Big Reputations

In the past ten years Taylor Swift’s identity has changed before our eyes. Most often this is due to Swift’s own scrupulous curation, but sometimes it is the words and actions of others that shape the woman (/brand) we see. As evidenced by the impact of a short Snapchat video posted by K*m K*rdashian and the imminent maelstrom of hatred and snake emojis that tore through the comment section of Swift’s Instagram account. The online pillory clearly impacted Swift as her sixth studio album, reputation, is an effort to take control of the narrative and/or have the last word. Or is reputation really just a desperate attempt to sully her white-dress-acoustic-guitar purity with sexy body suits and heavy beat drops? Is Swift trying to prove herself among the many female pop heavy hitters of today? Is the Old Taylor really dead? What the hell is going on?

Taylor Swift is currently experiencing a phenomenon I can only describe as: “terminal relatability.” Taylor Swift is not the greatest singer, guitarist, or dancer (lol) in the game, but her edge is her writing. Swift articulates universal feelings in a captivating and engaging way. Her writing skills are objectively unmatched by her peers. She started out as a cheeky teen girl who name-dropped ex-boyfriends in songs. But she could get away with it because no one knew who “Drew” was — aka “the reason for the teardrops on her guitar.” But as her career grew, so did her social status. Swift was no longer dating a tenth grade lab partner, she was dating A-list celebrities. The secret messages she left to fans in the lyric pamphlets of her CDs were being decoded in People Magazine. She poked fun at her notorious dating life in her first Saturday Night Live monologue. The suspected muses of her songs are now outed in bold yellow print on Spotify’s Behind the Lyrics feature as the song plays on.

The universality to Swift’s lyrics has always been her biggest strength. In reputation she goes too specific. Naming names isn’t cute when you’re a multi-millionaire. I’m sure Swift takes this Kanye West feud very seriously, and I don’t blame her, but unfortunately not a lot of her fans have had a public falling out with one of the most famous rappers in the world. Here lies the terminal part of terminally relatable. You are so relatable until you are successful for said “relatability” until you become so successful that you can no longer relate to your audience. Basically, no one wants to hear a Taylor Swift song about the difficulties of being a beautiful, successful, rich, celebrity, whose best friends are regulars on the Victoria’s Secret runway. Look at Tina Fey or Jennifer Lawrence, two women who stood out from the crowd and were embraced because of their, “realness.” Now, both extremely successful, Fey and Lawrence both are criticized for being out of touch and annoying.

reputation is Swift’s sixth studio album and her most daring to date. It opens with the ominous, cinematic, droning “bwAHH BWAhh BWAHH” intro of “…Ready For It?” and let me tell you, I was Not …Ready For It. The opening song — which was also released as the second single off reputation — faintly calls to mind some of Swift’s roots, but the talk/rap style of employed in the verses is wildly distracting. She talks about a mystery man, she drops hints at who he may be, she sings a catchy pre-chorus hook. “I see how this is gonna go/touch me and you’ll never be alone,” reads as a sexy but sinister, tongue-in-cheek callback to her notorious “crazy girlfriend” persona we saw in the Blank Space video — some of Swift’s most self-aware work to date. From there on out the album strikes a different tone. Swift is constantly distracted by her enemies and haters. Spitting out what she believes to be venomous one liners such as, “and I bury hatchets but I keep maps of where I put ‘em” that feel more like a ninth grade AIM away message than a lyric from a chart topping diss track. The majority of the album feels like trying to hang out with a friend who is hung up on the same drama you’ve been hearing about for years.

The first single off of reputation is the notorious “Look What You Made Me Do” (LWYMMD as die hard fans would identify it.) Swift dropped this single with a bright red sniper sight on Kanye West’s forehead. After the controversy over a lyric/music video of West’s, I understand Swift’s anger. But years into West’s career the fact that he is creating controversy is… not controversial at all anymore. The song feels hollow, what did he make you do, Taylor? When this single came out most of the already waning T Swift fans officially gave up hope. Personally, I enjoy that song because I like to think she was channeling one of my favorite characters in all of cinema, “honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time / I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red underlined,” come on, she was definitely watching Kill Bill Vol. 2 at some point in this songwriting process! I think it’s weird, dorky, Euro-pop, and the first 10 seconds are identical to a Bo Burnham stand up bit. But LWYMMD doesn’t quite work because she is taking herself so seriously and relying on specific insults unlike her other songs directed at the “haters”.

“Mean” off her third studio album, Speak Now, is directed at an especially cruel critic, but at the core it is a sweet country song about overcoming bullies and focusing on your own strengths. “You with your switching sides and your wildfire lies and your humiliation/you have pointed out my flaws again as if I don’t already see them” is a lyric that spoke to millions of teenagers, including myself, even though none of us were professional musicians who had read a negative review of our own work.

“Blank Space” is a single off her fifth album, 1989. This song is written in character as the crazy girl the media plays her out to be. While the song is satirical, it still maintains an authentic relationship to the audience. When Swift says, “I’ve got a long list of ex-lovers/they’ll tell you I’m insane” she half joking/half seriously referring to her A-list celebrity boyfriends, and as someone who has never dated a Gyllenhaal or a Jonas Brother, somehow I still could relate. (Okay, maybe that one’s on me…)

But, let’s get back to reputation. Overall, the album has its moments where Swift’s creativity and talent shine through. The song “New Year’s Day” is an outlier as it is the only acoustic song on the record. With a piano and soft acoustic guitar Swift’s observant, poetic lyrics shine. “New Year’s Day” is the last song on the album. After listening all the way through when I got to that track all of my bitter disappointment faded away. “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere,” this song is poignant, emotional, and sonically simple. It upholds its outlier status because it is one of the very few songs on the album that feels focused, not distracted by trying to take clever jabs at the haters. If you are still mourning the loss of The Old Taylor, please listen to this song.

“She is playing it like a rebel, but she’s simple being who we’ve goaded her to be.” — Jessica Hopper

At first I felt like the album was a failed attempt at broadcasting how Swift doesn’t care about her “big reputation” in the sense that she, in fact, really does care which is why she keeps mentioning it! Before the album was released Swift cleared her entire Instagram. She posted nothing but cryptic promotions for the album release. After the album dropped her newly minimalist Instagram page was filled with carefully formatted, positive reviews of the album. For someone who doesn’t care about her bad reputation, it sure seems like a blatant attempt to flaunt her critically acclaimed reputation. But I can’t help but think the album title is a reference to the iconic Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ song “Bad Reputation”. In the music video Jett is being turned down by all different record companies — real logos intact, Jett is also not afraid to name names — so she starts her own label, Blackheart Records. In the end the record executives who shut her down are now telling her how great she is. I’m not sure if this is an intentional parallel by Swift but at the end of the day it seems that everyone really does give a damn about their bad reputation.

Swift’s Instagram feed after ‘reputation’ was released.

The impact our virtual identities have on real life is growing exponentially. Social media is no longer acting as ersatz personalities, especially with celebrities, the line has been blurred between virtual identities and reality. I joined Twitter in 2009 — almost ten years ago — because I wanted to stay up to date with Taylor Swift. I have spent more time thinking about Taylor Swift than I would like to admit, but being a thirteen-year-old girl was hard, and listening to Taylor Swift’s music made it less hard. I felt understood, I felt validated, and I felt less alone. Now I am more connected than ever; to celebrities, to my friends across the country, and to millions of strangers — while Taylor writes about the isolation of fame. In Ann Powers’ book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music she explores this notion of the future of the pop music industry, “within the expanded realities of online life, people may feel more free, but new perils also present themselves… Women online are waging real, terrifying battles with harassers, whose behavior goes beyond lewd comments… Women have always known they need to protect themselves as they move through spaces dominated by men. Now the identities they shape in virtual space as proving just as vulnerable.” Swift’s demise via social media is one of the most fascinating moments in pop culture, sociology, and even the tech industry.

Aren’t we all desperately trying to create a virtual identity as dynamic and fascinating as our own real, human personality? Is it possible to use the format of social media (i.e. photos, videos, text, sharing others’ content) to replicate something as nuanced and unfathomably complex as a human personality? We add photos documenting our experiences, but each photo, where it’s taken, the filter we chose, the way we type the caption, when we post it, all of this is a multifaceted, multimedia, story about who we are. Even the absence of such things speaks volumes about one’s personality. Swift’s reputation was destroyed via social media, so her only choice is to build it back up via social media. Jessica Hopper wrote about Miley Cyrus’ 2013 album, Bangerz, “She is playing it like a rebel, but she’s simply being who we’ve goaded her to be.” Swift is the same way — we watched her fall, so we want to watch her try to get back up. She is not being rebellious or bad-ass, no matter how many snakes or motorcycles are in her music videos, she is just being the pop-diva we have been waiting to hate.

In the back of one of her reputation merch magazines (yes, I bought one) there is a poem written by Swift herself. “Without your past, you could never have arrived — so wondrously and brutally, by design or some violent, exquisite happenstance… here.”

If you got this far and are like, “uhh… Jackie, I thought this was supposed to be an album review not an existential musing about our ever evolving relationship to social media peppered with Taylor Swift lyrics,” I don’t blame you. Here is my song by song review of reputation. Please note, I love Taylor Swift. My prom dress was a knock off of a Taylor Swift red carpet dress. I taught myself how to play guitar by printing out Taylor Swift tabs with dialup internet. I remember when Taylor Swift’s artist page on ultimate guitar tabs was one page long! I put off writing this for a while because this album made me feel a lot of weird emotions and get really introspective about my relationship to this woman I’ve never met. But here is how I feel about it:

  1. …Ready For It? — This song is fun if you can get past the cringe-worthy talk/rap verses. The chorus is catchy and sexy. This starts off the album with the notion that the new love she is singing about has changed everything, “every lover known in comparison is a failure.” She dismisses the past right off the bat and then we are thrust into the future! (the next song features Future… the rapper… hold for applause.)
  2. End Game — Overall a fun, catchy pop song. Not the most thoughtful lyrics in the world. I get that Future has a verse on this song about, “big reputations” but Ed Sheeran? Sheeran rap/sings, “in rumors I’m knee deep” but, like, is he? The video for this song is sexy, high production value, international, glam.
  3. I Did Something Bad — A catchy, bombastic pop song from the perspective of an insufferably annoying brat. This song isn’t bad, I just cannot stand the character she created. Full of fake-deep one liners that Swift almost sells with her confident attitude, “you gotta leave before you get left” and a the hilariously autotuned, “they’re burning all of the witches even if you aren’t one/so light me up/go ahead and light me up.” This song sounds like it was written and produced specifically for the pyrotechnics on tour.
  4. Don’t Blame Me — Here we begin the theme of love songs distracted by the haters. This song is more about Swift than the mysterious male love interest she is describing. She uses a lazy, cliche, metaphor, “don’t blame me, my drug is my baby/I’ll be using for the rest of my life” big yawn. This falls into the category of songs on this album I referred to as 50 Shades of Gray Soundtrack Rejects.
  5. Delicate — Okay, here we go! Here is that Taylor Swift talent. This song is all about the liminal space between a crush and a full blown relationship. She uses a vocoder on her voice to make an ethereal, distant effect. “Sometimes when I look into your eyes/I pretend you’re mine all the damn time/cause I like you/is it cool that I said all that?” Swift’s unique, charming, bumbling, voice shines through as the girl who is spilling her heart but still trying to appear “chill”. This is a solid, articulate, modern, and, sophisticated, pop song.
  6. Look What You Made Me Do — I already talked about this song in depth, so I’ll keep it short. What a weird song?! So dramatic and off the rails, but also very tightly wound and controlled. Also, it is worth noting that the notion of Dominatrix Taylor Swift (seen in the music video) is laughable and not the least bit intimidating. Highlight lyric, “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams”
  7. So It Goes… — Another ellipsis Taylor… really? Okay, this song is a low energy, sultry pop-song. I checked my notes and all I wrote while listening was: sexual but boring :(. “Come here dressed in black now/scratches down your back now” again, 50 Shades Soundtrack Reject. Sorry.
  8. Gorgeous — This song, sonically, reminds me a lot of “Clean” off 1989 Deluxe. I don’t get the baby voice at the beginning and I do not like it. You can hear traces of acoustic guitar in the bridge and I wish it was more guitar driven pop. This song has some of the most quintessential Taylor Swift™ lyrics to date. “Ocean blue eyes looking in mine/I feel like I might sink and drown and die” she sings with a coy flirtation in her voice. Swift is very funny in these moments of unabashed hyperbolic infatuation such as, “you’ve ruined my life by not being mine.” And of course, the most on brand lyric, “I guess I’ll just stumble on home to my cats, alone/unless you wanna come along” I mean, it doesn’t get more Taylor Swift than that, people. And we thought the Old Taylor was dead!
  9. Getaway Car — This song feels like maybe it was left off of 1989 and saved for this album. It is reminiscent of her older pop music, telling of an epic romance, using metaphor, and of course detailing a doomed relationship. This song is one of the better pop-rock (if you can even call it that) songs she’s come out with. It is intriguingly the most morally ambiguous song I’ve heard of hers. Usually Swift’s music has a strong sense of justice — in an interview when asked about how potential boyfriends would be scared off by Taylor writing music about them she glibly retorts, “then they shouldn’t do bad things.” She is potentially the bad guy in this song which makes it, ultimately, more compelling.
  10. King of My Heart — When I heard the beginning of this song for the first time I was like, “finally” and then the “beat dropped” and so did all of my faith in this song. I get it. Okay. I get it. I get that each part is supposed to sound different because each part is about a different time in a relationship. I just want to hear Swift sing an acoustic version of this song with just a guitar (I’m pretty sure it’s just C, G, Dm, F). Like, I just cannot explain how insane this song is. I want whoever produced it to be thrown in jail. Or at least have to stay 500 feet away from Taylor Swift at all times.
  11. Dancing With Our Hands Tied — Another, very tired, “beat drop.” Is that what they’re even called? This song is full of great imagery, “I’d kiss you as the lights went out/swaying as the room burned down/I’d hold you as the water rushes in.” At the end of the day this is just another unfocused, anti-climactic “love” song.
  12. Dress — Okay, we’re back. This is a sexy, smart, song with a solid, simple R&B-influenced beat. This is the Adult Taylor Swift, she is dropping hints about the relationship, “your buzzcut and my hair bleached,” for her super-sleuth fans. “I don’t want you like a best friend/only bought this dress so you could take it off” uh… is it hot in here or is it just me? Also the beat/production takes a more mellow approach so Swift’s lyrics can really shine.
  13. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things — Oh my God, this song… It’s catchy and bubbly at first, evoking a type of glamour and elegance. But then it starts to sound like a song that would be in Annie or something. It’s very juvenile and immature to an off-putting degree. This song is an obvious, heavy handed, attack on the omnipresent haters. There is a horrible part where she laughs and talks, God it’s a mess. The bridge is one of the most redeemable aspects about the song. She toasts to her “real friends” and personally, I would’ve preferred a song more about that side of the coin as opposed to another song about how much you hate Kanye West.
  14. Call It What You Want — The lyrics feel clunky and affected. “My baby’s fit like a daydream/walking with his head down/I’m the one he’s walking to,” the “baby” Swift refers to is overshadowed by, yet again, references to the haters. “All the drama queens taking swings/all the jokers dressing up as kings/they fade to nothing when I look at you,” if that’s true, why even mention them?
  15. New Year’s Day — This is the best song on the album. Hands down.The lyrics are poetic and real. It is emotional, vulnerable, and raw. This song doesn’t represent the rest of the album but if you’re going to listen to any song from reputation it should be this one.