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.”