By Tara Fitzpatrick
“The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now…” Having gone almost entirely off the grid since that celebrity-spat with Kanye and Kim Kardashian-West, Taylor Swift is back with a dramatic reinvention and her most ostentatious marketing campaign to date.
‘Reputation’ her sixth album, is a 15 track analysis of fame, friendship and disloyalty. If the overarching theme of 1989 (Swift’s ground-breaking fifth album from 2014) was triumph, Reputation’s is defensiveness.
However, the question is: what does Taylor Swift, with her millions of fans, vast public platform and continuous praise for her perceptive and nuanced song-writing, have to be defensive about?
As damning as it was, the Taylor Swift Vs Kim Kardashian West drama seemed, to me, one of the lesser calamitous moments of 2016.Despite the obvious personal embarrassment the incident must have caused for Swift, I feel as though the world was preoccupied with other issues.
I’m aware not everyone will agree with me there and one person who certainly doesn’t is Swift herself who, despite supposedly wishing to “exclude herself from this narrative”, has written an entire album addressing the subject.
The problem is that Swift’s bad reputation runs deeper than a meagre celebrity feud. From her brandishing of a faux-feminist narrative to sell her 1989 album era to her blatant failure to utter anything on the subject of Trump, Swift has been slowly cutting away at her liberal fan base for years. She is now either damned if she addresses these issues and damned if she doesn’t but, whether she likes it or not, her country is in the grips of a cultural war and if you don’t state what side you’re on, the world will just decide for you.
Just this week, Swift’s legal team sent a cease and desist letter to a blogger from the small pop-culture site PopFront for an article entitled: “Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation.” The American Civil Liberties Union quickly stepped in to defend PopFront and remind Swift and her lawyers of the First Amendment. The blog, which had a mere 76 Twitter followers at the time (Swift has 85.6m), called the letter an “insidious” attack on the freedoms of the press. The incident was unnecessary and bizarre for the Taylor Swift brand and left many begging the question: why go to all that trouble when you could just condemn the alt-right?
“Her country is in the grips of a cultural war and if you don’t state what side you’re on, the world will just decide for you.”
It also seems an odd time to be lambasting “the media”. The artwork for Reputation sees half of Swift’s face covered by newspaper print in an all-too-obvious metaphor for the bad press she has received. Do you really want to be known in America right now for attacking the work of journalists? Because there is already someone in a higher office doing that on a daily basis.
Ultimately Reputation is self-reflective. Swift examines the past, the people around her and the harsh vilification of her persona but the magnifying glass is most frequently pointed inwards. While this provides for honest and articulate song-writing, it’s disappointing that one of the biggest stars on the planet used her platform to advocate personal justice at a time when so many people across America are suffering real prejudice.
This is not to say that Swift never uses her platform for good. When she won a sexual-assault case in August against a DJ who groped her at a meet-and-greet her testimony was poignant and powerful; making it clear that her clothing or behaviour was no catalyst for sexual misconduct and setting a precedent for the dialogue which has encapsulated social media in the post-Harvey Weinstein era.
Swift can be a feminist hero when she wants to be, but her music remains as apolitical as ever.
The wider world aside, Reputation is exhilarating, explosive and actually pretty enjoyable. Swift is, and remains with this new album, one of the most sophisticated lyricists in mainstream pop. Her descriptive talent and ability to address issues indirectly with fierce precision is one of her most impressive qualities as an artist and she knows this. While experiments in previous work have exposed weaker sides to her musical abilities (the lack of gravitas in her vocals for one) Reputation, both lyrically and sonically plays to Swift’s strengths.
“Swift is one of the most sophisticated lyricists in mainstream pop.”
Opening with the aptly-named ‘…Ready For It?’ Swift challenges her listeners to engage with her new sound. While the song may have felt cringey and disjointed upon individual release back in September, ‘…Ready For It?’ is a strong first track setting the right tempo and attitude for what follows. In the album’s only collaboration track, Swift holds her own alongside Future in ‘End Game’ with a fierce pre-chorus which would not feel out of place on an M.I.A record – it’s just a shame that Ed Sheeran’s Suffolk-schoolboy rap is there to ruin it.
Reputation is the first Taylor Swift album with cursing. Yet even when it comes, on track ‘I Did Something Bad’ with the line “if a man talks shit then I owe him nothing, I don’t regret it one bit cause he had it coming”, it feels unforced and natural. In fact, the one song which does feel out of place is ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, the lead single released in August. The over-simplistic lyrics and Right Said Fred-inspired chorus jars with the otherwise slick, complex track list.
The album’s best surprise is the final track – and the only acoustic one. A gentle, understated piano ballad, ‘New Year’s Day’ which stands in stark contrast to the rest of Reputation and feels the most authentically ‘Swiftian’.
Reputation is not perfect. The frequent critical view of 1989 was that, while sounding nothing like a Taylor Swift record before, it was still completely Taylor Swift. This is because it was pop music – fit with all the electronic dance expertise of producers Max Martin and Shellback – but on Swift’s own lyrically-led terms. Reputation does not have the same affect. This is nothing like a Taylor Swift album and much more like the bass-drop led sound of her contemporaries. Sonically, the album battles between the 80’s synth pop of co-producer Jack Antonoff (Lorde, St Vincent) and the over-produced dance sound of Martin and Shellback, each sound trying to outdo the other. If Antonoff’s echoey synths had won over the album may have punched more weight. While tracks like ‘Style’ and ‘Blank Space’ from 1989 felt slick and distinctively like Swift, Reputation feels more collectively dominated by the men who helped produce it.
That being said, Reputation is an album which speaks for itself. It is the reclaiming of a narrative which Swift previously lost control of and an overdue acceptance of the fact that perfection is difficult to achieve and impossible to maintain.
Taylor Swift is flawed and she has finally embraced that.