Taylor declares the old Swift dead, and forges a new ‘Reputation’

Taylor declares the old Swift dead, and forges a new ‘Reputation’

By Matthew Joseph

Taylor Swift needs no introduction. “Reputation” might though. After the Kanye/Swift stunt years ago, the two seem to have settled things, being friendly on social media and in person. It wasn’t until Kanye’s “Life of Pablo this year where he drops the line regarding Swift: “I made that bitch famous.” Shocking, yet Ye tells media shortly after that he got Swift’s permission for the line. Kanye’s wife Kim even recorded the phone conversation. It ended up being a good move because Swift denied ever giving Kanye the O.K.

Now, anyone who doesn’t follow the story closely thinks of both of them in a scandalous limelight. Nothing new for Kanye, but for sweet, country-turned-pop star, Swift decided to overhaul her image. The reactionary “Reputation” paints herself as the villain, the bad girl. The queen of breakup songs, years of being a scorned lover, has publically declared the old Taylor Swift dead—replaced with a raging fire, and a bad reputation.

Opener, and single “…Ready For It?” asks the question over new trap-inspired elements- tight, fast hi-hats. Swift nails the kind of sass she seems to be aiming for on this track. There’s an air of cruel seductiveness when she drops the title, a bit of bad girl in each verse, but her singing on the bridge echoes more restrained sweetness than cold attitude.

Holding most of the album alone, the only two features appear on “End Game.” Future and Ed Sheeran working with the theme of boyfriend testimonials as Swift sings with a familiar romanticism. Future approaches his verse a bit too aggressively. Fast triplets between more sing-song lines feel out of place. Ed Sheeran can’t fool anyone—we know he has a burning passion to rap. His accent throws his voice off a bit but he delivers a solid verse congruent with Swift’s lyricism. What could of been a throwaway song in her old style works in her favor. There’s a bit of Mariah Carey meets Beyoncé in her voice, softly trailing around the melody, dropping timbre and sounding more alluring.

“I Did Something Bad” is really the first of her new sound. A look at the newspaper-clipping album cover, and the track list with songs like “Don’t Blame Me,” “Look What You Made Me Do,” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” certainly hammer in the theme—a bit too far. “I Did Something Bad” is trying way too hard. Swift opens with “I never trust a narcissist, but they love me / So I play ’em like a violin / And I make it look oh-so-easy,” and while it could almost work, the early 2000s mixtape gunshots on the hook can’t help but elicit a laugh. The new Swift works best with a foot in her comfort zone. She can’t quite carry the dive into “complete badass.” It’s when she runs with tangential sweetness, or sorrow on songs like “So It Goes…” where the words “I’m not a bad girl, I just do bad things” sound powerfully earnest.

The biggest single, “Look What You Made Me Do” is the anchor of her new persona. It also falls the flattest, though it didn’t have to. Clean, pounding bass paces Swift on each verse that work to drum up a sense of anger. Blaring horns on the bridge carry her intensity perfectly. But the chorus. Oh God, the chorus. Skeletal minimalism and out of place techno-house drums sub in for the trap percussion that was working just fine. Alone with no harmony, Swift has to carry the entire hook with six words, merely rephrasing and reworking the phrase to fill the dead air. This could have been the flat-out anger track, a new radical sound. Instead, Swift’s deadpan delivery ruins all the momentum “Reputation” had built after what was mostly a strong start.

Staring down the next nine tracks of the album, only a few of them avoid sounding similar. “Dress” is a strong, modern love song. Swift relinquishing her old sound gives her room to try a new approach. Her voice sounds candy sweet but with a solemn depth and understanding. Standout anthem “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” delivers the kind of melody absent from “Look What You Made Me Do,” granted Swift has a much needed piano harmony. The lead up pumps the brakes with a slowed down, chamber-pop little melody connecting verse to chorus. Swift carries the chorus with grace. Although it’s a bit too similar to other party anthems, her voice and the unique instrumentation elevates.

In a very Feist-like moment, Swift ends the album with the nearly-acoustic ballad “New Year’s Day.” At the album release party she talked about the song, saying, “everybody talks and thinks about who you kiss at midnight…But I think there’s something even more romantic about who’s going to deal with you on New Year’s Day. Who’s willing to give you Advil and clean up the house.”

“Reputation” is certainly bold and it’s held up on pillars of ambition. Moments when her melodic familiarity and her new emotion overlap are incredibly rewarding, sounding like real, tangible growth for the pop star.

It would have been nice to see Swift make her own album though, with her own emotions. Instead, she paints herself into a box and forces herself to fit inside. There’s a little bit of loss and sadness, maybe even fatigue that are begging to be explored. Pop already has a collection of bad girls, each with their own copycats. Swift’s pent up aggression may sound unique, but that’s because it’s trying too hard to be.

Matthew Joseph can be reached at [email protected]