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.