Review Summary: Swift’s most underrated moment.
The drama machine that is Taylor Swift was chugging full steam ahead in 2017. After all the fallout involving Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, Swift found herself exactly where she loves yet publicly pretends to hate being– directly in the crosshairs of controversy. Like a politician, she refused to let a good crisis go to waste – she darkened her image, replaced butterflies with snakes, and carefully honed in on a “bad girl” image that was about as believable as Bambi becoming an outlaw and murdering Thumper. As a result, it was easy to dismiss Reputation
’s concept outright. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the content itself is totally without merit. Much of the album delves into feelings of isolation and regret, all while retaining Swift’s classic charm and penchant for enormous hooks. The combination of an off-putting aesthetic, preconceived bias over her newfound “image”, and the actual presence of dark horse bangers makes Reputation
Swift’s most over-hated, underrated moment.
‘I Did Something Bad’ feels like a mission statement. The fact that it doesn’t arrive until the third track is actually a bit of a shame, because by the time listeners wade through the laughable hip-hop influences of ‘Ready For It’ and ‘End Game’ (pointlessly featuring Ed Sheeran and Future), any preconceived bias that Reputation
will be a hot mess of try-hard persona building is already confirmed. ‘I Did Something Bad’ is much more Swift’s speed – it’s tense, ominous, and honest – and it easily would have served as a bullseye of an opening statement. Regardless, the song skitters around uncomfortably during the verses while erupting into intermittently propulsive choruses, with Swift singing about putting up walls to defend herself from getting hurt (“This is how the world works, you gotta leave before you get left”) and comparing the tabloid/media backlash over the Kanye controversy to a witch hunt (“They're burning all the witches even if you aren't one / They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons”). It’s a feeling that’s easy to relate to when mired in controversy – it can seem like the entire world is against you, and that’s what she successfully conveys with this song.
For as much of a mixed bag as Reputation
’s tracklist can be, Swift strings together an excellent run with ‘I Did Something Bad’, ‘Don’t Blame Me’, ‘Delicate’, and ‘Look What You Made Me Do.’ ‘Don’t Blame Me’ succeeds as a midtempo synthpop track, but its impression of a borderline-psychotic infatuation is so well-done that it’s actually endearing (“My name is whatever you decide, and I'm just gonna call you mine” / “I'm insane, but I'm your baby”). To boot, the sweeping chorus sets it apart from the rest of the album, swelling with additional harmonic vocal layers during each rendition. ‘Delicate’ is a downtempo dance number with an infectious beat and rhythm that’s nearly impossible not to bob/sway along to, and covers the awkwardness of pursuing a new relationship with someone that you are interested in (“Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you're in my head? 'Cause I know that it's delicate…”). The lead single, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, is obviously the central hub of Reputation
’s image overhaul – and while it doesn’t necessarily transform Swift into a badass, the stutter-step beat in the background drips with authoritative bass and allows her vocals to shine during the verses. The half-spoken/rapped refrain is something of an anti-chorus, which while not perfectly executed, ventures far enough from her typical fare to chalk it up as a win. Had Swift led off with this quartet of tracks, it’s entirely possible that most listeners’ initial impressions of Reputation
would have been significantly altered for the better.
One issue that has plagued nearly every Taylor Swift album since she made the transition from country artist to pop star is stylistic inconsistency. While that trend continues here with the likes of bubbly, optimistic tunes like ‘Getaway Car’ and ‘Gorgeous’ – which make no practical sense existing alongside these darker and more introspective tunes – they still manage to be excellent standalone moments. The former in particular is a huge highlight, featuring a soaring chorus which glides smoothly atop Jack Antonoff’s flawless production and easily could have been a top-tier single on 1989
. The decision to include here is obviously suspect at best – and might have been better served sitting on the backburner until 2019’s sugary Lover
LP – but at worst it’s an out-of-place banger. ‘King of My Heart’ and ‘Dancing with Our Hands Tied’ succeed in a similar way, albeit on a much meeker level. Other low-key tracks like ‘So It Goes…’ and ‘Dress’ fit the album’s mood far better, and at a rather bloated fifteen tracks, it’s enough to wonder why cuts weren’t made to thematically unify Reputation
– but it’s not enough to ruin the record.
’s midsection is muddled with conflicting tones that refuse to let Swift’s desired theme take shape, it ends with another strong surge. ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ is a thinly-veiled shot at Kanye that would be cringe-inducing if it wasn’t so damned anthemic and infectious. ‘Call It What You Want’ is a touching retreat inward; a temporary reprieve from the war-of-words where she takes solace in isolation as well as her new relationship: “My castle crumbled overnight – I brought a knife to a gunfight, they took the crown, but it's alright…Nobody's heard from me for months, I'm doin' better than I ever was”..."I want to wear his initial on a chain 'round my neck, not because he owns me, but 'cause he really knows me.” The fragile closer, ‘New Years Day’, remains among the best ballads she’s ever composed – floating on a soft piano bed, she sings of sticking with her significant other through all of the highs and lows – likening them to that of a New Years party: “I stay when it’s hard or it’s wrong or we're making mistakes – I want your midnights, but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year's Day.” The heart wrenching outro pleads with him to stay with her forever, as she sings of never wanting to imagine a time where his laugh would haunt her memories: “Please don't ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere…”. This closing trio marks another strong moment for Swift’s Reputation
– an album that struggles for consistency but rises to some truly superb and memorable heights.
More than anything, Reputation
is a failure of concept. It’s difficult to believe that “the old Taylor is dead” simply because of some white-collar, grown-up high school drama that doesn’t actually affect anyone. Without the attempted “fallen angel” façade, this probably would have gone over much better with fans and critics alike. Otherwise speaking, Reputation
is another excellent addition to her catalog that completes Swift’s transformation from country-pop treasure to global pop star. It’s her dark horse record – one that’s been consistently written off, but that still brims with the sort of energy and hooks that have made Taylor Swift pop royalty for nearly a decade now.