Taylor Swift has been dealing with the baggage of her reputation for years now. From being viewed as serial-dating heartbreaker whose every ex would be eviscerated in one of her singles to conniving snake at the epicenter of a number of public disagreements with various celebrities, she’s received more than a little criticism.
It was clear from its announcement that Reputation, her sixth album release, was going to address this, from its title to its cover illustrating the propensity of tabloids and paparazzi to focus on her. Lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” took to over-the-top bitterness about all of the drama, begging the question: Would this entire album be a shot at the media and all her enemies?
As it turns out, this isn’t precisely Reputation’s raison d’etre. Reputation is indeed a recurring theme throughout the whole album, from directly addressing criticisms to examining the role public perception plays in the singer’s personal relationships, but it doesn’t feel like a targeted attack on her critics from start to finish; it reads more as a complex progression between ups and downs.
It is worth noting that Reputation marks Swift’s second album since her official transition into pop, and this time she’s bypassed the pseudo-’80s nostalgia and went straight for a modern pop album, complete with electronic beats and synths aplenty. And it works; her rapping on “…Ready For It?” and the unexpected R&B collab with Ed Sheeran and Future on “End Game” start the album off in an odd realm for her, but underneath the heavy bass and electronic production lies the same Swift, with soaring choruses and witty one-liners.
It’s often difficult to tell exactly how Swift feels, though, a sharp turn away from the confessional, diary-esque lyrics on which she built her career. As if to emphasize this shift, Reputation is Swift’s first album without hidden messages in the liner notes; furthermore, her traditional intro in the booklet goes to lengths to explain that people are complex and you only see a certain version of them, and preemptively discredits those who would dig through the songs to decide which of her boyfriends they’re about. All of this is not to say that her lyrics are impersonal or weaker, but there is a palpable shift; previously, her lyrics seemed to put you directly in her shoes, whereas Reputation often feels more like you’re observing from the outside.
Swift further casts aside the schoolgirl vibe by bringing in a plethora of casual mentions to alcohol as well as discussion of sex, particularly in “So It Goes…” and “Dress.” There’s still plenty of doomed love and lyrical bitterness, so the old Taylor isn’t completely dead, but she’s not exactly the same, either; it’s clearly a new era for the 27-year-old.
The subject of reputation is most prevalent in the first section of the album, kicking things off with a bang and a bone to pick. The reveling “I Did Something Bad,” with its rumbling bass, eerie loops, and screaming choruses, is the album’s most unapologetic romp. On the other hand, as its follow-up “Don’t Blame Me” insists “Don’t blame me / Love made me crazy / If it doesn’t you ain’t doing it right,” it feels heavily reminiscent of 2014’s tongue-in-cheek “Blank Space,” in which Swift took on a caricature of her reputed man killer status, so it’s difficult to tell how sincerely it’s intended.
From there, the story turns to a more nuanced view of how her infamy plays into her personal life, reaching a particularly interesting point in “Getaway Car.” Arguably the song on Reputation that most resembles a classic Taylor Swift composition, it uses a story of criminal lovers as a backdrop to her inevitable betrayal of her lover, a powerful vocal performance selling the interesting tale in one of the album’s most poignant tracks.
On the other hand, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” sticks out a bit in the album’s latter progression. It’s a catchy and fun piece, its tone similar to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” or “Shake It Off,” but it feels a bit juvenile in its callout of a former friend (though it’s hard to say if the “friend” is a single person or an entity like the media). Furthermore, it feels like it disrupts the flow of the album as it begins to come to a close with more emotionally compelling offerings. It’s not a bad song, and some might argue that its whimsical nature offers a nice contrast in its placement, but it’s one of the weaker songs on Reputation.
Possibly the most complex and quintessential piece on the album is penultimate track, “Call It What You Want,” which summarizes the ultimate message Swift seems to be trying to convey. Mellow and atmospheric with a gentle beat, the track finds her wistfully reflecting on her downfall. She ultimately turns to her lover, who sees beyond her past as he continues to love and care for her. It feels overly self-pitying as the verses list the ways she feels wronged, but it’s emotionally effective to hear the progression of her finding comfort from her woes in somebody and reflecting, “At least I did one thing right,” ultimately concluding that the catharsis is more important than people being right about her.
With 2014’s 1989, Swift seemed to change a lot of minds about her and her music; my inclination is to say that Reputation seems likely to foster more of a dichotomy, though the fact that her first-day sales broke both records and iTunes might contradict that. Still, on the subject of her status alone, most of her fans will likely stand by her, and Reputation’s lack of apology means nobody’s likely to backtrack on their negative opinions.
For those in the middle, your mileage may vary, but Reputation is arguably Swift’s most complex and daring release yet, musically speaking. She finds herself in open water, securely settled in the era of modern pop, exploring new themes in her lyrics, and she pulls it all off with aplomb. Reputation has ups and downs, and there’s no question that it’s not my favorite album by her, but it works. It has an interesting thematic flow, and while it’s odd to hear Swift’s voice among hip hop beats, R&B grooves, and many other aspects of modern-day pop, there’s never a point at which she feels in over her head. She may never overcome the rumors and enemies, but she’s proven yet again that she’s not short on musical talent.