“I’ve been in the public eye since I was 15 years old. On the beautiful, lovely side of that, I’ve been so lucky to make music for a living and look out into crowds of loving, vibrant people. On the other side of the coin, my mistakes have been used against me, my heartbreaks have been used as entertainment, and my songwriting has been trivialized as ‘oversharing.’
When this album comes out, gossip blogs will scour the lyrics for the men they can attribute to each song, as if the inspiration for music is as simple and basic as a paternity test. There will be slideshows of photos backing up each incorrect theory because it’s 2017 and if you didn’t see a picture of it, it couldn’t have happened right?” — Taylor Swift, “reputation (prologue)”
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date, but about two or three years ago, Taylor Swift simply stopped existing as a human being.
You may see photographs or videos of her looking like a regular person and she may act like your run-of-the-mill girl-next-door multi-millionaire pop star, but apparently, she has stopped carrying on like a member of the human race, instead transforming into a being that exists entirely for whatever narrative you want to make out of her. She turned into anything you wanted her to be: an example of everything
that’s right (or wrong) with modern pop feminism, an idol for the alt-right, an unspoken pillar of the political zeitgeist, the very embodiment of embracing victimhood to preserve her own image, or a vindictive monster whose only move to get back at her most prominent adversary was to obviously release her new album on the 10th anniversary of the passing of Kanye West’s mother. Again, she serves whatever purpose you want her to, because she’s not a human anymore: she’s a talking point.
Even after releasing the music video to her critically-drubbed chart-topper “Look What You Made Me Do” — viewed as many as a diss on countless targets even without having one of them named explicitly — she concludes it by
having all of her previous personas argue with each other, trying to convince the world that for all the controversies she’s been embroiled in, Taylor Swift remains self-aware (even if the result comes off as merely self-reflexive). Few pop stars have been able to conjure up so much controversy in such a short span of time while still winning boatloads of Grammys and selling millions upon millions of albums, proving that as she weathers through all of these headlines, Taylor Swift remains one of the most singularly powerful forces in the music industry. Thus, what narrative do you want Taylor to fit in for you today?
Despite baiting her critics by calling her new album Reputation, the resulting product is remarkable, almost astoundingly average. While the headline remains her embrace of harder, harsher electronic textures this time out — itself a break from the warm free-spirited ’80s pop homages that dotted 1989 — Reputation continues to play all of her usual themes of almost-romances and having good times with bad boys. While 1989 had the dubious honor of containing both her worst song (“Bad Blood”, any iteration) and her undeniable best (the deluxe edition track “New Romantics”, later turned into a single in its own right), stripping away all of the digital bombast and pop characterizations reveals Reputation to be surprisingly affable, Swift playing it safe and putting out a collection of songs that state their case, casually leave, and end up being pretty inoffensive to all. It’s not a game-changer, but it’s also far from a disaster. Remove that EDM gossamer, and you’re left with a solid, flawed little pop album, end of story.
Admittedly, there are a few songs that rival “Look What You Made Me Do” in terms of pure misguided intent (the hip-hop posturing on the Ed Sheeran and Future feature “End Game”, the bratty “Roar”/”Brave”-styled “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”), but with go-to producers Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff in tow, every track has a loving if somewhat cold electro sheen combed over it, and sometimes the results are wonderful. “Don’t Blame Me” is a dark number cloaked in strobe-ready synth wubs as Swift bemoans over how crazy her newest lover made her — par for the course here in the land of Swift. Additionally, “Getaway Car” could have easily been included on
1989 without anyone blinking an eye, those synth washes in the back of the chorus screaming ’80s homage while the post-bridge bed of strings she lands on proving to be a nice (if expected) Antonoff-y touch.
While her more playful numbers like “Gorgeous” and the aforementioned “Nice Things” have her talking about how she’s been “feeling so Gatsby for that whole year”, the overriding vibe here is romantic escapism, sometimes with a heavy dose of seriousness added in for good measure. “Dress”, itself a pretty obvious copy of “Two Weeks” by FKA Twigs, has some of her most provocative lyrics yet, describing a nervousness and yearning we haven’t seen from her before. “Only bought this dress you could take it off” is about as forward as Swift has ever been on record, and her exploration of these new themes makes for some of Reputation‘s most compelling moves. When she sticks to her boy-crazy schtick or does some winking media clap back (like with the line “I swear I don’t love the drama / It loves me” from “End Game”), she ends up dating herself, which is a shame given that there are a few times when she pushes her art into the confines of a potential Top 40 hit and absolutely succeeds with the result.
Take “So It Goes…”, for example. Lost in a hazy wave of underwater keyboards, Swift sounds almost lost, mysterious; recalling moody experimental pieces like “Blue Ocean Floor” off of Justin Timberlake’s
The 20/20 Experience. It’s the farthest sonic Swift has explored outside of her wheelhouse — it could’ve easily fit on a White Sea album — but despite indulging her habit of repeating a line she thinks is so clever ad nauseum (in this case: “You did a number on me / But, honestly, baby, who’s counting?”), Swift’s understated vocal performance absolutely sells the track, creating a tone and perspective that’s curious, open-hearted, and inviting. She pulls this trick off again during closer “New Year’s Day”, an unadorned piano number where she’ll be with her man through all the ups and downs that life has to offer. “I want your midnights” makes for a great standalone line, and with these two songs together, it feels that perhaps Swift can move beyond the confusing posturing of tracks like “…Ready for It?” by ignoring the drama surrounding her instead and resist her impulse of constantly feeling the need to comment on all of it.
Reputation still has its fair share of passable fare just like any moderately successful pop album would have (see “Call It What You Want” and the propulsive mid-tempo number “Dancing With Our Hands Tied”). But pointing out its musical references or repeated themes almost beside the point, because those that “see through” her fake persona will point out how much a rip-off artist she is while her devoted and unrelenting fans will take issue that even with 15 tracks, this album could’ve been so much longer. Reputation will end up being another glaring piece of evidence that fits in perfectly with whatever spin someone is trying to sell, but maybe in a couple of decades when we look back at it all, we’ll see it for what it is: a solid if unspectacular set of pop songs. And who knows: maybe if we can reach that conclusion together, maybe we can let her go back to being a human again.