It’s safe to say that 2017 was the year that most challenged fans to separate the art they love from the artists that made it. With sexual misconduct allegations on the rise and the new freedom to deliver “receipts” on those who’ve wronged us, society is becoming hyper aware of the blurred lines between artists’ lives and the life of their own art.
This line has been permanently blurred for someone like Taylor Swift, who once said, “When I knew something was going on in someone’s personal life and they didn’t address it in their music, I was always very confused by that. I owe it to people from letting them in from Day 1.”
After a tumultuous year and a half since being exposed by Kim Kardashian West over a Kanye spat, having a public breakup with her high-profile boyfriend, getting dragged via a Katy Perry single, and surprisingly doing a great deal to defend herself against the assault of a radio DJ, you would think Taylor would come back even stronger with a triumphant 6th album, detailing the journey of personal growth, maturity, and a path toward redemption. But unfortunately, she decided to release Reputation instead.
While it seems like almost every other artist of the moment wants to separate their art from themselves, Swift wants us to think they’re one in the same. Namely, through Reputation, Swift tells us she’s dropped the good-girl, wholesome pop-princess act, and instead, is officially a Certifiable Badass. (Hell, she’s so cool, she’d rather sue a blogger for defamation of character than denounce neo-Nasis.) Unfortunately, this schtick is not only the most put-on role of Swift’s many personas, it’s also the most derivative, cringe-inducing, and botched attempt at “reclaiming a narrative” in her career.
After the wildly successful and enjoyable pop foray that was 1989, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Swift – who once set aside the country music that made her relevant – has chosen to set aside the pop music that made her famous, and embrace a different money-soaked genre: hip-hop and dance music. After nearly a decade of youthful harmonies and sickly sweet melodies that get stuck in your head, Swift has resorted to hip-hop sampled beats, EDM-esque drops, and autotuned vocals taking over the majority of her record.
The opening track and album’s second single “…Ready For It?” manages to feature a grotesque combination of all three while also including verses in which Swift raps. Heavy sigh. The narrative content and theme of the song proves to be much more telling of what Reputation as a whole will reveal, in order of importance: 1. Taylor is totally fine right now even though no one trusts her, 2. Taylor has a new boyfriend and he is everything, 3. Taylor and her boyfriend have a lot of sex, 4. Deceitful men just basically ruin everything, and 5. Taylor’s new boyfriend is really hot.
It truly is painful as a listener to remind yourself repeatedly that Taylor Swift is a nearly 28-year-old woman with undeniable talent who is choosing to write music with the emotional maturity of a newly sexually-active 15 year old.
The most obvious attempts at matching this freshly crafted persona of “Good Girl Gone Bad” pop up in the overproduced and overly busy “End Game,” which features Future, Ed Sheeran, and one of the saddest lyrics in Swift’s discography: “I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me.” The earnestness of this line is somehow not even the most cringe-inducing on the record, though perfectly sets up for “I Did Something Bad,” the least redeeming Swift has ever come across. Her bitterness is palpable when she sings lines like, “This is how the world works / You gotta leave before you get left,” “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trust me,” and “This is why we can’t have nice things, honey / Did you think I wouldn’t hear all the things you said about me?”
The record’s first single, “Look What You Made Me Do” doesn’t really frame Swift as empowered or taking control of any narrative, but petty, immature, and pushing the responsibility on anyone but her. (What exactly did we make her do?) Even more baffling, is when Taylor’s newly found cynicism temporarily takes a backseat to her naivete in the worrisome lines, “My reputation has never been worse, so he must like me for me” and “I’m doing better than I ever was ‘cause, my baby’s fit like a daydream.” Did an adult write this?
In “Gorgeous,” we see more of this inherently unlikeable Swift, who goes on and on about a guy “so gorgeous it actually hurts” that she wants to invite him home, but not before dismissively admitting that she has a boyfriend “in the club doing, I don’t know what.” You would think after countless songs about the pain of infidelity, Swift would…not be an advocate of cheating? As if to remind us time and again that this version of Taylor is Rated R, we’re given explicit details of the singer’s sensual side when she sings, “Do the girls back home touch you like I do?,” “Scratches down your back […] you did a number on me,” “You turned my bed into a secret oasis,” and “I only bought this dress so you can take it off.” It almost begs the question: is Swift singing about sexy times, late-night trysts, and hookups that cross boundaries into cheating because she thinks that’s what adults do?
To be fair, Reputation isn’t completely bad, musically. By the end of the 15-song whirlwind mess, hints of the Old Taylor are visible through the debris. The 9th track “Getaway Car” is the best Bleachers song Taylor Swift ever wrote, unsurprisingly featuring Jack Antonoff at the production helm while “Dress” has one of those undeniably catchy choruses reminiscent of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
The album closer “New Year’s Day” hints at the album Swift could’ve written instead of Reputation; its quiet, measured piano melody is soft and evocative as it supports Taylor’s pretty voice stripped of any radio-friendly production. It’s evident the Old Taylor is still there somewhere, but Reputation would rather sacrifice Swift’s songwriting for hip-hop beats because…she’s now a Badass?
Reputation is not only overproduced, sonically incoherent, and lyrically uninspired, but begs too many questions about the true identity of Taylor Swift. Is she still that sweet and naive girl who loves love and doing the right thing? Is she a strong woman unwavering in the face of controversy? Is she emotionally immature and more than likely living in a bubble of yes-men who want her to make money and sell records like the cool hip-hop kids? I don’t even want to ask that the Real Taylor Swift please stand up, because I doubt anyone would like what we see.