Her new album is full of wry and revealing lines. But is she admitting to flaws or just trying to fit in?
Taylor Swift Reputation
There are many inadvertently comic moments on Taylor Swift’s new album, “Reputation,” but none are as jarring as an admission made on “So It Goes.” In the first flush of romance, she’s making a confession to her love interest.
“I’m so chill,” she sings. “But you make me jealous.”
This is Swift—the unyielding perfectionist, the professionally heartbroken woman who has built a career by enacting lyrical revenge on her lovers—characterizing herself as “chill.” She has grown fond of this word, which also appears on “Delicate.”
She asks her suitor, “Is it chill that you’re in my head?” If there is a wink in either of those lines, it’s imperceptible.
This air of newfound jadedness is one of the many ways in which Swift broadcasts her long-overdue loss of innocence on “Reputation,” an album that captures the singer during the most turbulent but commercially successful period of her career.
Taylor Swift went into hibernation last year: the budding country star had become an international pop icon before suddenly finding herself at the wrong end of a long-running public feud with Kanye West.
Now she emerges as a victim turned antihero.
On “Reputation,” she is embittered and vindictive toward a public that she feels has abandoned her, but she’s also liberated from the imaginary harness of perfection.
“They took the crown, but it’s all right,” she sings with a well-rehearsed shrug on “Call It What You Want.”
These days, you can find Swift, a baby hedonist, meeting men in dark bars, buying a dress just so her lover can “take it off,” dropping a curse word—the first in her career stronger than “damn” or “hell”—and channelling a “Criminal”-era Fiona Apple.
“They say I did something bad, but why’s it feel so good?” she sings breathalyze, over a bleating electronic beat, on “I Did Something Bad.”
Her gaze, once trained on the failures and the betrayals of those in her personal orbit, has turned inward, and she revels in a state of sin—sometimes clumsily, sometimes deftly.
(Thankfully, the album doesn’t contain much of the cartoonist revenge-drama of its lead single, Entitled: “Look What You Made Me Do,” which now has over 700,000,000 views on YouTube in just 2 months.
Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead.”) “It’s no surprise I turned you in / ’Cause us traitors never win,” she sings, eager to implicate herself, on “Getaway Car,” a song about leaving one man for another.
Of course, she doesn’t surrender fully to her disgraced status, and she can’t help but let self-pity seep in. “They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one,” she sings, on “I Did Something Bad,” making a thinly veiled reference to political melodrama.
Swift, once a master of petty comeuppance, has typically used her music as a vessel for romantic anguish, in which she could connect with the public imagination by detailing her tortured relationships with unnamed men.
Her songs provided personal refuge, and she was far more loyal to her listeners than to her lovers.
The tables have turned: on “Reputation,” the lovers are the ones offering Swift a way out. At several points on the album, she focuses on a burgeoning romance that’s enabled her to tune out the scornful noise of the past two years. The rest of the world falls away when she is with the new man, who doesn’t bother reading the tabloids to see what people are saying about her.
“My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me,” she whispers, on “Delicate.”
She has found relief in an unexpected place.
But anxiety lurks beneath this escape, and you get the sense that she’s looking over her shoulder at every moment.
The current landscape of pop is dominated by complicated and moody young women such as Halsey, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey, who wear their imperfections proudly and allow darkness to surface in their music.
Wholesomeness has gone out of fashion, and Swift’s abrupt moment of maturation finds her playing catch-up. In her bid for self-defamation, is she confessing that she is flawed, like everyone else, or simply trying to fit in? Is she reclaiming the narrative, or acceding to it? “Reputation” raises these questions, but it doesn’t bother answering them.
Swift has always been lauded for the emotional precision of her words and the nuance of her melodies. Even when the sentiment and the tone were too precious or wounded, there was still room to appreciate the craft of her lines. “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street,” she sang on the title track of “Red,” from 2012, an album that boldly straddled the pop-country divide.
Part singer, part diarist, Swift can switch effortlessly between swelling pop choruses and intricate, conversational verses filled with wry and revealing asides that point to the shrewd tactician beneath the veil of the wholesome country starlet.
But, as Swift has grown into her pop stardom, she has abandoned much of the sharpness and specificity of her expression.
On both her previous album, “1989,” from 2014, and “Reputation,” she moves away from her internal monologue, grappling instead with the desires and the anxieties of some imagined audience.
This tendency has produced flashes of cynicism and condescension toward her listeners which were formerly never present in Swift’s world. “Don’t Blame Me” feels like a focus-grouped scrapbook of haphazard images concerning betrayal and lust. “I’m insane but I’m your baby / Echoes of your name inside my mind / Halo, hiding my obsession / I once was poison ivy, but now I’m your daisy,” she sings. It is one of the most emotionally incoherent songs of her career.
If she wants to escape the image imposed on her by the public, camouflaging herself in muddled pop cliché is certainly one strategy.
This kind of thing would make “Reputation” feel generic and disembodied if its sound were not so skillfully executed. Swift has not abandoned her ambition, or her perfectionism.
In the era of streaming singles, she is the rare young star who still worships at the altar of the album, an old-fashioned instinct that serves her surprisingly well.
She is the most consistent singer and songwriter of her generation, and “Reputation” is impressively short on filler.
Every chorus is huge and memorable, and she pulls off bracing tone shifts within a single song. On the opener, “Ready for It,” she moves elegantly from menacing to exuberant and back again, flaunting her old songwriting chops. Even “End Game,” her collaboration with Future and Ed Sheeran—on paper, a nightmarish mismatch of styles—is not only not embarrassing but unexpectedly thrilling.
On “Reputation,” Swift has once again teamed up with the producers Max Martin and Jack Antonoff, who helped imbue “1989” with a modern but deferential take on eighties synth-pop.
This time, Antonoff has higher billing than Martin. It’s a leap for the newly minted back-of-the-house superstar, who has helped to revitalize the sometimes directionless world of contemporary pop made by white women, refashioning and refining the eighties for Lorde, St. Vincent, Pink, and Swift.
But here Swift moves from the eighties to the present day, incorporating big-room electronic flourishes and the stuttering hiccups that are standard in contemporary hip-hop.
On “Delicate,” she even flirts with a version of the light Caribbean sound that has infiltrated pop radio in recent years.
And she stays within a narrower range in her vocal melodies, sticking to chant-like choruses and sometimes obscuring her voice with a vocoder or burying it deep in the mix—another way that “Reputation” has ceded Swift’s ownership of her sound to a force bigger than her, if there is such a thing.
Maybe this all sounds like a grand reckoning—with her public image, with getting older, and with the increasingly fractured sound of pop today.
And yet there is still something about “Reputation” that feels sealed off from the rest of the world. Swift nods at the forces of hip-hop, R. & B., and electronic dance music, but she never fully invites them into her space, which remains aseptic.
For Taylor Swift, and for Antonoff and Martin, this may be the last moment during which they can avoid confronting the streaming-enabled, rapidly growing margins. “Reputation” subtly bends the cautious Taylor Swift to the whims of the mainstream, but it still argues in favor of pop music as a culturally neutral force.
The album tries to nail down the center of pop at a time when such a thing hardly exists. In the future, when people tell the story of pop’s dying days as a monolithic entity, they might point to “Reputation” as one of its final chapters.