The old Taylor is not dead, she’s just fed up

The old Taylor is not dead, she’s just fed up
Taylor Swift's "Reputation" was released Nov. 10. / Photo courtesy Creative Commons

A Comprehensive Review of Taylor Swift’s “Reputation.”

By Ryan Wallis, news correspondent

When Taylor Swift dropped her fifth studio album “1989” back in October 2014, the question on everybody’s mind, no doubt, was “how can she possibly top this?” Well, the answer to that question will have to wait at least a couple more years.

That’s not to say that “Reputation” is a bad album, but to make the claim that it artistically eclipses its predecessor is carelessly inaccurate. To be fair to Swift, her intention with this record was not to create a “1989” 2.0; no, she was going for and achieved something conceptually and genetically different from her previous work. The record as a whole is solidly middle-of-the-road: it accomplishes what Swift set out to achieve, but there is no “megahit” quality about it.

There isn’t anything terribly outstanding to be found in any of the album’s 15 songs. The powerful catchy choruses, so heavily present in her previous synth-pop album, are what arguably helped make “1989” the megahit that it was. Swift released seven (seven!) singles from “1989,” all of which consumed pop radio for up to two years after the album’s release. Three years later, almost everyone can recognize the choruses to “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space” or “Style” as the pop anthems of 2015. “Reputation,” on the other hand, is deplete of these memorable pop anthems — “Getaway Car” is as close as the album gets to competing with the roaring singles of “1989.”

Taylor Swift on her 1989 Tour. / Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It’s quite important to understand the context surrounding this album in order to fully grasp the meaning behind three of its songs: “Look What You Made Me Do,” “I Did Something Bad” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Back in the summer of 2016, Kanye West name-dropped Swift in his song “Famous,” saying that he “made that [expletive] famous.” That line set off a firestorm of drama when Swift denied West’s claim that she gave approval for the line to be included. West and his wife, Kim Kardashian, publicly went back and forth with Swift over this situation that summer, and Kardashian went as far as releasing a taped conversation between her husband and Swift. The incident further pushed Swift into the role of ‘the victim,’ a narrative she has inadvertently and unintentionally been a participant in over the course of her career.

“Reputation” serves as the antithesis to her infamous — and later meme-worthy — comment, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.” Rather than fighting it, she embraces it and shows the world her mastery of the music medium. Through music, she can express her deep feelings and can play the role of villain better than anybody else. Finally embracing the characterizations she’s tried to distance herself from and stepping down to face the drama she has tried to avoid permits her to break herself free from its grasp — the ultimate paradox of the record.

The lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” is a pointed response to not only West but to everyone who has pushed her into playing this victim role. The song and its corresponding video include countless references to those who have wronged her in the past, such as Calvin Harris, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry and, yes, Kanye West. The song, though, is just awful.

When it was originally released back in August, I was convinced that it was meant to be a joke because of how completely unoriginal it was. I remember listening to it for the first time and thinking to myself, “We waited three years … for this?” Lyrically, the song is petty, and it’s impossible to not to roll your eyes when hearing the lyrics “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now … because she’s dead.”

Lyrics aside, the song’s unoriginality extends to its rhythmic elements, which come directly from Right Said Fred’s 1991 hit “I’m Too Sexy.” The rhythm is so similar that the group is actually given co-writing credits on the song. Not one component of the song provides anything current, unique or interesting. As much as she tries, she just doesn’t come off as “in control” with this song; she sounds completely on the defensive and honestly, it’s kind of embarrassing.

If anything can be learned from “Reputation,” it’s to never doubt the power of the empire Swift has built.

I respect and wholly understand Swift’s artistic choice in responding to her critics and to the drama that consumed her the past few years, and I love a good “clapback” as much as anyone, but a good response needs to be timely, original and provide new insight. This song would’ve been timely had it been released 12 months ago; however, at this point, the drama surrounding Kanye West’s “Famous” is so far in the past that it’s hard to even fake being invested in it.

Where Swift executes this theme well, however, is in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and “I Did Something Bad.” Both songs include verses so blatantly directed toward West, it is actually impressive his name didn’t accidentally slip out during recording. In contrast to “Look What You Made Me Do,” in which Swift’s tone is one of seething anger, “Nice Things” includes a line in which Swift literally laughs out loud at the idea of forgiveness. This simple moment of vindictiveness makes her sound so much more in control of the situation and places her on the offensive rather than the defensive. When the auto-tuned bridge hits in “I Did Something Bad,” it is hard to resist smirking in complicity with Swift as she coyly sings: “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one, so light me up”.

“Look What You Made Me Do” was certainly the album’s low point, but “End Game” was not far ahead. “End Game” was her collaboration with Ed Sheeran and Future, and it seems completely pointless. From beginning to end, it comes off as nothing more than fan wish fulfillment. The song walks the edge between R&B, hip-hop and pop — the risk of walking this edge, though, is that sometimes you fall right off. That’s what happened here.

She’s been dabbling more in rap and hip-hop-infused music over the past couple years, featuring Kendrick Lamar in “Bad Blood (Remix)” and B.o.B in “Both Of Us,” so this isn’t really unexpected territory for her. However, it does seem to be rather unnecessary territory. Swift’s rapping, while not terrible, comes off much more polished in “…Ready For It?” than in “End Game.” A rap is only as good as its lyrics and syllabic rhythm, and “…Ready For It?” has a much tighter rhythm that ties in with its lyrics better. “End Game” sounded more like a fit-as-many-genres-as-possible, while “Ready For it?” was much better at the push and pull.

Putting aside “Look What You Made Me Do” and “End Game,” you’re actually left with a pretty decent record.

“Getaway Car” is easily the album’s best song and bears the strongest resemblance to “1989” with its 80s-style production and synthpop beat. Lyrically, the song sticks with one of Swift’s favorite themes: cars. The line “Nothing good starts in a getaway car” gently reminds the listener of her “1989” track “Style” in which she sings “Long drive, could end in burning flames, or paradise.” The hook yanks you into a powerful chorus, with Swift’s airy and sweeping vocals taking the listener on a ride, making one feel almost as if they’re sitting right next to her in her getaway car. Overall, this song is Swift at her very best.

Finally embracing the characterizations she’s tried to distance herself from and stepping down to face the drama she has tried to avoid permits her to break herself free from its grasp — the ultimate paradox of the record.

“King of My Heart” is easily one of the top three songs on the record. It’s one of the happier moments, as Swift finally believes that she’s found the titular king of her heart, body and soul; what many believe refers to her current boyfriend Joe Alwyn. The song’s verses consist of hip-hop style vocals and a heavily produced backing track. Its choruses take the reverse approach and dial back the production on the backing track, relying mostly on a simple bass, soft guitar, complemented with heavily autotuned vocals. Following the bridge, the louder elements mesh together to create a powerful final chorus.

Taylor Swift in April 2009. / Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The simple presence of these two songs diminishes the eye-roll-inducing line from “Look What You Made Me Do” to hyperbole. The old Taylor isn’t dead — she’s right here on tracks 9 and 10.

“Delicate” is one of the softer moments on the record and is Swift at her most intimate. It takes us into her mind as she contemplates her new relationship, singing, “My reputation’s never been worse, so he must like me for me.” She recognizes the fragility of this fresh relationship and her relinquished control forces her to consciously question each move she makes. It’s a very honest look into her mind and provides a perspective seldom seen before.

If anything can be learned from “Reputation,” it’s to never doubt the power of the empire Swift has built. A Taylor Swift album release is an event unlike that of any other artist. The release of “Look What You Made Me Do” made national news and broke the YouTube record for most views within 24 hours with 40 million. Even after the first few singles were critically panned, the album still sold more than 800,000 copies in its first day and is on track to sell more than 2 million copies in the first week.

“Reputation” will not go down as her best work, but it will go down as an important stepping stone to the next phase of her career. The album shows Swift accepting the fact that she’ll never be able please everybody. This record certainly is not going to win any of her haters over to her side, and she couldn’t care less. She ties a neat bow on the drama and characterizations that she feels have been weighing her down and puts them behind her. Her poise and control prevent the album from coming off as “throwing in towel” and giving into the drama. She addresses what she wants to address and does so in the medium in which she has always expressed herself best — music. This is the bookend for the last two years, and while it might be perceived as looking back into the past, rest assured she’s only looking forward toward the future.

Leave a Reply