Taylor Swift slithers but doesn’t bite in new album, ‘reputation’

Swift's determination to create a new image for herself comes at the expense of originality.

Image By: Image Courtesy of The Fader

With reputation, Taylor Swift makes a transformation — one that many huge stars have attempted — into a darker, more serious version of herself. Bruno Mars did it with Unorthodox Jukebox, Michael Jackson scowled on the cover of Bad and Beyonce embraced her sexuality like never before on her self-titled album. Swift, however, had slightly different circumstances; since touring the world for the Album of the Year-winning 1989, Swift has seen her public image falter with each celebrity feud, from Kanye West to Calvin Harris to Katy Perry. The marketing for reputation centers around a confidently cold Taylor Swift basking in everyone that called her a “snake,” but don’t be fooled into thinking that the old Taylor is truly dead. While reputation is certainly her darkest project both sonically and lyrically, it is more so an electronic successor to the love-filled 1989 combined with some daring shots at her enemies. The old Taylor made some good music, and this album is clearly influenced from the hits that made her such a star, while also pushing her musical palette in new directions.

“...Ready for It?” opens the album with pulsing electronic bass and the story of a boy that recognizes her as bad business — her mutual insight into him — and their helpless attraction to each other. “But if he’s a ghost, then I can be a phantom / holding him for ransom,” she sings; metaphors like this with a biting edge are spread into almost every song, and she pairs grand-scaled lines like these with blockbuster-sized production by Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff. As she takes on the very “in” instrumentation of present-day pop music, and her voice and wordplay adapt to the quick tempos and maximalist approach, Swift loses some of her originality. A lot of reputation sounds uniquely Taylor Swift, partly due to Swift’s retention of her own songwriting traits, and partly due to her producers’ longstanding relationships with her. However, this doesn’t save the album’s inevitable familiarity. At some points, it feels like a downgrade of 1989’s fresh air, or the simple-yet-elegant work of Fearless. Part of 1989’s musical game was to swim in electronic production, but reputation almost drowns in it, and Swift barely saves the album from becoming completely generic. Initially, it was her intention to delve this deeply into her new sound, creating a strange conflict in the music. I don’t know if a different album would have been better, but at some points during reputation, the thought can’t help but cross my mind.

The next significant change comes in her subject matter; she brings more light to themes like self-image and revenge that were seen on popular 1989 tracks “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood,” along with an increased willingness to incorporate indulgence in adulthood and love. The lead single on reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do,” introduced the world to this new era in Swift’s career, and its polarizing public reaction just about sums up the revenge side of the album. While “Look What You Made Me Do” has some of the most intriguing production on the album, with a dissonant piano and an interesting interpolation of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” lyrics like “You said the gun was mine / Isn’t cool, no, I don’t like you,” never stick their landing, and similar songs on the album are only more uneven. “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is a low point on the album, turning Swift back into a 16-year-old, but her teen innocence is swapped for immaturity with the cringe-worthy spoken line, “Haha, I can’t even say it with a straight face,” at the song’s climax.

These songs may stick out more than they intend to, but the majority of the album is filled with love songs intertwined in Swift’s music like any other pop artist. Swift incorporates a little more danger and indulgence than she is known for, like the urgency of the lyrics,“My love had been frozen / Deep blue but you painted me golden,” in highlight track, “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” or the sensuality of “Only bought this dress so you could take it off,” in “Dress.” It’s a welcome change to her songwriting that shows some actual maturity from the Taylor Swift we have known for so many years because they work, but the triumphs are almost matched by the disappointments, which drag down the album’s quality.

As someone who loved 1989, I will probably be listening to reputation for a while, because the songs I do like on it are catchy, confident and well-done. By creating reputation, Taylor runs the risk of losing her originality, but also recognizes the only solution — she embraces each hit of the snare and each beat drop just as confidently, if not more so, than anyone else at the top of the charts, and tries to wear this new aesthetic like it has fit her this whole time. When she succeeds, she shines; “Gorgeous” and “End Game” are fine examples that her pure pop fantasies don’t have to end with 1989. However, a large portion of the album feels held back by its own ambition, and listeners may find it hard to commit to reputation as a whole. It’s not necessarily a big misstep in Swift’s songwriting abilities, but rather, a product with a few great moments and obvious flaws. If reputation left me feeling like there was something to be desired, then I hope that whatever is missing will be found, but I don’t mind humming along until that day comes.

Grade: B-

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