Review Summary: Here lies Taylor Swift's reputation.
“Go ahead and light me up,” Taylor Swift sings on the chorus to “I Did Something Bad”, her voice a distorted middle finger as another Max Martin & Shellback EDM-lite track lifts off, the sound of a hundred thousand dollars in production burning like so much kindling. And so it was done. If the rollout to Reputation
was designed to evoke the strongest possible backlash from the world at large – and not the four million guaranteed fans that clogged up iTunes server at the stroke of midnight Friday – it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. “Look What You Made Me Do” was the fifth No. 1 single of Swift’s career, despite everything about it, from the Zapruder film-esque, cluttered music video to the Right Said Fred chorus, being almost universally mocked. It was also a notable failure, having been kicked out of the number one spot within three weeks to make room for the new wave of pop music, artists like Post Malone and Logic. Follow-up singles “…Ready For It",” “Gorgeous,” and “Call It What You Want” have largely suffered the same fate, breaking into the mainstream consciousness largely to be laughed at before drowning into the back half of the Hot 100. Part of this is her songwriting, which has rarely seemed more out of touch. “…Ready For It” sinks a potentially huge hook with an obnoxious, stiff beat and Swift’s questionable rapping, and the various problems sabotaging “Look What You Made Me Do” have been clicked to death. Both “Gorgeous” and “Call It What You Want” are certainly improvements, particularly the respectably odd, throwback vibe to the spacey production on “Gorgeous”, but neither made a dent in the charts.
New York Times
writer Jon Caramanica once said, writing about 1989
, that Swift’s appeal is based on writing music that stakes its claim to a period “when pop was less hybrid”: read, not so much of that damn hip-hop. That perspective, a natural outgrowth of her Nashville roots and reticence to write songs about anything other than falling for someone or falling apart, was only reinforced by the events of the past week or so, where buckets of virtual ink were spilled about the American alt-right’s attraction to Swift and her music as symbols of white purity. Swift’s response – or, rather, her lawyer’s response – was embarrassingly tone deaf and exacerbated what was largely a manufactured issue, but it highlighted something that hasn’t gone unnoticed about Swift. The only controversy she prefers to court revolves around her, and only her. She is an industry unto herself. This is the focus of some of her best songs, and a blind spot in her music that the new faces of the Hot 100 have taken advantage of. Pop in 2017 is
hip-hop, and is marked by a social awareness of a particularly fraught time in Swift’s home country, where artists are almost expected to take a stand about something, politically or otherwise. That has never been Swift’s bag – her biggest stands have been against Katy Perry, John Mayer (RIP), and Kanye West, who still merits a couple veiled shout outs here.
tackles one of these problems by finally giving into hip-hop as a noticeable influence on her own songwriting, although with a first single like “Look What You Made Me Do,” you almost wished she hadn’t. Much of the album is geared towards the club, most successfully the bruising wall of sound Martin & Shellback stuff into “I Did Something Bad” and the gospel-tinged, wobbly “Don’t Blame Me”, which begs for a more nimble voice than Swift can give. Where once Swift released landmark albums that set how pop radio was going to sound for the next year or so, Reputation
is a hodgepodge of styles that have been percolating around the mainstream for years, repackaged into a shiny, expensive-sounding vehicle for Swift’s lyrics and sizable cult of personality. Take “Delicate,” a different beast from the bangers that surround it. Wispy, sensual production helps along a gorgeous melody and the first set of lyrics where the Swift of old peeks out, somewhat confident but more or less scared sh
itless at getting her heart broken. Yet for all its beauty, it sounds like pop choose-your-own-adventure, a song Max Martin could have given to anyone with a pulse and made a hit.
To the extent Swift’s rather narrow lyrical worldview is a problem – and there will be millions of reasons why it isn’t by the time the weekend is out – Reputation
will do little to assuage her critics. “I swear I don’t love the drama – it loves me!” Swift sings on “End Game”, an awkward partnership with Future and Ed Sheeran where Sheeran unsurprisingly comes off as the whitest person in the club. If “Look What You Made Me Do” and “…Ready For It"” didn’t make it blindingly obvious, Swift’s favorite subject is still Taylor Swift. Yet, a year into her latest relationship, Reputation
is remarkably mature when it doesn’t revel in trivial mudslinging (the target of the bombastic “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is hopefully the last in a long line of ex-friends), instead saving its sharpest barbs for Swift herself and taking her first lyrical steps to claiming sexual agency. The woman singing about “scratches down her back” on “So It Goes…” is light years beyond the girl who sang about fairy tales in songs like “Enchanted” and “Wildest Dreams.” Best is “Dress”, one of Jack Antonoff’s tracks with a rather forward chorus and a retro vibe that would sound at home on the new Jessie Ware record. Antonoff’s songs generally dominate a more emotionally exposed second half, with the exception of the bubbly, lovely echo chamber of “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” and it’s thankfully less of a pity party than an honest exploration of navigating your mid twenties. In tracks like the introspective “Call It What You Want” and flawed, blurry love story of “Getaway Car,” there’s a hint of a softer Reputation
, one less concerned with proving itself and more content to chart a woman’s growth.
That’s why it’s slightly less of a surprise when Reputation
, that posturing, catty, Hot Topic-artwork album, ends with “New Year’s Day.” It’s the kind of spartan, acoustic track that was Swift’s bread and butter in her earlier albums but has steadily been phased out in favor of maximalist pop. Subverting the trope of the single, irredeemably cheesy piano ballad, the song is that rare Swift portrait of a well-worn love, both musically and lyrically subtle and all the more beautiful for it. Few relationships burn as bright or explode as violently as Swift’s most famous songs; much more common is the slow smoldering of “New Year’s Day,” where Swift wakes up terribly hungover on the worst day of days – another whole goddamn year ahead – and can still find solace in the person next to her, cleaning up all the spilled beer and vomit. The quiet confidence of “New Year’s Day” belies what can often be a schizophrenic album, Swift mired in a tenacious history and, yes, her own reputation, and struggling to find something fresh to call her own. Swift’s flaws have never been more finely catalogued, raked over in tortuous detail. In many ways, Reputation
is a failure. But fu
cking up until you find something that works is what being 27 is all about. In that respect, Reputation
is the only album its creator could have made.