Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album attempts to redefine the pop stars bludgeoned reputation, but aggressive tonal shifts and questions about authenticity make it a hard sell.
Hey, remember when I said in that first Rezonance post that I wanted to try something a little bit different? Well oh boy here we go. It’s one thing to give you a dope playlist of great video game music but it’s entirely something else, it turns out, to wax lyrically about an entire album. I’ve always had a huge amount of love for pop music, never quite understanding the judgemental tone it often receives so I really couldn’t think of a better album to begin my music review career on than a Taylor Swift record. So while I churn on the best music of 2017 list please enjoy this somewhat deep dive into one of the industries biggest names.
What exactly defines Taylor Swift?
It’s a question that the 27-year-old American pop star has effectively dodged for the better part of the last decade, her public-facing persona a mirage in a wasteland of scandal, theatrics, and music. Who could blame her? Seldom do we see a person so completely defined by what the public, for better or worse, project onto her. It’s difficult to find a label that hasn’t already been attributed to Swift, as what started as a slow burn countrywide love affair with the quiet girl from Nashville fully mutated into an abusive, very public relationship.
The critically acclaimed and juggernaut sales success of her 2014 album 1989 effectively changed the course of Swift as an artist and public figure. Her transition into the pop-music marketplace was all but complete, with dozens of awards and recording breaking numbers to prove it while her celebrity persona reached fever pitch. Swift’s entire life became a reality show the world was ravenous for, complete with a string of failed relationships and outright feuds. It was a dirty bomb of clickbait headlines waiting to go off and when it finally did, ignited by a recording of a phone call, the ensuing fallout left Swift’s reputation decimated.
With the walls of her pristine palace crumbled, Swift became the target of one of the more savage identity smearing campaigns I’ve ever witnessed. Her infamous apolitical nature and Southern roots were repurposed into white power support and Nazi sympathy, while her very public lawsuit against a sexual harasser and subsequent vocal and charitable support of victims was not enough to help her avoid being branded by some left-leaning sites as the kind of feminist they don’t want. The end product of these attacks is a Taylor who largely leaned into her prescribed villainy, even having the occasional bit of fun, boasting about her man-eating prowess and celebrity dogfights all with a wink and a wry smile, often directly at the camera.
A staple of Swift’s writing is how heavily it borrows and embellishes her own life experiences, so when she announced the less than subtly titled reputation, interest and expectations were raised. The initial rebrand came as Swift, whose social media presence had been minimised for months beforehand, wiped all of her accounts clean, replacing the cat photos and affirmative posts with cryptic snake imagery and stylised newspaper headlines, all reading variants on her name. It was tangibly exciting, a spark reverberated through an industry only just recovering from the previous juggernaut album 1989; there was something new from Swift on the way, and it looked to be something a little bit different.
When Swift finally emerged from musical hibernation and released the now much-maligned “Look What You Made Me Do”, critics and fans collectively cringed. The song was harsh, a petulant retread of her feud with Kanye West, which set a tone so aggressive it was alienating, paired with a less than traditional musical structure and frankly bizarre sampling of “Too Sexy” for the chorus. However you felt about the single, one thing became evident in the hours following its release — the hype balloon that was slowly inflating had unceremoniously popped, and for the first time in years, it looked as though Swift had made her first major musical misstep.
It was a trend she would struggle to shake off over the next few weeks, dropping three more singles in an attempt to realign public perception of the upcoming album, to varying degrees of success. The immediate follow up, “…Ready For It?” kept the aggressive synth beats but allowed a sliver of character to shine through, while “Gorgeous” and “Call It What You Want” seemed to veer wildly off brand, with progressively softer sounding music and emphasis on love and infatuation, standing in a stark contrast to the out for blood stylings of the first two singles. It’s a contrast that runs through the entire album, shifting almost seamlessly between earth moving bass and smooth, electronic-infused love songs. How much this duality gels with you will depend on your tolerance for disruptive music patterns and just how much you invest in the idea of a ‘new’ Taylor.
Opening the album with “…Ready For It?” sets the tone, and if you’ve heard the song you’ll understand why. It pulsates from the very first second, seldom leaving you any time to breathe with synths that undercut the entire song before easing off just a little for a hook. “Let the games begin, are you ready for it?” sings Swift as the song wraps up and you’re more than likely not ready for it. The proceeding three songs all play out in a similar fashion, a whirlwind of trap drums and booming EDM, which veers dangerously close to tiresome but never falls completely over that ledge.
“End Game” is easily the most perplexing of the openers. A straight up rap anthem featuring Future and Ed Sheeran, “End Game” comes in just under four minutes, but due to a largely unnecessary verse from Sheeran, feels much longer. It’s a big song about big reputations and the need for Swift to be seen beyond hers, but also concedes to her embracing the drama in her life; the lyric “I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em” is so in line with her justified villainy it’s frankly scary. Meanwhile, “I Did Something Bad” and “Don’t Blame Me” feel like two sides of the same trashy coin, boasting some of the albums more awkward attempts at maturity over the former. The latter is a sleeping giant of a song, though, with sultry verses giving way to an overproduced chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Fifty Shades Grey soundtrack, which isn’t even a bad thing. There is a lot of fun to be had here, but until the incredible climax of “Don’t Blame Me”, it all feels very . . . silly.
“Delicate” takes the EDM inspirations and deftly fuses them with the soft romanticism of Swift’s early work, resulting in a track that stands out as the beating heart of reputation. It’s a slow burn of a song, a love story told through synthetic whispers, sincere breathless vocals and an underlying beat which takes its time building to it’s inevitable, welcome conclusion. The lyrics drip with sincerity, an open invitation to witness her finding love amid her reputation burning around her, while also telling a tale so relatable it made my heart hurt. It helps that, despite a healthy dose of alterations on the hooks of the song, Swift’s vocals have never sounded better.
Post “Delicate”, the record primarily ditches the bombastic synths and leans into a softer pop feel, leaving much of the album’s second half feeling a little bloodless. The aggressive production of the first few songs does occasionally rear it’s head again; the wildly uneven “King of My Heart” takes a lovely idea and overproduces it to the point of it being unrecognisable, while “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” is an absolute banger, even if it sounds like an EDM anthem from 2007. Worse still, a couple of reputation‘s tracks will pass you by completely, like the middling “So It Goes…” (which admittedly smuggles in a brilliant bit of shade toward its climax) and the regrettable “Dress”, a complete waste of a sex-positive song which has been mixed to sound like something Lorde would leave on the cutting room floor. The mistakes culminate in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, a self-serving recount of Swift’s latest celebrity drama which, despite a fun beat, comes across as unnecessary at best, bratty at worst.
Fortunately, there are some gems hidden amongst the messy latter half of the record, songs that sound like a B-Side of 1989, a much-welcomed return to form. “Gorgeous”, despite its heavy-handed base, puts animalistic attraction on front street with a relatable tale of wanting someone so badly it begins to mess with your life. “Getaway Car” veers into the same lane as “Delicate” with it’s stripped back verses that let Swift’s honest self-reflection of her actions shine through, “It’s no surprise I turned you in, cause’ us traitors never win” she reluctantly admits before a dramatic, yet understated chorus roars to life. The record ends with the old Taylor very much rearing her head again as “Call It What You Want” and “New Year’s Day” softly reassure us that, despite the ensuing storms, she has found shelter. Though, the former song succeeds more so than the latter, marking what would have been a natural endpoint to the record had the acoustically charged, crowd-pleaser of “New Year’s Day” not been included.
As the album winds down you begin to better understand the heart of reputation, and if you allow yourself to believe in the authenticity behind the lyrics, to better understand Swift as an artist and a person. It’s a bold piece of media, tuned with a meticulous hand to ensure that every element of its marketing, release, and content sent a message to those listening. The lead singles were red herrings, far from representative of the records overall tone; the title alone is a calculated piece of trickery, allowing interpretation of it to reflect on how the viewer sees Swift rather than how she perhaps should be seen. At launch listeners were unable to even stream the record, a predictable if bold move if you’ve followed Swift’s relationship with problematic streaming services, meaning that to hear it you had to pay upfront for it, a bold move which hasn’t hurt sales one bit. As such reputation feels like a concept album with a concept that extends well beyond the music itself.
Of course very little of this matters if it’s not a good listen, and it’s unfortunate that the execution is where this grand experiment falters.
The self-reflection is sparse, and despite some tangibly authentic moments, tends to be lost in the bravado of the production. Lyrically, this is easily Swift’s weakest record, relying more on generalised imagery of drinking and sexual intimacy than the specific but always very human stories she has told in the past. Even at its worst, reputation is an easy listen, with pop-music icon Jack Antanoff’s production giving each song a radio-ready smoothness, and at times the EDM/R’nB influences elevate Swift’s signature sound, but there are more than a few missteps here. On “Look What You Made Me Do” Swift boasts that the old Taylor can’t come to the phone because she’s dead, and while reputation is a decent first step into a more aggressive sound for the artist, I’m kinda hoping she finds a way to bring her old self back.