Taylor Swift
Reputation


4.5
superb

Review

by solrage USER (1 Reviews)
February 27th, 2019 | 24 replies


Release Date: 2017 | Tracklist

Review Summary: She's not a saint, and she's not what you think, she's an actress. (whoa)

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." – TS Eliot

What Eliot said is largely true of the other arts as well, yet authenticity seems a near-universal criterion for positively judging music artists these days. We have no room for fakers, poseurs, actors, pretenders, phonies, and frauds. Accusations of being inauthentic are omnipresent, and perhaps inevitable when artists draw inspiration from their own life; but the key to understanding art is in how the transformation of experience, emotion, and personality into art happens. Whether those things are wholly, partially, or not-at-all those of the artists is irrelevant to the success of that endeavor.

This preamble is unusually pertinent to an album that’s about the notion of reputation, of how others see you and conflate that perception of the person with the art. Even the stark, black & white cover echoes the binary view that people have on the subject: this album either is Taylor or it’s not. While the “old Taylor” of 1989 is “dressed up in pastel,” (and perhaps “dead”) this one’s donning the seriousness of a reputable, monochromatic newspaper; or maybe it’s so much fake news.

The opening track title questions whether we’re ready for the new(s)ness before we even get the bass-heavy, three-note, tonic synth-stomp intro of the music and Taylor’s quasi-rapped delivery. The bridge introduces a higher 5th and a dotted rhythm vocally, while the first major change happens in the chorus. The heaviness is replaced by airy, echoing synths as the melody dances around in the higher 2nd to 6th degrees of the E-minor scale in Swift’s head-voice, before plunging back into the opening.

This first song isn’t a masterpiece, yet it does reveal much of her approach to songwriting craft—something that’s almost always ignored in favor of analyzing lyrical content and her “reputation.” Yet lyrics should only matter to the degree in which they inform the musical choices: Why the heaviness?Why the rapping?The opening lyrics are a clue: “Knew he was a killer first time that I saw him…” The hip-hop inspired rhythmic approach reinforces the mock-drama metaphor here: if he’s going to be a killer, she can hardly be defending herself against such threats with weak, fluffy pop. The higher 5th and dotted rhythm in the bridge is a favorite rhetorical device of Swift’s, indicating a significant change, here the literal opposite of the verse: 1st to lower 5th VS 1st to higher 5th. Lyrically, it’s her realization when she “sees” (the dotted-5th word) “how this is gonna go.” The chorus departs from the mock-combative “real” relationship into the fantasy: “In the middle of the night, in my dreams,” and the music obliges by changing tone.

Most criticism of this track divorces the music from the lyrics, the tone from the drama. “The music is Swift feebly dabbling in hip-hop (and EDM); the lyrics are just about another relationship; the tone is Swift trying to be ‘hip’ and ‘edgy’ and ‘modern.’” The musical criticism is arguably true—Swift has never been a sonic innovator, preferring instead to adopt existing styles; the lyrical criticism is also true; the tone criticisms are misguided as Swift will always be as hip as a mullet, as edgy as a Frisbee, and modern as an Atari. The drama—or creative concept underlying the song— is ignored entirely; and that’s the shame, because it’s really that element that informs everything else. Separate they’re all fairly subject to negative critique, but together they make up something more than the sum of the parts.

On that level, Reputation is a more interesting album than 1989. 1989 was perfect pop, the kind of album that only someone with Swift’s preternatural melodic gifts could’ve achieved. Yet its one weakness was that it lacked the dramatic songwriting prowess of the above. This was natural given it was Swift’s first complete break from her country roots, so she played it a bit safe by doing what she did best.

This sonic/dramatic experimentation is everywhere in the album’s first half. “I Did Something Bad” is another exemplary touchstone. Notice how the lyric “I never trust a narcissist” quickly transitions into the narcissistic “I play ‘em like a violin / and I make it look oh-so-easy,” with the last four syllables a sardonic, whole-note march down the G-minor scale landing on the tonic. This quick-turn hypocrisy is one clue that Swift is being ironic, even if it’s at the expense of herself, and will be a hallmark of the album. “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is the most obviously ironic, obviously humorous track here, its playful tone on full display musically, lyrically, and vocally; from the syllabically detached “da-rling” (making the “da” sound like “duh!”), to the bass beat that rattles the chandelier on cue to the lyric, to, of course, the “I can’t even say it with a straight face” spoken word break. Truth be told, I can’t keep a straight face either, donning a big, goofy grin every time I hear it.

In this vein, “Look What You Made Me Do” is the pièce de résistance of the album. A track universally mocked (even reviled) upon its release in my estimation because Taylor Swift pushed the sonic/dramatic irony to such an extreme that everyone felt the punch while the punch line went over their starry-eyed heads. From the opening chimes and pizzicato strings it’s clear we’re in the realm of fantasy—a dark, twisted one—already lending an ironic touch to the low-key, minimal verses of Taylor “not (liking) your little games,” while humorously/hypocritically playing her own games musically. The bridge speeds up with pounding keyboards and an almost shrilly-high vocal harmony building anticipatory energy with the Rocky Balboa-esque “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time.” After that, one would expect the chorus to land with a triumphant boom, but instead it drops out with a thudding Right Said Fred beat and the titular refrain. If there’s every been a better bait-and-switch in popular music I can’t think of one, and I’ve yet to figure out whether the musical joke—which is utterly intentional; the music video is the dead giveaway—or the reaction to it—with so many taking it so seriously—is funnier. That Swift manage to take to ultimate tongue-in-cheek ode to narcissism (“I’m Too Sexy”) and inject it into the end of a hate-on-haters-verse and self-congratulatory-pump-up bridge is a kind of comic brilliance that’s hen’s-teeth rare in mainstream pop.

The album’s second half, however, finds Swift in more familiar territory, but with consistent excellence. “Delicate” and “Gorgeous” are among the most delicate and gorgeous songs in Swift’s discography. “So It Goes” and “King of My Heart” are moodier takes on 1989’s style. “Getaway Car” is classic Swiftian storytelling, and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” is classic Swiftian melodic/rhythmic progression. No revelations, but every track uniquely superb.

From experiment, to tradition, to the final third’s synthesis, and some of the best efforts here. “Dress” in particular is a stunner, where the new-found lyrical sexuality is matched with a new-found musical sensuality. The understated verse, so soft-spoken as to hint at a kind of nakedness itself, transitions to a brilliant bridge, highlighting the “pining and anticipation” with a steady quarter-note pulse in patterns of two-tonics (C), a falling 6th (A), and a final C/A; then slight variations, each adding to the anxiety, until finally ascending in half-whispered, half-orgasmically sighing “Ah” up the scale, past the higher tonic to the 2nd (D), suggesting a kind of orgasmic release. The chorus keeps us in that state, with its chiming background synths and the most ethereal vocals of Swift’s career.

“Call it What You Want” is the best celebration of her new relationship and her finest lyrical moment on the album—the restrained music perfectly matching the confidence she’s found. I especially appreciate the progression from “My castle crumbled overnight” to “I'm laughing with my lover, making forts under covers;” suggesting that the love—not unlike art and music—will always be the ultimate sanctuary from reality’s storms. “New Year’s Day” strips it back even further—just a piano at the start. The song’s lack of a slick production adding a hungover, sobered tone to a song about being hungover, sober, and reflecting on what’s important in life with another year ahead of you. It’s a tantalizing glimpse at what an entire album of Taylor Swift in an indie (“records much cooler than hers”), demo-like mode could be.

Swift’s discography has thus far shown a three-album pattern of “tentative steps forward” (Debut/Red), “perfection of the new formula” (Fearless/1989), and “experimentation with the new formula” (Speak Now/Reputation); but even more so than Speak Now, Reputation finds Swift trying to find ways to match new lyrical personas/dramas to new musical styles with new tonal possibilities. The combination of sonic-seeming-seriousness with lyrical and musical hints at humor is, especially, one thing that makes this album more tonally complex than 1989, and I dare say any in her discography; but it also may be the very thing that’s prevented it from being appreciated. Too many have critiqued the actor, or perhaps the character, rather than the performance and the drama. In looking for the black-and-white answer to the question of whether the Old Taylor’s dead, of whether she’s being “authentic,” people have completely missed the kaleidoscopic colors and nuances in the art; the part where lyrics, music, and sound come together to make something that’s deeper and more vibrant than any simplistic notions of authenticity.


user ratings (387)
2.3
average
other reviews of this album
Rudy K. STAFF (3)
Here lies Taylor Swift's reputation....

gryndstone (3)
Her own self fulfilling prophecy....

NessieKV (3.5)
The old Taylor is not all dead yet but she might be becoming a stranger we could recognize anywhere...

Lauren J. Paulson (2)
How much do you care about bad reputation?...


Comments:Add a Comment 
solrage
February 26th 2019


58 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Would appreciate any constructive criticism, especially on shortening this. I know it's too long, but I already cut about 400 words from the first draft.

mynameischan
Staff Reviewer
February 26th 2019


989 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

well-written. good job.



as you said, it's way too long. i have one simple suggestion for cutting it down: don't talk about every song. i have written reviews without ever mentioning track titles. obviously you don't need to go that far, but part of becoming a better critic as opposed to a better writer (which you don't need too much help with) is developing a skill for describing the overall feel or mood of an album without having to resort to so many track descriptions.



also, put some quotation marks around song titles

StrikeOfTheBeast
February 27th 2019


8382 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

The first few paragraphs before you went into a track-by-track like style were really well written and give a good perspective on what this album was probably aiming to do that people overlooked, letalone the philosophy behind it. Like chan said though, it is too long and could've went without the track-by-track style. If many songs share a similar style, idea, or theme, you could use the songs as examples rather than describe every track word for word.. I'll give you a pos' for top notch terminology and a killer first few paragraphs including your description of the opening track.

solrage
February 27th 2019


58 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thanks for the kudos and the suggestions. I basically tried to chunk the middle of the album into one paragraph so I could elaborate on everything else I found interesting, which ended up just being too much still, and I (obviously) suck at editing.



Am I missing where you can edit the review?

mynameischan
Staff Reviewer
February 27th 2019


989 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

the edit option is in your profile under the profile picture

solrage
February 27th 2019


58 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thanks. Will give this another good look-over tomorrow when I'm fresher and really try to shave at least another few hundred words.

Scheumke
February 27th 2019


1277 Comments


I'd advice you not to change it that much tbh. In the same vein that people always say 'keep your first painting'. It will give you something tangable to look back to and see how you've grown as a critic and as a writer. Just learn from it and try to incorporate the feedback into your next review!

Digging: Type O Negative - October Rust

solrage
February 27th 2019


58 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Well, I did heavily edit it anyway. I didn't completely eliminate the track-by-track, but I did trim everything up and, I think, create a better thematic flow. Basically it's gone from 2400 words down to 1600.



I've actually been writing criticism in some form for over 20 years. I started about 12-13 with music, but in my 20s I mostly switched to film criticism. I wrote for several websites that are now defunct. Back then I was regularly writing 2000+ words a day, typically for multiple films, but I'd also write extended analyses that could reach 4000-5000 words. I'd also write short (

solrage
February 27th 2019


58 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Ah, didn't know there was a word limit. Anyway, I've written a lot, burned myself out, did this review 'cause I thought this album was misunderstood. That's the gist. :p

Lucman
February 27th 2019


3396 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

It's a fine review, glad someone stood up for this one.

Digging: Jimmy Eat World - Surviving

solrage
February 27th 2019


58 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

One more question: do question marks not work in reviews? In two spots I had QMs and they changed to quotations: "Why the heaviness" Why the rapping"."

Scheumke
February 27th 2019


1277 Comments


Quote from a staff member on one of my reviews:

"And this is no fault of yours again, just another suggestion, perhaps copy/paste full-width question marks (?) where you would normally place them, because this site is buggy unfortunately and it converts ? to ". "

solrage
February 27th 2019


58 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

^ Thanks, that fixed it.

pizzamachine
February 27th 2019


14243 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Someone finally gets this album! Good review.

joshieboy
February 28th 2019


6966 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

1989 is so much better than this, but nice job on the review

Digging: Dayseeker - Sleeptalk

osmark86
February 28th 2019


9312 Comments


a 4.5 review and Taylor Swift doesn't really compute for me, but what do I know...

Brostep
Staff Reviewer
February 28th 2019


4483 Comments


Really great first review. I'll add to Chan by saying part of criticism (as opposed to analysis) is not getting lost in the weeds; I think this accomplishes that about halfway, which is genuinely excellent for a first pass at music crit in a while. My concrete suggestion on this front is don't focus too heavily (or at all, really) on the music theory ehind the songs, particularly in the term- and symbol-heavy way you're doing it here. You can make the same arguments without necessarily discussing the transition from tonic to ii6 to subdominant or what have you, and it'll make your writing more accessible to those who haven't taken a class in the subject. Otherwise, this is really good - can't wait to see what your next one will look like!

pizzamachine
February 28th 2019


14243 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

⬆️

solrage
March 1st 2019


58 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

@Lucman, pizzamachine, joshieboy - Thanks for the kudos.

@osmark86 - Any particular reason?

@Brostep - Thanks. What you say about this being "halfway" between criticism and analysis I take as a great compliment, as my models tend to be the Academic-Critic hybrids like Joseph Kerman, Helen Vendler, and David Bordwell who can do deep-dive analyses, but also write perceptive criticism as well. I most appreciate those "aha" moments when these critics analyze a piece and really explain how something works, rather than just claiming that it does (or doesn't) work. The latter is too much "effect-without-cause," for me. Sometimes there are effects in music that can only be explained in musical terms and I honestly think critics do a disservice to readers, and readers a disservice to themselves, by not knowing about and/or never discussing such things. There's a great article on the subject here: https://www.thedailybeast.com/music-criticism-has-degenerated-into-lifestyle-reporting

osmark86
March 1st 2019


9312 Comments


yeah all songs I've heard from her have been pretty annoying or generic. I'm not sure about her albums though because I've never felt the urge to give them a go due to the aforementioned.



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