On August 21, 2017, a blurry ten-second video of a moving snake became the most discussed Twitter trend of the day. After several months of (relative) quiet and a deleted social media presence, Taylor Swift was back. As far as marketing goes, the imagery was a knowing wink to a popular meme, making it clear she was in on the joke. Later, the album’s title and headline-inspired cover art coalesced into a common theme. It seemed that Swift was ready to go full meta, and “Reputation” would be a self-aware examination of her own fame and image. This idea sounded promising — after all, one of her best songs “Blank Space” explored similar territory. At this point, Swift is a much more convincing cheer captain than girl on the bleachers. The problem is “Blank Space” had more clever one-liners and memorable hooks than all of Reputation’s singles combined.
The album’s first single “Look What You Made Me Do” was a notable misstep on its initial release, and it has not improved with age. The production, built around an inexplicable sample of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” is too corny to be taken seriously and too uninspired to be campy fun. Lyrically, Swift is at her most petty, taking obvious digs at Kanye West and continuing their very lengthy, very public feud. Individual lines are awkward, and the whole idea was more tiring than exciting, because in 2017, is there a person left who cares about this fight anymore? It is disappointing and a little embarrassing that one of the world’s most famous people is still thinking about a VMA ceremony from eight years ago.
For all of their fighting, Swift and West share some striking similarities. Both have oversized personalities, alternately fascinating and frustrating. Both are risky enough to radically change genres from album to album, and both are talented enough that fans tend to follow them anyway. Perhaps most importantly, both are among the few artists left capable of turning pop music into a major exhibition — their entire lives are kaleidoscopes of performance art, spectacle and media circus.
“Reputation” seemed like an opportunity to put these contradictions in context, but the music itself is bland and impersonal. At this point, it is much more interesting to spend time learning about Taylor Swift than actually listening to Taylor Swift (if you are ready to go down an oddly engrossing Internet Black Hole, try this article theorizing that Taylor Swift’s love songs are actually about supermodel Karlie Kloss). This album feels especially disappointing in comparison to many excellent pop albums of the past several years. In particular, “Reputation” feels like the anti-“Lemonade.” Beyonce’s influential 2016 album found greatness by digging into the personal drama and psyche of one of the world’s biggest celebrities. Of course, there is no way to know the literal truth of the lyrics in “Lemonade,” but even so, the specific details felt true. But Swift is unable or unwilling to get truly intimate or honest. Even when “Reputation” is enjoyable or catchy, nothing about it feels particularly illuminating.
Most songs on “Reputation” are heavily indebted to hip-hop, representing yet another surprising career turn for Swift. The results of this switch are mixed. Individual tracks can be appealing, but as a whole, Swift is out of her lane, making the album feel like a preteen playing dress up and putting on too much makeup. From the beginning of her career Swift has been a gifted lyricist, able to evoke narratives and emotional truths from small, vivid images. On “Reputation,” it’s clear that Swift has not altogether lost these gifts, but there are a surprisingly high number of lines that are clunky or just plain boring. “New Year’s Day” is the most sonically different track on the overall album — not coincidentally, it is also one of the best. Over mostly acoustic instrumentation, Swift finally delivers the knockout we know she’s capable of, singing “Please don’t ever become a stranger/ Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere”. This couplet feels more honest and natural than any of the album’s previous attempts at swagger or braggadocio.“Reputation” is not an embarrassment or disaster. Swift and her producers are intelligent pop craftsmen. The songs are easy to listen to. But Swift is capable of work that is more interesting, funny and relevant. Let’s hope that her next album defines the zeitgeist, instead of replicating it. And, please, no more songs about Kanye West.