Looking at Taylor Swift’s career, each of her previous five albums come with extreme calculation. Beginning as a teeny-bop country girl in 2006, Swift took pre-measured strides away from country and into pop with each album. With ruler in hand, Swift accurately matured with her audience, slowly introducing only slightly suggestive lyrics into her music as her once young audience grew with her (see Red’s “Treacherous.”) Even while committing to pop music with 1989, the “old Taylor” continued to embody girl-next-door innocence. With reputation, this old Taylor is dead, but the identity of this new Taylor is unclear. reputation excels in its instrumental cohesion, but Swift’s three seemingly disparate selfs — the new, the old and the real Taylor that ostensibly exists beneath them both — create a Hydra-esque character that left me disoriented.
Reflecting on “old” Swift, it’s important to recognize that much of her media criticism comes from a place of sexism not uncommon in child stars’s careers. The difficulty that Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears experienced parallels that of Swift, both apotheosized as wholesome role models for young women and subsequently scrutinized for sexual expression. Like many before, Swift acted as an asexual representative for young listeners, referencing little more than a kiss. Even as Swift grew up, her image remained crystallized in purity, and when Swift did express herself, she was shamed. At nearly every award show, Swift’s dancing was ridiculed, not because it was necessarily poor form, but because the concept of Swift dancing suggestively was deemed laughable. Swift, a 20-something woman, could not possibly be a sexual being.
On reputation, Swift sheds the good-girl image, asserting that she is an adult who can do adult things. “…Ready For It,” the album opener and second single, is a perfect concoction of sexually mature content and a self-awareness of her own deceptive nature. Swift describes “stealing hearts and running off and never saying sorry” and, for once, feels like she means it. “I Did Something Bad” reinforces this new Swift who owns her conniving nature. This Swift is believable, painting a picture of a woman in her 20s who owns her faults and knows her value. With heavy electronic synthesizers and 808s beats, her adult persona aligns well with the production; Swift wants you to picture her in the club — vengeful and sexy, finally enjoying her adult self.
However, at times a different, a more clichéd Swift shows her face, and the paparazzi shot of Swift in the club is less convincing. On “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” Swift turns up the party girl image into a patchwork of sarcasm, drinking references and clickbait. The song is distastefully bitter, referencing the beaten horse of the Kanye feud in saying, “It was so nice being friends again / There I was giving you a second chance / But you stabbed me in the back while shaking my hand.” The track attempts the same melodramatic technique that made “Blank Space” so intriguing, but instead of self-criticism, Swift plays a character to draw pity. Her petty persona surfaces and the credibility of adult Swift wavers.
Even while Swift asserts herself as an adult, she continues to make sweeping generalizations that allude to the old Swift being very much alive. This Swift is familiar but feels uncomfortable over deep bass and autotune, begging the question of whether Swift really matured. “Call It What You Want” is full of classic Swift one-liners about how “she brought a knife to a gunfight” and “wants to wear his initial on a chain.” What made earlier Swift able to deliver such idyllic naivety was her innocent image — the concept that someone young and immature can believe in fairytale statements. Unfortunately, people grow up and realize that life (and especially relationships) can’t be reduced to such simplification.
The album closer, “New Year’s Day,” finally finds that third persona: The real Swift. She’s somewhere between old and new — singing over only a piano and guitar about picking up after a party. Listeners get a glimpse behind the reputation veil at an artist who is lonely and hurt, fearing that another lover will become a stranger. The song is a stark contrast to the rest of the album, devoid of any electronic sounds or percussion but, perhaps for that reason, feels the most revealing. This Swift still parties (“there’s glitter on the floor after the party”) and owns her sexuality (“you and me from the night before”), but delivers in a vulnerable manner that doesn’t align with the album’s aggressive and vindictive theme, leaving me wondering if even Swift is sure of her own identity.
Throughout reputation, there are points of extreme bitterness, some valid self-awareness and even more laughable martyrdom, but one thing is consistent: Swift is scattered. For an artist so committed to brand cohesion historically, reputation feels like a battle among Swift’s many heads. Together with her three producers (Jack Antonoff, Max Martin and Shellback), Swift delivers an album that excels in conveying a sexualized, independent woman, but feels disjointed in its lyricism. reputation is a cacophonous experiment from an artist pulled so many ways: Fans who want her to stay the same, the media looking for controversy and Swift who wants, finally, to express herself as a 27-year-old.