for her red carpet return, we can conjecture that it was as an honor to her fans. Unlike other awards shows, nominations and wins for the Billboard Awards are based on numbers and statistics like radio time, song sales, streaming, social engagement, and data pieced together by Billboard plus Nielsen Music and Next Big Sound. She earned her two wins, and it was all thanks to Swifties—not an arbitrary committee of industry elites casting ballots in a boardroom.
Rather than dip into her drama (just this month, she snubbed Kim Kardashian on stage), Swift kept it cool during her acceptance speeches. “I haven’t been to an awards show in a few years and it is so nice to be here tonight,” she said, thanking the other women in the Top Female Artist category. Later, she focused on her fans.
“When I was making Reputation, this album, for a while there I was feeling really misunderstood by a lot of people. So I want to say to the fans, thank you for continuing to show up. We just started our tour last week and the ways that you’ve cared about me and the ways that you’ve treated me—thank you for making me feel understood again.”
The Versace dress was angelic, its pinkish tint was the definition of feminine, and her nearly perfect hair and makeup was a departure from the small risks she’s taking to promote Reputation. If only for one night, it’s as though Swift was telling her fans not to worry, telling them she’ll always be the same.
Before the show began, host Kelly Clarkson opened with an emotional—and very off-script—rallying call for action against gun violence. She told live audiences that while Billboard organizers asked her to introduce a moment of silence for the victims of the deadly school shooting in Santa Fe last week, she couldn’t stay silent. She was compelled to look straight into the camera and beg our politicians for change. Even Bebe Rexha, a lesser known but rising pop starlet, made a politically-minded statement while introducing a performance by Shawn Mendes, Khalid (himself in an anti-gun violence tee), and singers and survivors of the Parkland shooting.
Swift, on the other hand, stayed mum on the subject. (She rarely stands up for social causes, and in fact shocked the world when she expressed support for the March for Our Lives protest in March). Instead, the pop star arrived in her pretty-in-pink Versace dress, ready to win, ready to secure her bubble gum reputation. For Swift, everything is always coming up roses.