Last week, Taylor Swift made her newest album, Reputation, available for streaming services. This completes a rollout that began as a remarkable failure. An objectively bad first single, a PR misstep involving her lawyers (note: lawyers are to PR as oil is to water), and rarely seen audibles being called by Swift and her team led many to suspect her latest effort would flop.
The dust has cleared. What we’re left with is not her best album, but it is undoubtedly her most aggressive. With Reputation, Swift recognizes that the best way to be seen as more than the girl next door, is to go, unapologetically, right through the wall.
This is not her comfort zone. Her songs have always had nice round edges. But on Reputation, she takes the risk of embracing coarser craftsmanship by using pop and hip-hop’s existing IP. If Reputation sounds familiar, it’s by design. Swift packs up her unique talents to travel to a place she hasn’t been. When she arrives, she does what tourists do: get directions from the locals.
It’s hard not to hear Rihanna’s smoky dancehall, Phantogram’s layered rhythms, Sleigh Bells industrious percussion, FKA Twigs sultry breathiness, and the abrasive sonics of her famed nemesis, Kanye West. Even when it doesn’t work (“I Did Something Bad”, “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”), you appreciate her willingness to try.
Following the success of 1989, Swift could have very easily made another shimmering tour through timeless pop. Instead, she chose to do something she hasn’t done before, even if it’s been done before.
She’s always been the Batman among her popstar peers, relying on intellect in the absence of superpowers. Without the sheer creative force of Beyoncé or the arresting soulfulness of Adele, she got to where she is by outsmarting her opposition. This cleverness-over-artistry is probably what Kanye can’t seem to cope with regarding her; that she doesn’t have to be an insane narcissist to make good music (Kanye is a legend. Kanye is also an asshole).
Taylor Swift’s success is a fascinating demonstration of will and wit. Her rise from niche teenage country artist to pop megastar is not what is so surprising. It’s that she achieved this when there was every reason that she couldn’t.
Swift emerged as a doe-eyed, affluent, white teenager with an okay voice. Stop me when that becomes a brand worth paying attention to.
But she triumphed with something few have a potent enough combination of: an irrepressible work ethic, shrewd business skills, awareness, and a gift for writing really great songs. She tells familiar stories, but with quips, wordplay, and cryptic messages that trigger curiosity. She looked the part, but more importantly, she made damn sure she wrote the script.
Like all powerful brands, the tedious mechanics of her operation work feverishly behind the scenes to make the product itself, poetry. She maneuvered herself to the main stage while maintaining her affability.
1989 was nearly unanimously celebrated. But as we’ve seen time and time again—and sadly, it seems to always happen to women—the closer you get to the top, the harder we’re going to make it for you to breathe. For Swift, I hope she brought oxygen.
You can tell me she earned her criticism, but let’s take a step back and recognize what she gets attacked for: She tries too hard to act humble, she doesn’t like to talk about politics, she reacted negatively to being called a Nazi sympathizer, she celebrates her friends, she can be petty about relationships gone bad, and she posts her cats a lot on Instagram.
I just described…everyone I know.
I still respect her triumph of capitalism. Some attribute this to her being far too calculated. I’d ask them, what superstar got to where they are without significant calculation? She’s also, by all accounts, a nice person in a position of power. Given what we’ve seen this past year, isn’t that okay to cheer for?
I won’t defend the lead single. “Look What You Made Me Do” is a terrible song by every metric. Any of the other 14 tracks would have served better to declare the album’s impending release. But fumbling the ball on the first play doesn’t mean you still can’t win the game.
The remaining songs range from fine to great. “Dress” is not just an album highlight, but Taylor Swift’s sexiest song to date. “Delicate” bounces intimately along to the reminder of how essential booze is to the beginning of a relationship. “Getaway Car” has a lyrical cadence that glides to a pulsating beat with Springsteen-enthusiast Jack Antonoff’s sticky fingers all over it. And “New Year’s Day” closes the album out on Swift’s best attributes as an artist.
The final track omits the synths and drum machines in favor of a piano and an acoustic guitar. It feels like a wink from Swift as she lays the groundwork for an eventual return to her first love, country music.
When the neon synths and bone rattling bass drops exhaust both her and an aging fan base, she’ll be more than prepared to pivot, again. Remember, she’s great with calculation.
That’s how she was able to be the country artist who made a pop album. And how she is the latest pop artist to make a trap album. Is this as suitable a place for her? No. Did it stop her? No. If you don’t like it, her “ass is located in the back of (her) body.”
It’s hard not to notice that the album opens with Swift clearing her throat. It’s a call for attention; the beginning of a declaration that she’s not your cute friend next door anymore. She won’t be that vulnerable. Her reputation depends on it.