'Who does Taylor Swift think she is?' is a question you’ve inevitably heard at some point over the past two months. Since the singer-songwriter made her return to the pop music realm, three years after her Grammy award-winner 1989, she’s been the subject of a mass tabloid witch hunt; scrutinized for pioneering a surprisingly darker image and sound. She isn’t the same Taylor who left us; that one’s “dead.” In her place, we have a brand new musical entity to worship - one who apparently takes no bullshit and makes raucous, abrasive pop/rock to prove it.
But if you strip it all back, she’s still a constructed pop star like the vast majority of musicians working today; only her history as an innocent, billowy dress-wearing, blonde-haired guitar twanger is so heavily documented that it makes her an easy target for tabloids and internet forums. With the announcement of Reputation – her sixth record in eleven years – Swift seemed to be closing the door on her past as the world’s most famously affable pop star. She was rubbing people up the wrong way, and it certainly got them talking.
Shrouded in secrecy, barely anybody has heard Reputation in advance, and those who have have practically signed their lives away to keep its contents secret. The elusiveness meant that the new Taylor Swift illusion was starting to feel real, even if her supporting singles were gloriously subpar; "Look What You Made Me Do," a clunkily written song about Taylor being forced to put her good girl image to bed, left few convinced.
Reputation is meant to exist as a sonic warning to anybody who dares to cross Taylor’s path in future. But instead, it feels glaringly flippant and posed - as if her new harsher identity was formed as a marketing technique for a desperately-needed reinvention of a butter-wouldn’t-melt star, the music merely coming second.
Pop stars have a habit of relying on pleasant melodies as the crux of their work, effectively sacrificing the quality and finesse of their songwriting. On Reputation, Taylor Swift is a repeat offender. “Island breeze and lights down low / nobody needs to know” she says somewhat nonsensically on the album’s opener "...Ready for It?" It’s a brash, busy and overproduced song from Max Martin, Shellback and Ali Payami, that exists to ensure the listener’s definitely got the memo: 'This is the new Taylor you’re listening to, okay? Don’t forget it!'
“I did something bad, why does it feel so good?” she’ll repeat on a later track. It's cringeworthy; it’s as if she’s spent her time off reading a guide to generic pop songwriting, bookmarking every page.
The vast majority of Reputation captures this faux-badass sensibility in full view; subtleties are hardly Swift’s strong point. “Big reputation, you heard about me / I got some big enemies”, she announces on the Future and Ed Sheeran collaboration "End Game" with as much conviction as a naïve school kid in a fight at recess. Sheeran chimes in too, letting us know that his “reputation precedes [him]”. It’s funny, for being such a seemingly antagonistic figure, we get the impression that Taylor Swift wouldn’t take conflict well.
The opening act of the album plays out like an endless spiel of the same song, repeating its monosyllabic, badass message to the point it feels worn out by track four. As Reputation’s leading producer, Max Martin has a habit of going a bit too heavy on, well, everything. On most of the tracks, his production is a messy, multi-layered racket, as if we’re listening to a drunk busker deliver his final, woefully off-tempo set for the night.
In fact, the only truly good songs on Reputation are the ones that don’t feel tampered by Taylor’s poorly executed switch up. On "Delicate," a synth-fuelled, echoing love song, she ponders “My reputation has never been worse so, he must like me for me.” Similarly, "Gorgeous" is a song that hearkens back to good times of old Taylor, standing out from the rest of its plodding tracks thanks to its gleeful, semi-geeky songwriting and bubbly, pristine production. It is in this non-delusional realm that Taylor Swift always seems to be the most comfortable.
While producer Jack Antonoff has become something of a pop star-boy thanks to his wildly successful Bleachers solo career and his role in the creation of Lorde’s enchanting Melodrama, his tracks on Reputation are a some of its most turgid and uninspired. "Getaway Car," for example, sounds like a B-side from a decade old T-Swift single – and not in a good way.
Poorly-executed (but lyrically a tabloid goldmine - much like the entire album), "This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things" is the album’s inevitable Kimye diss. Initially sounding like a party track in which the “bass beat [is] shaking the chandelier,” it evolves into a gloriously petty song about breaking things – promises, maybe? – and being forced to take them away. “Friends don’t try to trick you / Get you on the phone and mind twist you,” Taylor lambasts. You can practically hear the in-studio conversations they’re having about the paparazzi-blasted hysteria.
Pop music might seem frivolous, fuelled by potent fantasies, silly games and escapism, but the commonality of the best stuff is the creator’s willingness to lay themselves bear. Without that, the songwriting – nay, the whole package – feels distractingly disingenuous.
Taylor Swift’s Reputation isn't a complete car wreck, but it is a hapless, facetious and an unconvincing attempt at making a whole generation familiar with a well-mannered pop star suddenly believe she’s got a heart of stone. In 2017, as reading the news never ceases to get any less shittier than the day that preceded it, we need our pop idols to be banding together and spreading positive messages, not the petty, false animosity that Reputation is defined by.
Taylor Swift's 'Reputation' is out now, order it here.