Despite ever-changing personas and shifting music styles—from country princess to mega pop star—Taylor Swift has remained surprisingly consistent. While the media scrutinizes her love life down to the last lyric, Swift, to this very day, expertly twists the narrative to her benefit. Call it what you want (playing the victim or even masterminding her image), Swift has got it covered. Every song on every record of hers has been put there for good reason. Not only does she churn out new hits, but she churns out new perceptions of herself, too.
But gone are the days when hits cockily directed at exes were happily eaten up by the public. Now, the duality of Swift’s style, a pop sweetheart whose pointed lyrics are at times shockingly vicious, has become notorious at best. She seems adamant at swapping her good-girl image for something much darker and sophisticated, letting go of her previous woes, but at the same time, still tenaciously holding onto her trademark specific songwriting—as displayed in her newest album, reputation.
Love her or hate her, this new record is set to stir some interesting reactions. Since we’re all about balance, Vantage tackles reputation from two sides of the coin: From both the superfan and the non-fan perspectives.
Better without armor: A review from the non-fan
Upon first listen, reputation is Taylor Swift gone dark. This appears to be an angry record where she turns her media circus of a life on its head, takes in the allegations, and uses them to make herself untouchable. While “dark” for other artists may connote more solemn tunes, Dark Taylor doesn’t settle for quiet or haunting to drive her points home. Her album wields the full force of Top 40 pop to get her music in your head, whether you want it there or not.
Swift wants you to know that she’s okay with being bad. Songs like “Don’t Blame Me,” “I Did Something Bad,” and “So It Goes,” announce that loud and clear, with beats that practically explode. Expect her to repeatedly yell the titles to gunshots and lasers, because Swift is a pop princess newly dressed in leather. She also has Billboard-friendly producers Jack Antonoff, Max Martin, and Shellback to thank for the electro punch of these angrier songs. The latter two are the same men behind “Bad Blood” and “Blank Space” on 1989 (2014), which evoke similar images of a vengeful Swift.
In that spirit of revenge, however, reputation tends to go overboard sonically. “Look What You Made Me Do” isn’t just its lead single, but a battle cry through the record—and the resulting lack of subtlety grates on the eardrums. Swift dips verses in EDM gloss, but heavy production can’t veil how many of the Martin and Shellback songs resemble each other, and how much she has to screech over the drawn-out bass drops in their choruses. Among other numbers, “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” also features a ton of autotuned harmonies for Taylor’s voice to sound sassier and tinier than ever. All things considered, it’s difficult to take her seriously when she goes to such contrived lengths.
Perhaps sparser production on this album would have helped Swift’s case for authenticity. Some of her peers in the industry, after all, have made edgy sound effortless against reputation’s in-your-face approach. For one, Badlands (2015) by Halsey simmers with rage instead of screaming it. Halsey talks vices and inner demons to drum pads that crack like whips then dissipate to highlight her husky vocals (see “New Americana” and “Hold Me Down”). A more recent example is Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” in which a steady tropical house mix lets the post-breakup snark surface. On the contrary, reputation has a lot less restraint on its backing tracks, with the noise of (the self-fulfilling) “I Did Something Bad” taking the cake.
Listeners have to wait out the noise for reputation’s better moments to arrive. To an extent, they do, when Swift sheds her hardened shell for vulnerability on some latter tracks. Antonoff, who has Lorde’s ambient Melodrama (2017) to his name, engineers similarly dreamy atmospheres on these tunes of desire and regret, like the sensual “Dress” (“Only bought this dress so you could take it off,” Taylor croons on what may be her most daring song to date). Where Antonoff swaps the blaring tones for wispy synths, Taylor likewise seems to find her lyrical footing. “Getaway Car,” for one, is “Out of the Woods” (also by Antonoff) on steroids. Here, you can imagine Swift’s car soaring right into the bridge’s key change, as she drives away from the guy she used as a rebound. “Call It What You Want” is slick, a song that finally has a constant rhythm rather than stabs of percussion to prop it up, along with striking lines: “I want to wear his initials on a chain ‘round my neck […] not because he owns me,” she admits, “but ‘cause he really knows me.”
It’s as if Taylor realizes towards the end that there’s nothing more rebellious than exposing the chinks in her armor. “New Year’s Day,” the album closer, features her unplugged, singing over a piano. “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere,” she asks. By then, it’s her listeners who realize that maybe this new Taylor isn’t such a stranger—because outward pomp aside, the few gems of reputation still have Swift’s honest poetry at their core.
A duality of sound: A review from the superfan
Reputation is bombastic from the get-go, opening with “…Ready For It?” a snazzy, beat-driven, electropop number which seems more suitable as a marching band piece than a promotional single. Much like the black-and-white cover art of the album, the song seems to set the good-girl-turned-bad tone of the record, with dreamy lyrics that say “I know I’m gonna be with you,” while simultaneously denouncing her love with lines like “Knew he was a killer/first time that I saw him.” It’s the stark contrast from Swift’s previous album opening tracks, which featured whimsical and cheerier melodies such as Red’s (2012) “State of Grace” or Speak Now’s (2010) “Mine,” that give listeners a hint of the underlying edge to come.
From the powerhouse production talents of Max Martin and Shellback, there are catchy, radio-friendly tunes that put Dark Taylor on full display, with the likes of “Don’t Blame Me” and “I Did Something Bad,” heavy on bass drops and thick on spite. She’s swapped her Taylor Swift (2006) guitar strings for snare drums and her 1989 (2014) bubblegum pop for techno samplers.
Unlike previous records like Speak Now, where Dark Taylor was merely relegated to the eerie refrains of “Haunted” or the petty riffs of “Better Than Revenge,” the album is peppered with massive beats that reverberate Swift’s desire for vengeance, wrangling her normally soothing voice under thick synthesizers and electronica, so much so that her usually clear lyrics get lost in the rhythm.
It’s a shame, since Swift is more highly regarded as a songwriter than a singer; it’s her lyrics, rather than her vocals, that always manage to steal the show. And reputation delivers her most vindictive of zingers yet. In one particular display of acerbic wit, the song “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” (widely-speculated to be about her feud with Kanye West), has Swift crooning, “Forgiveness is a nice thing to do,” before a shrill cackle and the words, “Ha, I can’t even say it with a straight face!”
Yet on the flipside of darkness, one finds much lighter fare. Shreds of Swift’s past self still shine through—sweet and slow solos devoid of electronica—thanks to her blithe lyrics and Jack Antonoff’s cheery bounce of production. In these tracks, the tempo turns happy and hopeful, the words optimistic and almost dreamy. “Gorgeous” sings of Swift’s lovesickness (“You’re so gorgeous/I can’t say anything to your face) amidst fizzy ‘80’s pop, and “King of My Heart” describes finding love once more (“And all at once you are the one/I have been waiting for”) with swooping violin strings and lively finger snaps.
While there’s no denying that Swift has traded her simple Fearless-esque (2008) guitar twangs for synthesized beats, the cacophony of her music is as romantic as ever, and as giddily gliding as her previous hits. But despite Swift’s best efforts—tantalizing lyrics delivered with raw emotion—her usually soothing vocals still get swallowed at times by EDM beats and intensive production.
So while reputation doesn’t have the head-banging, heart-wrenching ballads of yesteryear (recall her 2014 Grammy performance of the weepy “All Too Well”), it contains enough memorable pieces that fans, both new and old, can sing along to. “Getaway Car” is one particular gem; for all its Bonnie-and-Clyde comparisons, it’s a smooth synthpop number with a soaring and uplifting melody.
The whole album is one big paradox—half-sinister and half-ethereal in its production and lyrical content. It tells of an oddly twisted tale of rising above those who have wronged her, but at the same time loving someone so amazing she forgets about those haters anyway. It’s Taylor Swift through and through—smart enough to remain in control, but vulnerable enough to lose herself in her feelings.
On one hand, backed up by excessive beats, she sings, “I never trust a narcissist/but they love me.” On the other, aided by an ‘80’s-like bounce and reminiscent of her “Love Story” days, she murmurs, “You don’t need to save me/but would you run away with me?” She’s shed her sweetheart image for a more sinister one, but try as she might, it’s difficult to reconcile the star with her edgy new sound, without it becoming contrived or without one being reminded of just who the Nashville singer used to be.
All in all, despite synth beats, bass drops, and even rapping, reputation is still Swift at her finest, sprinkled all over with a doozy of clever yet sentimental one-liners (“Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I can recognize anywhere”) that evoke the dreaminess—and dare we say, innocence—of her Speak Now days.
The dual nature of the album reflects Swift’s reputation at its best—playing both the victim and the bully by contrasting vindictively electropop verses and sweetly enamoring ballads. The record proves that while she may have left her country roots for dark dubstep, she’s still the same naive songwriter from all those years ago who dreams of true love. Though reputation’s tendency to succumb to mainstream EDM is a far cry from the musical originality of previous alternative-country/pop-rock records like Red (2012), it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable—not to mention adventurous—masterpiece.
Featured photo retrieved from taylorswift.com