“They say I did something bad,” Taylor Swift sings plaintively, “So why does it feel so good?” If the something bad is the long-awaited reputation, she’s one of the few with a good feeling about it. reputation is Swift’s tell-all concerning her resurrected feud with Kanye West, her tumultuous relationship with the media and the men she’s loved and left in the years since 1989.
Swift’s transition to a new era isn’t half as smooth as the transition from Red to 1989. Quite a few tracks lack a clear direction. Not only has she written the absolute worst song of 2017, she’s also produced a song that only works because it’s a lead (“…Ready For It?”); a halfhearted attempt at rap that features both Ed Sheeran and, bizarrely, Future (“End Game”); and lyrical nods to both Hilary Duff and co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff (“Getaway Car”).
But we all know the real monster of the album hardly needs naming. Writing and releasing “Look What You Made Me Do” admittedly makes sense from a marketing standpoint. After living as privately as possible for the last four years, the inherent shade in dropping a single that puts her least favorite topic on blast should work wonders for generating hype.
The problem with “Look What You Made Me Do” as a song is that the lyrics blow right past blatant and into clumsy. The problem with this track, as part of a whole, is that it’s far too heavy-handed. Every. Single. Beat. Hits. Like. A. Drum. It verges on painful and feels out of place among the mellower songs. It really doesn’t matter who said what about her; no one made her do that. Especially considering that another song on the album is a cleaner, sharper jab at her detractors.
“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” deals with the same subject matter, displays a hint of clever wordsmithing and a lot of tact and blends with the rest of the album seamlessly. It’s basically “Look What You Made Me Do 2.0,” rendering the weaker version redundant.
On the other end of the spectrum, “New Year’s Day” stands alone as a classic ballad and has been well-received by critics and fans alike, in part to its emotional debut on “The Tonight Show.” It’s the last remaining relic of the old Taylor, the one that wrote songs that shimmered with warmth, humor and a gentle touch of honesty for its own sake, instead of as an attempt to make the whole world hurt too.
Long before reputation was released as a whole, Swift was mercilessly mocked for a spoken interlude in “Look What You Made Me Do,” in which she says, “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh! Because she’s dead.” But reputation proves that, for good or ill, the old Taylor is still alive and well and fixated on boys, stolen moments and “Bad Blood,” leaving us to wonder what exactly the hot take is.
reputation should be the death of the fairytale. If the old Taylor had truly died, maybe then we would see some new lyric material. Half the tracks sink into murky, dull waters because she can’t stop alluding to boyfriend Joe Alwyn’s British accent and shocking baby blues.
Removing the lackluster lyrics from the equation, it may be surprising how familiar the rest of the album sounds, and there’s a good reason for that. With the exception of Swift’s American accent, reputation sounds like Lorde’s Pure Heroine (2013). Think about that for a second. An unknown sixteen year old from New Zealand accomplished with her first album what Swift aspires to do on her sixth.
This album was supposed to be a fresh start for Swift, and in some respects it is. She’s stepping into a sound that’s new for her, but electropop is a new sound for her, not for the rest of us. When other people do it so much better, it’s impossible for Swift to avoid an unfavorable comparison.
The real tragedy of Swift’s reputation, though, is that she assumes a new persona the industry didn’t ask her to portray. But she has always been a technician, not a visionary. On this album, she is neither, and now it’s too late to step back into the vacuum she created.
Maybe the clumsiness of the album speaks to the rawness of the situations she addresses. It’s hard to make suffering and disgrace sound pretty. She didn’t make this album for her fans. She did it entirely for herself, and the fans noticed.
Swift wants to show us her perspective of the year in which nothing went right. And some aspects of her life are relatable, in general terms–like fear of endings or the weighty feeling that no matter what we do we just can’t win. But most of us have bigger problems than playing narcissists for kicks.
The new Taylor put on black lipstick, started slicking back her hair, tossed back an Old Fashioned and called herself an adult at last. But she looks, writes and sings like a girl messing around in her mom’s makeup.