Taylor Swift’s song Look What You Made Me Do (LWYMMD), released in October of this year, smashed YouTube, radio plays and streaming services records. Does that make it a great song? Not really. What it does mean is that Swift is a business and media mastermind who knows how to create hysteria and interest. Like LWYMMD, Swift’s sixth studio album Reputation, released this month, will no doubt also be hugely successful in terms of plays and listens, but does that make it a good album? Not necessarily.
That is not to say that Reputation is especially bad, it’s actually far from it and in terms of pop music, its good. If you like that kinda thing. Some, who tend to dig a little deeper, will probably find it uninspiring, ordinary, cringey and not dissimilar to every other pop album you had heard before.
Reputation is much better than LWYMMD would have had us believe a few months ago. Reputation does what it needs to do; it is full of catchy pop songs that reference everyone and everything, from Billy Joel to 90’s R&B in a fun little package. Whereas LWYYMD was a middle of the road, self-centred, contradicting pop song, Reputation has some sweet moments, and some relatively interesting ones also. But like LWYMMD, overall, it is still just a tad tried, lacklustre and ultimately; disappointing.
Reputation is somewhat a change of direction for Swift, it is full of R&B, hip hop, industrial, trip hop, synth, electro and dub influences, and just to top it all off, Swift has added a dash of classic country pop stylings. The album has its fair share of earworms; after all, it wouldn’t be pop if it wasn’t successfully calculated to get stuck in your head.
Whilst the album’s urban and electronic core does give the album a modern edge, this is mainly thanks to the work of producers Shellback and Max Martin, and in particular Jack Antonoff (Lorde, St Vincent). In fact, Reputation sounds eerily similar in parts to the Antonoff-produced Lorde album, Melodrama. Antonoff has sprinkled himself all over Reputation, complete with dubby, spacious, crushing bass drops and changes, electronica, hip hop, and of course, conversational vocals.
Ironically, it’s when Swift is not trying to be so ‘bad’ or progressive that she is most powerful. On stand out songs Gorgeous, Don’t Blame Me, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things and Getaway Car, Swift uses her frankness, unstudied storytelling prowess and simple melodies to impress the listener. But too often on Reputation this unique skill is drowned out. Although the music is set around the lyrics, sonically it tries to do too much and it detracts from the words and the stories instead of adding to them.
Particular low points on the album are LWYMMD – for obvious reasons, Dancing With Our Hands Tied, with its dance-y EDM stylings it just feels out of place, End Game – why oh why get Future and Ed Sheeran together?, King of My Heart “fancy me, not fancy stuff” – enough said.
Whilst you could be mistaken for thinking this urban change in direction for Swift might alienate her mainstream fan base, you can be rest assured, she is not that silly. The album is still extremely accessible, full of cadenced speech vocals and one note melodies. The album, 15 tracks long, still has enough ‘old school Swift’, to keep the fan base happy.
It’s an interesting point that Swift doesn’t go full urban or full Antonoff, because it kind of sums the album up – Reputation is trying to be something it isn’t. For example, a 6 minute song in which Swift sings “I would like to be excluded from this narrative”, yep – by writing a whole song about it, or like the punk inspired cover art suggesting she is a bad ass, despite not actually dipping even her little toe in punk and the differing writing and musical styles.
In other words, Swift realises she needs to keep moving forward, but she is also wary of doing so and alienating her wholesome, family friendly fan base. That fan base doesn’t want a real bad ass – they enjoy the media spats, they enjoy reading about her love life and celebrity tiffs and getting her version through her songs, they like the country pop ballads with their clever idioms, and Swift knows all this, and she knows it’s smart business to stay faithful to this brand.
Even Antonoff himself recently admitted to the planning around the album’s first single, explaining that perhaps they knew LWYYMD was not a great song but they just wanted to start some controversy ahead of the album.
It’s possibly this kind of cunning engineering and calculation which ultimately is Reputation‘s biggest downfall – it just does not feel authentic. In this forever changing world where people are becoming more disconnected, the one thing they turn to music for is a sense of connection, and you can’t have connection without authenticity. You can’t help but feel that the public is starting to sniff out Swift’s emotional and artistic endeavors as, in fact, business decisions.
You have to give kudos to Swift for trying to do something different, but a Madonna-like reinvention this is not. Even when the album is trying to push boundaries it still feels so incredibly predictable, uninspiring and drab. Especially when compared to recent records from Lorde, St Vincent and Beyonce (Melodrama, Masseducation and Lemonade, respectively). Although Reputation is full of hooks and sparsely littered with memorable turns of phrase, it lacks what made Swift so popular in the first place, as someone who wrote charming, intimate stories about herself that glowed with ease and smoothness; someone who wrote cheery, catchy, cheesy, simple songs full of lightheartedness and goodness. Sure, it was boring and occasionally lame, but she was good at it. With Reputation, Swift may have gone bad – but she has also gone defensive, spurious and directionless. And that’s not bad in a good way.