Taylor Swift: Reputation
Several of our writers and contributors offer their takes on Taylor Swift's divisive new album.
With Reputation, Taylor Swift has paired her lyrical genius with strong pop and EDM undertones to craft another excellent album. She leaves behind any remnant of the "girl in the dress [that] cried the whole way home," singing instead with the voice of a mature, powerful adult. On "Gorgeous," for instance, she flirts with a good looking guy she meets while her boyfriend isn’t looking, insisting that he “take as a compliment” the fact that she finds him attractive. In "Getaway Car," she uses an extended metaphor to blame an ex for expecting a relationship to progress, given he was just a rebound. Instead of pining over men who have broken her heart, Taylor Swift has now become the heartbreaker.
While asserting her power over the individuals in her life, Swift’s voice remains refreshingly tongue-in-cheek. "This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things" and "Look What You Made Me Do" may initially sound like a dramatic response to a petty fight with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, but the over-the-top melodrama allows Swift to give a subtle wink to her listeners. With Reputation, Taylor Swift asserts herself once again as an indisputable pop queen, now more empowered than ever.
A part of me really wanted to believe that Taylor’s album cover and title were both a joke and she was secretly gearing up to release the powerhouse follow up to 1989 instead of a record whose cover looks like that of an alt-rock band from the early 2000’s. Alas, not. Reputation is here, and it’s alright. There’s little lyrical cleverness; the videos are much more engaging and nuanced. It’s hard to deduce what her point is on this record, despite the fact that she so desperately wants to say a lot of things. The songs flow well and fit together, but in the larger narrative of her career this move makes little sense. There are some gems such as “Call it What You Want” and “Delicate” but for the most part, her attempt at adding some edge, some fire and attitude to her music, falls flat. It feels too forced. When "New Year's Day" finishes the record, she leaves you with a sense that this record could have been the cathartic, energetic magnum opus of her vastly successful career, if only she wasn’t trying so hard to fit in, to please and to respond. She went from avoiding the drama to revisiting it - this feels weird. Can we resurrect the old Taylor?
While certainly not Taylor Swift's best work, Reputation is a bold yet satisfying departure from her previous music. Only a few missteps bar it from joining the ranks of 1989 and Fearless. Most notably "Look What You Made Me Do," the album's first single and its weakest track, comes across as petty and desperate, not to mention all over the place musically. After hearing this first single, my expectations for the album dropped significantly, but tracks like "So It Goes," "Gorgeous," and "Dancing with Our Hands Tied" make up for the album's few stumbles. In a way, Reputation is varied but cohesive, each track featuring its own distinct tone while maintaining a consistent texture and feel throughout the album.
There is also something to be said for the change in artistic direction embodied by Reputation. Too many artists fall back on the same old style, mindlessly repeating their past successes. As she has proven before, Taylor thrives in reinvention. And while this album is certainly a departure from her past work, devout fans like myself can still take solace in the album's overall style and feel, which bears some resemblance to the 80s-inspired synths and drum machines of 1989. Although some have criticized her for the transition, it does keep her content fresh, and while she certainly doesn't navigate that shift flawlessly here, enough tracks work on this album to consider it a success. Of course, only time will tell if Swift's latest reinvention will prove itself worthwhile.
Full Disclosure: I was a huge Taylor Swift fan up through 1989. In fact, my first concert ever was a Taylor Swift concert. Even though my personal fan levels began to diminish amidst all the drama that surrounded Taylor Swift in recent years, I tried to listen to this album with an open mind and clean slate. But, to be frank, it's disappointing. It is certainly not the great comeback I had anticipated after her three years of laying low; rather, it is Taylor Swift going into uncharted sonic territory and leaving behind her old self, of which I was very much a fan.
I didn't know where my expectations lay after my mixed reactions to the album's four promo singles. But as it turns out, those reactions were not off-base. This album does not stand out to me in any way. That's not to say there are no good songs. For instance, I love "End Game," but not because of Taylor's part, moreso because of Ed Sheeran's stellar verse. That says something. Also, call me conservative, but the best parts of Reputation are those that recall the "old Taylor" - "Gorgeous, " for instance, or the chorus of "...Ready For It?" Some of the other songs on the album sound more like Chainsmokers songs featuring Taylor Swift than actual Taylor swift songs.
In the end, I don't see any of these tracks gaining the classic status of favorites like "You Belong with Me" or "Blank Space." It's not that I hate the album, it's just not something I'll continue to listen to aside from two or three songs. Maybe it will take some time before anything from Reputation makes it onto my playlists, but in the meantime, I'll still be jamming to "The Story of Us."
In her 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag presented an alternative mode of aesthetic appreciation, one that values style over content, artifice over authenticity. She suggested that instead of approaching a campy work of art with the same value judgments applied to "high culture," one should approach it with an appreciation for its extravagance and boldness. This mode of appreciation feels most appropriate for Taylor Swift's Reputation, an undeniably campy album that delights in its melodrama and theatricality.
Indeed, on Reputation, Swift frequently pulls out all the stops. The gospel-tinged "Don't Blame Me" features a choir of overdubbed Taylors bolstering the most satisfying belting she has ever delivered. Likewise, the gleeful "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," incorporates Annie-esque broadway flourishes to heighten its comic attitude. Both of these songs succeed because of their histrionics, not in spite of them. Even the oft-maligned "Look What You Made Me Do" has its merits when valued for its melodrama instead of criticized for it. The album's penchant for theatricality also underscores one of its most appealing characteristics: more than ever, it sounds like Taylor Swift is having fun. The Future- and Ed Sheeran-featuring "End Game" has the momentum of a great posse cut, and even the songs ostensibly about dissolving relationships are delivered as electro-pop bangers. Sure, the songwriting on Reputation is often regrettably unimaginative, but when couched within such inventive and ambitious production, it almost doesn't matter. Almost.
In that same essay from 1964, Sontag also wrote that "Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy." Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about Reputation (hence, the multiple authors included in this review). But perhaps judgment of any kind is the wrong way to respond to this album. Perhaps Reputation is best enjoyed with an open mind, unbound by preconceived notions of artistic integrity or "good" art. In other words, sit back, relax, and have some fun with this record. Who knows. Maybe you'll enjoy it.