review: taylor swift's "reputation" is apathetic

My   Difficult People   spec, circa 2017, circa my heart.

My Difficult People spec, circa 2017, circa my heart.

Taylor Swift has a problem reading the room. One week before the release of reputation, her sixth studio album, our oft-thinkpiece’d singer-songwriter was caught in a legal scandal with the ACLU after her team attempted to suppress an unflattering blog post. It was a strange way to kick-off an album that’s been marketed as Taylor Swift’s shoulder shrug to her critics, her I don’t care what you think about me pièce de résistance. And yet.

The years since 1989 have borne witness to the fall of Media Darling Taylor Swift. PR disaster after PR disaster eventually culminated with the internet’s #KimExposedTaylorParty, a celebration of Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat takedown of Swift and the dispute over that lyric in Kanye’s “Famous.” After the Kardashian confetti fell away and she declared an aversion to narrative inclusion, Swift largely retreated from public life.

Reputation appeared a response to these events. In the first released single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift declares the death of her old self, her good girl persona, and rises from the dead - bent on revenge via a tour of a newer, darker self. And this new Swift? She’s doing great. She’s better off. There may be worms crawling out of her eye sockets, but hey, who cares. She’s wild now. She’s crazy. Watch out!

But reputation is not “Blank Space,” the album (though it makes every attempt to make you believe it is). Take “I Did Something Bad,” one of many songs that toss Swift deep into the strange lands of high-gloss electronic production. Swift croons in the first verse about playing a lover “like a violin,” before letting us know “he had it coming” (in reference to whatever bad thing we’re to assume the same artist who gave us the anti-bullying PSA “Mean” has now done). This song, and much of the first half of the album, paints a picture of comeuppance on a mediascape and society that has mistreated our heroine. As Swift declares: “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one.” Even if you’re Taylor Swift.

The problem here, of course, is that good pop music no longer runs on feuds and self-aggrandizing pity parties. In a year that’s felt like a most dramatic reading of Punk’d, empathy rules. Compassion has infiltrated our culture in a real way and audience tastes have adjusted accordingly. Many pop artists have tapped into this to great success. The hyper-specificity and humanity displayed on Lorde’s Melodrama and St. Vincent’s Masseduction provide far greater musical delight than anything offered in a song like “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which plays like a Kacey Musgraves tune filtered through an exhaust pipe.

TBH, much of reputation plays like someone else’s take on pop via vocoder. “Getaway Car” is Carly Rae doused in pond water. “Dress,” Swift’s sexiest bop, is a Selena Gomez radio single disguised in 80s synths. I have no idea what the hell “Gorgeous” is other than an ode to Garageband sound effects.  

But then we get moments, outlines, of what this album could have been. “I Did Something Bad” and “Look What You Made Me Do” paint the edges of an argument for Female Rage. Can you imagine a Taylor Swift album that explored why women are angry with present society and how cathartic it might feel to burn the whole place down? It’s not here. An album of “Don’t Blame Me”s could have explored the obsessive/addictive quality to falling in love, and how that kind of insulation appears from the outside.  Even “New Year’s Day,” reputation’s last and most ‘dead Taylor’ song, makes me nostalgic for a simpler Swiftian time of sentimentality and unprocessed piano chords.

Reputation is an engine mid-misfire. Sure, there are bops. How could there not be? It’s produced by a Swedish scientist and pop music’s current messiah, Jack Antonoff. But a few groovy beats aren’t a thesis. But beyond a sloppy premise, reputation use Swift’s favorite punctuation...boring. A most worst crime.

The musician that brought us “Teardrops On My Guitar” may be dead now, but she’s still rising from shallow graves to momentarily take shots (seriously, there are actual gunshots on this album) at famous rivals. But the zombie life is not sustainable. Listen, I’m no dragon. I don’t want to watch pop stars burn under my breath. What I’m saying is this: What does an empathetic Taylor Swift look like? What does her music become when beamed through a lens less unconcerned and more compassionate? More specific? More alive? I’m...ready for it.

Please, Taylor Swift. Come back to life.

Illustration by  Sarah Crawford

Illustration by Sarah Crawford