“Are you ready for it?”
Judging by the negative reaction to the first single from Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do,” maybe we’re not. When that song dropped a couple of months ago, some applauded Swift for directly confronting the media and her rivals, as well as for embracing the role of a heel. But from a musical standpoint, most of the reviews of the Right Said Fred sampling track were almost universally negative. Many (myself included) saw it as Swift simply trying to follow mainstream pop trends instead of being the one to create them, as she had on her 2014 effort, 1989. Of course, people love when pop stars transform into something or someone new, but the shoe didn’t fit the foot; Taylor Swift wasn’t meant to sing/half-rap in front of caustic synthetic hand clapping and hi-hat and obnoxious computer thumping, squealing, beeping and buzzing – even the most ardent Swift fans with some level of sensibility had to admit that it wasn’t a good song for her, or for anyone, really.
Predictably, “Look What You Made Me Do” hit #1, fueled by rampant public interest in hearing the new song from the biggest pop star in the world. But, it didn’t stay there long – and interest in the song waned as most came to the realization that it didn’t have the same sort of bubbly poppy hook like “Shake it Off” or “Bad Blood.” However, the promotional cycle for Reputation continued unabated – Swift kept teasing the full length with a few more promotional singles, namely the better, but nearly equally cringe-worthy second single, “Ready for It?” which failed to make as much of an impact despite its sugary sweet chorus. With those two tracks as our guideposts, would Reputation only feature this new, confrontational side of Swift, and if so, were we about to witness the beginning of the end for Taylor Swift?
The first half of Reputation features this new version of Swift in spades – taking control of the scene in front of blaring, distorted synthesizers on “Ready for It?,” calling out her “big enemies” and saying she “buries hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em” on the Ed Sheeran and Future collaboration (you read that right), “End Game,” and throwing in some dub themes for good measure on “I Did Something Bad,” where she explicitly addresses the media for “burning all the witches even if you aren’t one/so light me up, light me up, go ahead and light me up.” It’s all a bit overwhelming, especially in succession one after another, and it does come off as less intimidating than Swift wanted to convey, but it does get the point across – this is what happens when you get Taylor angry – and you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.
But, like 2012’s Red saw Swift liberally jumping between being the country-star of her past and embracing pop, Reputation sees Swift dancing between her new, grungier, more combative side, and the more atmospheric pop of the 1989-era, which is certainly a welcome relief. The two halves of Reputation are like night and day, and could be easily mistaken for being two completely different albums. The back half outshines the first half nearly note for note, and it features a number of songs produced by Jack Antonoff, that hit the same great highs as some of the tracks on 1989. “Getaway Car,” which takes some cues from Antonoff’s band Bleachers, and the twinkling, low key pop of “Gorgeous,” “Dress,” and “Call It What You Want” are the clear highlights here because they are good, lyrically simple pop songs, that are not surrounded by the musical equivalent of a garbage truck.
It’s painfully obvious that these are the sort of songs that Swift should be focusing on – tales revolving around forbidden love, running away together, and daydreaming with your head in the clouds driven by inoffensive, 80’s style, floating keyboard lines. Ultimately, its these songs that end up saving Reputation from being a complete disaster – it turns out that Swift (and probably her label) hedged her bets a little bit so that if the new, abrasive persona didn’t take, there would still be half an album’s worth of 1989-esque songs that would prevent true and overwhelming critical backlash. Of course, by pushing these two sides of Swift together, Reputation is not a cohesive an effort as many would have liked, and it begs the question of whether Swift has truly created her “pop magnum opus” yet despite all of her success in the genre.
2017 has been a year where other female pop megastars of years past have diverged onto different paths – Katy Perry flopped, Lady Gaga scaled things back, and Ke$ha is the best she’s ever been but has decidedly taken a less mainstream route. Swift remains the top dog, and I’m not convinced that these two conflicting sides of Swift which are battling it out for our affection on Reputation will have any sort of long term effect on the pop scene. But, all of this does bring up a few questions. What does the future hold for her, and where could she possibly go from here? After hearing 1989 and the back half of Reputation, I’m wondering who out there really wants to see more of the contentious side of Swift. Furthermore, who decided that this abrupt change was a good idea? Was it truly the work of Swift wanting to confront her demons and settle the score with Kanye West, Perry, and the media in general, or did her label play a part in this transformation? How much of the backlash towards “Look What You Made Me Do” actually made its way to Swift – and, were any last minute changes to the album in terms of which songs to include because of it? All of these questions will ultimately shape how Swift sounds on her next studio album, which hopefully plays up more to her known strengths and leaves the erratic, hip hop loving, tabloid-bashing Taylor Swift far, far behind.
UPDATE: Three weeks after it was released in physical formats, Reputation is now available on streaming services. Check it out on Spotify below.