When I turned 16, my friend gave me a copy of Taylor Swift’s then newest album, Red, to accompany me in my newfound freedom behind the wheel. Much of the record soundtracked my late night drives spent fabricating scenarios where her own experiences were also applicable to my life. The album opens with the stunning “State of Grace,” where Taylor chronicles the highs and lows of love amid a bouncing drum beat and guitar-driven melodies. My first “heartbreak” was partially mended with the help of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Red represents all of Swift’s best qualities, an icon perfectly balancing the line between pop queen and charming indie singer-songwriter; it’s an honest record filled with grounded human emotions — honest enough to reach through to an angsty, punk-fueled 16-year-old. Swift followed up Red with 2014’s 1989, where she finally took a bigger leap into the realm of pop music without really losing the emotional attainability of her previous work, albeit being slightly less memorable than Red.
So what the hell happened with reputation?
On her latest record, “the new Taylor” is a canvas for her worst facets, seemingly exacerbated by the media. The new Taylor is unlovable, but she’s also promiscuous. The new Taylor is bad, but she can’t be blamed for it. reputation is quite frankly a jarring album, which could have been easily predicted from the first single. In 2017, Swift presents herself as messy and scattered, expertly explained by fellow Daily writer Danny Madion in his review. She damn near did the impossible and made her music hard to like on reputation.
Don’t get me wrong, reputation isn’t entirely insufferable. “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” minus the cringe-worthy, EDM drenched chorus, is a pretty decent work of modern pop. Swift shows her sexual side on “Dress” in a more emotional way devoid of the inflammatory finger-pointing seen on “Delicate” and “Gorgeous.” But for all its merited moments, reputation shows a side of Swift that serves to sever the personal connection many listeners had with her and her narratives. With a full move to bombastic pop, Swift’s musical focus shifts from her reflections on love and life to examine her portrait in the public eye, producing dismal, almost nauseating results.
Most troubling is trying to determine just how much of this is actually Swift’s fault. For almost a decade, she has been plagued by negative media coverage. It has hovered over and dissected her character ruthlessly, ripping her interpersonal interactions with other celebrities (both good and bad) to shreds. Can we reasonably expect Swift to ignore it all? Did we really think she’d write another sappy love record steeped with the deeply personal narratives the media so greedily analyzed? Swift showed a critical and clever self-awareness of her current image on “Look What You Made Me Do,” but beyond this, her lyricism on reputation holds little weight in its attempt at justification for her treatment by the media.
As non-celebrities, it can be hard for us to put ourselves into the shoes of massive stars. In Swift’s case, it can be even harder when the media continuously paints her innocent country girl aesthetic as a veil for a more insidious, heartless pop star. One can only assume another narrative-driven love record would be turned inside-out by the media, further pinning her under the weight of her self-crafted persona. It’s really no surprise that Swift wants to be excluded from her own public narrative. reputation puts Swift at her most self-conscious, and in writing the album, as poor as it is, Swift excels at emptying the fuel the media has used for years to keep her on the front burner. What she has left them are lyrics accepting or confronting every slanderous headline that has already been written about her.
In hindsight, reputation was a very natural response to the way Swift’s image has been morphed and mutilated by the public eye. Swift had been backed into a corner, left with little else to write about. I don’t blame her for becoming defensive. I don’t blame her for trying to remove herself from the narrative. I don’t blame her for writing her most aggressive pop album yet even if it’s at the cost of listenability and likability. For now, I’ll continue to love the old Taylor, to sing along to “Red” and “Better Than Revenge,” and to hope that Swift will rise from the ashes of reputation like a pissed-off phoenix with vengeful pop of a higher caliber.