Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ is an entertaining mess, but it’s still a mess
The omnipresent Taylor Swift, whose name was once synonymous with teenage Disney Channel-endorsed pop country music, has gone through some serious reflection and metamorphosis over the past few years. Her 2012 album Red was promoted by much more pop-oriented singles than ever before, promising a bigger shift in her sonic palette down the road. That promise was kept on 1989, her next album and best release to date.
Something happened between 2014 and now. With 1989, Taylor Swift rose to a new level of power based on her mockery of the bitter, revenge-seeking image that the media had bestowed upon her. But it’s clear from singles like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “…Ready For It?” that on Reputation, she has done anything but shake it off. In fact, at many points on her new album, she takes her image up to comic book villain levels and sinks her teeth deeper into her enemies than ever before.
A rocky road map
Taylor Swift plays with a lot of different styles on her new album, which is certainly a commendable experiment in theory. But even though her previous albums contained different moods and flavors, they all seemed to know what they were going for as a singular unit. In a first for her career, Reputation runs the gamut so thoroughly that putting it together cohesively seems to have been a doomed task from the start.
This haphazardness is apparent not only in the structure of the album, but also within the songs themselves. The second single and opening track “…Ready For It?” is a very confusing song for anyone who has ever listened to Taylor Swift before. Sure, the pre-chorus bops along with some pretty nice rhythms, but the rest of the song does not go over well at all. She suddenly seems to think she’s a rapper, and let me tell you, trap beats were not something I ever wanted to hear on a Taylor Swift song.
The next song trips over itself with an equal lack of shame. The main body of the song is actually fine. The “big reputation” refrain seems a bit corny at first, but it’s hard not to chant along with it once you get to know it. But sadly, Future’s contribution doesn’t add all that much to the song apart from confirming Reputation‘s strange appropriation of trap music, and Ed Sheeran’s verse is exactly as embarrassing to listen to as his previous flirtations with hip-hop stylistics.
Between these and later songs that sound like rip-offs of Lorde (“New Year’s Day”) and FKA Twigs (“Dress”), there’s not much here that gives the new Taylor her own unique identity. But even with the originality caveat in mind, this album is not without its highlights. “Don’t Blame Me” is a sultry, sickeningly catchy tune about the dangers of love, and it is most likely destined for super-hit status at some point next year.
Later, “Getaway Car” adds on to this song’s anthemic quality and takes it up another notch. Not only is this song possibly the only legitimate piece of self-criticism on this entire album, but the storytelling is clever in a way that is rarely ever achieved in pop music. This song doesn’t deserve to be mixed in with the rest of this album. It’s a serious left hook and even a contender for pop song of the year, and for any fan of Carly Rae Jepsen’s recent output, it’s a must-listen.
Back on 1989, the deservedly popular jam “Blank Space” seemed to acknowledge the Taylor Swift media attention in a satirical light. She seemed to tell the public, “These are the things you’re saying about me, and this is how ridiculous you sound when you say them.” With the exception of “Bad Blood”, the diss tracks were nearly absent throughout the album, which made it an incredibly refreshing listen as a whole.
Then came “Look What You Made Me Do”. The picture of Taylor Swift that she seemed to decry on 1989 is turned up to eleven on this track, and if it’s meant to be in jest, she sure did a poor job of letting us know. This is one the pettiest songs ever to grace her notoriously petty career. Not only does she continue to pin the blame for the drama on literally everyone but herself, but the line “I don’t like your tilted stage” seems to confirm that the entire song is actually a pointed dig at Kanye West (who used a tilted stage for his Saint Pablo tour). It’s no mystery why Taylor Swift would be mad at Kanye West, but why was this her arena of choice to go after him?
And it’s not that I don’t want to love “Gorgeous”, because it’s legitimately one of the most infectious songs on the album. But the lyrics in the verses put me on edge, and that line about stumbling home to her cats is delivered with such a childish demeanor it could make the statue of David cringe. Meanwhile the gunshots on “I Did Something Bad” are downright hilarious. Does Taylor actually believe that breaking hearts and saying a bad word make her a hardened criminal all of a sudden?
But the most telling moment of the album comes near the end of “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, when she makes cheerleader-like tributes to her friends, her current boyfriend, and her mother. She then caps it off with a vague address “to you, ‘cause forgiveness is a nice thing to do.” At this point the music cuts out, then she laughs hysterically and says “I can’t even say that with a straight face.” When I heard this line on my first listen through the album, my eyes rolled so far back into my head I could see the creases of my brain.
The old Taylor isn’t quite dead yet
A lot of the marketing for Reputation was based on the death of “the old Taylor”, and to her credit, she actually does take a lot of avenues on this album that are new for her. I can’t say I love the hip-hop influence that takes up so much of the first half, but I also can’t say she’s done it before. I mean, who ever thought there would be vocoders on a Taylor Swift album? So in that respect, props must go to her. In most of these instances, however, there is a direct line that can be drawn from that song to the clichés of some other artist or genre.
The only truly original moment comes in the form of “King of My Heart”, which is also the most free-flowing song on the record. It’s not something I expected to say about a Taylor Swift song, but the percussion on this song is incredible. The sound of the low toms gives it a really interesting atmosphere and actually picks up some of the slack for the relatively obvious lyrics.
Apart from that, Reputation succeeds most at the points where it sounds most like the things she’s already done. Some of the better cuts, like “Delicate” and “Getaway Car”, aren’t too far off from what she was doing on 1989. And once “New Year’s Day” stops sounding like it got lost on the way to Melodrama, it dusts off the old acoustic guitar and becomes a pretty nice tribute to the country days of Taylor Swift. There are still ballads and there are still diss tracks – dear God, there are so many diss tracks – so for better or worse, it looks like the old Taylor is still hanging on for dear life.
“Don’t Blame Me”
“King of My Heart”
Recommended if you like:
Lana Del Rey
Carly Rae Jepsen
Featured image from Billboard
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