Amid So Many Stories About Bad Men In The Media, Taylor Swift Strikes Back With ‘Reputation’

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In the run-up to her sixth album, Reputation, Taylor Swift has been discussed first as a global brand, with the media analyzing her every machination and whether it has induced her possible “obsolescence,” and then as a musician. But now that this record is finally in the world, let’s start with Swift’s music for a change.

Reputation is a cold, convoluted, often surly record, heavily weighted with overly complicated prog-R&B arrangements, awkward attempts at rapping, and lyrics that underline every reference to Swift’s casual hook-ups and late-night binge-drinking. At the risk of libeling Swift’s usual stable of expensive pop-auteur collaborators — headlined by Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff — some of the songs seem almost pasted together, with verses barging indelicately into pre-choruses as tempos shift in jarring fashion. The elegance of previous Swift blockbusters like 2012’s Red and 2014’s 1989 has gone missing.

And yet, Reputation adds up to a fascinating and often moving, self-portrait. On the biggest possible stage, Swift has fearlessly exposed some of her rawest vulnerabilities. For the first time in years, Swift seems like a rather ordinary human being, with all the unattractive flaws and nagging hang-ups that suggests.

As was the case with Reputation‘s bewildering first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” the album is initially off-putting, as sour and difficult to like as Swift’s previous pop album, the candy-coated retro-pop showcase 1989, was sweet and catchy. Swift is nothing if not a pop-music prodigy, a seasoned hitmaker at age 27 who already displayed preternatural gifts for crafting heart-rending earworms more than a decade ago, at a time when her peers were struggling to write essays on The Great Gatsby (which Swift pointedly references on Reputation) in high school.

Swift’s franchise is creating the types of songs that people like without even trying to like them. And yet Reputation is decidedly not in that tradition — sure enough, the album’s early singles have not captured the public’s imagination the way those undeniable world-beaters of 1989 did. It seems intuitive that this represents a failure on Swift’s part. But then you dwell on this album’s lyrics, which are laced with violent imagery and obsessed with control and score-settling, and all of a sudden the turbulent, herky-jerky music makes more sense.

Reputation doesn’t fail at being likable, because being likable for once doesn’t seem to be Swift’s agenda. Rather, this album succeeds at expressing a litany of deep, intractable resentments by a world-famous pop star who seems alienated from all but a tight circle of trusted confidantes. “Here’s a toast to my real friends,” she crows on the album’s bitterest track, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” You suspect she’s not addressing more than a few people.

Who is Taylor mad at? Who do you got? No specific names are mentioned in the lyrics to Reputation, so instead there are opaque references to “older guys,” “the world,” “what I can’t have,” and “the liars.” But, above all, what haunts Taylor is the proverbial “they” — in “I Did Something Bad,” they are “burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one.” In “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” Swift loves her baby because “he ain’t reading what they call me lately.”

The songs on Reputation don’t necessarily lend themselves to the sort of “Which boyfriend is this one about?” parlor games that people usually play with Taylor Swift albums. The animus instead here feels intangible and existential, which is why Swift’s belated embrace of hip-hop, while artistically tenuous and bound to be viewed cynically by those who believe Swift is an opportunist, is such a crucial development on Reputation.

It’s easy to laugh at Swift’s stilted flow in “…Ready For It?” or puzzle at the ill-advised “street speak” of the chorus. (“I, I, I see how this is gon’ go.”) But the overt feistiness of rap allows Swift to front-load emotions that she has previously kept concealed behind frothy pop hooks and that iconic “Oh, I can’t believe my good fortune!” award-show face. “I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em,” Swift spits in “End Game,” which shoehorns cameos by Future and Ed Sheeran that would seem preordained by a streaming-service algorithm if Swift were more enthusiastic about streaming. (Reputation is not yet available on any streaming platform.)

Swift has written similarly barbed lyrics in the past, of course, but back then there was usually a trace of playfulness. When she refers to herself as “insane” in “Blank Space,” you can sense the self-deprecation and implied eye roll. But Reputation — aside from that stray cat joke in “Gorgeous” — is mirthless. This time, when Swift buries a hatchet, she draws blood.

Swift has been a magnet for criticism lately — some of it fair, much of it not. The media narrative has turned so rapidly against her that it’s almost hard to remember that, for much of her career, Swift was a darling of the press. As late as 2015, the New York Times was still inclined to refer to her as an “underdog,” and there were no shortage of Swift defenders in the press eager to call out perceived slights, whether it was an indie-music site not reviewing 1989 (even as virtually every other outlet on the planet lavished the album with coverage) or the sexism of Ryan Adams covering the album in its entirety.

But nobody sees Swift as an underdog in 2017. Now, she’s an establishment foil for Cardi B, whose scrappy smash “Bodak Yellow” removed “Look What You Made Me Do” from the top of the pop charts after “just” three weeks this fall. “Look What You Made Me Do” has sunk precipitously ever since, along with the followup single “…Ready For It,” which peaked at No. 4.

Certainly, it’s worth noting that these songs haven’t made the impact that singles like “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” did. But the whispers that Swift is now finished as a pop star, as Spotify-powered rappers storm the charts seems a tad premature, given that Reputation is projected to move an impressive-in-any-era two million units in its first week.

Did anyone really expect Swift to keep on churning out 1989-sized pop bangers in perpetuity? Who faulted Beyoncé when Lemonade — which like Reputation is clearly conceived as an album rather than a playlist of singles — also didn’t produce any lasting chart hits? (The highest charting single from Lemonade, “Formation,” peaked at No. 10. At least Taylor spent the better part of a month at No. 1.)

Here’s a criticism I agree with: Swift should condemn the alt-right cult that reveres her as some sort of blonde Aryan goddess. Her apparent stubbornness on this issue is strange, considering that sending out a press release against Nazis is literally the easiest thing in the world to do. (I suspect she doesn’t deem it necessary to declare her anti-Nazi bonafides, as opposed to being reluctant to anger conservatives, a frequent charge from critics. But letting the controversy linger nonetheless is nonsensical.) However, the larger argument that Swift’s stock as a pop star has slipped because she’s maintained a largely apolitical public persona doesn’t wash.

Swift, like virtually every artist, is a narcissist. And, by and large, that’s why people like her, because when Swift sings about herself, she does it in a way that makes millions of people believe she’s actually singing about them. That is the job of a pop star. This weird insistence that a musician who has previously shown no inclination to be a political commentator must suddenly register her yay-or-nay take on Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, or Hillary vs. Bernie says more about our displaced reverence for pop stars than it does about Swift’s supposed moral obligations.

Isn’t it possible that Taylor Swift genuinely has nothing to say on these matters? And isn’t that okay? If given the choice between performative wokeness and authentic non-engagement, I’ll take the latter, please. Besides, as we’ve seen demonstrated time and again lately, the personal is political, particularly when it comes to one of Swift’s primary subjects: The power struggles between men and women.

Reputation arrives in the midst of an ongoing moral apocalypse in the entertainment industry, in which sexual harassment and assault have been properly re-contextualized in the popular consciousness as expressions of dominance and humiliation, typically by straight white men over women. Swift herself has been victimized by this power imbalance, by a Colorado radio DJ who groped her during a station visit in 2013, when Swift was 23. (Swift won a civil suit against the DJ this summer.)

It might be hard to conceive of Swift, one of the world’s most famous women, as somehow subordinate to a faceless radio jock. But consider how country radio has suppressed women, or how chart success (which is still enabled greatly by radio airplay) has come to dominate, dubiously, how we determine relevance or even artistic merit in popular music. If the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal has taught us anything, it’s that even famous women can be abused by much less famous but nonetheless well-connected men behind the scenes.

But with Reputation, I sense that Swift is finished with that. In her new songs, Swift always has the upper hand. If anyone is going to get broken, it’s the guy in the equation, who’s typically an older (and therefore patriarchal) figure. (“I’ve been breaking hearts for a long time / And toyin’ with them older guys / just playthings for me to use,” she seethes in the dirge-like “Don’t Blame Me.”) If she does decide to settle down, it’s up to the other person to accept her shortcomings, not the other way around. (“Even in my worst times, you could see the best of me,” she sings on “Dress.”) Either way, she gets to be the dominant one, the person who always gets what she wants, including the last word.

After listening to Reputation, I think I understand why Swift’s been seemingly indifferent about her recent bad PR choices, including her threat, via a lawyer, to sue a blogger who criticized her silence on the white supremacist issue. And I get why she’s retreated from the media to the comfort of her massive cult on Tumblr, an audience inclined to perceive her venting and femme-fatale posturing as cathartic, rather than merely petulant.

If Reputation had a nutgraf, it would be, “Why should I have to explain myself?” To Swift, going through the paces of tending to her “perfect” public image seemingly provokes the most resentment of all, since it only seems to make people expect even more from her. Haven’t they already taken enough?

Reputation is out now via Big Machine Records. Get it here.