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On Reputation, the “Old Taylor” Is Dead, but the New One Isn’t Quite Ready to Come to the Phone

Taylor Swift’s ungainly, intermittently brilliant new album finds the former child star making art out of her growing pains.

Reputation by Taylor Swift
Big Machine Records

“My reputation’s never been worse/ So you must like me for me,” sings Taylor Swift on “Delicate,” one of the many times the title of her new album Reputation appears in the lyrics. It’s a self-conscious move from this self-conscious artist, and one that hints at the arc the whole record traces, just loosely enough not to turn into a full-on pop opera. The heroine’s public life is hitting bottom, but after raging, lashing out, getting drunk, having clandestine affairs, and otherwise letting her bad-girl colors show more brazenly than ever before, she achieves a kind of liberation. Just maybe, now, she can make her private life her own at last, and get past her own obsession with how she’s seen—able to shrug, in the closing number of the main cycle, “call it what you want, call it what you want to.”

The remaining song, a hushed love letter called “New Year’s Day,” is a coda that breaks with the rest of Reputation’s raucous sound, as if to open a new chapter, released from the control-or-be-controlled imperative that governs the earlier tracks. It may be the album’s single finest piece, but anyone wishing the whole record was in that mode is missing the point: It took the Sturm und Drang of the other 14 songs to get her there.

Of course, people will call it what they want, including the part of the public that started off assuming Swift was a vapid nothingburger, then suddenly declared her a conniving manipulator. Fans will hail her genius while haters highlight her petty score-settling with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. And both will miss the compelling mess of the whole.

The narrative arc of Reputation reflects back in miniature the larger arc of Swift’s career. First there was her growth from a Nashville teen prodigy to the world’s biggest pop star, who not only kept besting her own popularity records with the successive albums Fearless (2008), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), and 1989 (2014) but continually surpassed herself artistically. It’s been one of those miracle runs few artists ever have. Along the way, though, her ambitions exceeded the limits of the girl-power country-pop sphere she single-handedly created—she wanted to compete directly with all the other pop amazons of a decade almost unprecedentedly loaded with young female star power, with Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, et al.

But that meant she vaulted into a more complicated cultural realm, one where, among many other things, the spiky, ricocheting wrecking ball of race in America is always in play. She was suddenly being asked about her politics, after being groomed by Nashville to “shut up and sing,” as the documentary about the Dixie Chicks put it, to never risk alienating fans with your opinions. (Even a country star as generally bold and outspoken as Miranda Lambert avoids that.)

But after 1989’s global chart-dominating reign, she could just as easily alienate people by avoiding their interrogations: Are you or aren’t you a feminist? Who did you vote for? Why aren’t you denouncing the neo-Nazis who’ve decided to expropriate your blond-blue-eyed image for their Aryan cause? Did you double-cross a black rap star to further your own image?

The demands may be unfair (especially the Nazi slur), but for a supposed Machiavellian, Swift’s return parries have been clumsy and often self-goring—which brought her to the lows that Reputation dramatizes. No one climbs that high into the pop-o-sphere without an Icarian fall. And unfortunately, the album shows that strain artistically, too. While it has plenty to offer on its own terms, it is the first time in her career that Swift has not outdone herself.

Not that she’d ever stagnate. She’s working with more dense rhythms and intense beats than ever. She’s experimenting with vocal delivery that borrows from rap and R&B. But it’s all to mixed effect. Sometimes it’s witty and self-satirizing, but often it’s as if she’s strapping on off-the-rack masks of contemporary cool. Her drawled vowels, bit-off consonants, and trap-anthem chants are all smuggled a bit too brazenly across cultural lines for someone who’s aroused so much distrust of her racial sensitivities.

As Ann Powers pointed out in her Reputation review, the 27-year-old Swift likely comes by the impulse honestly—no millennial musician with open ears could avoid being influenced by the dominant sounds of the century. (Although if she’d been listening more closely, she might have figured out that serving up British dinner plate Ed Sheeran to rap alongside hip-hop’s leading subversive Future on “End Game” would be a fumble.) Still, with all she’s had on her mind, Swift’s efforts to get with the times also seem behind the beat: While she was loading up on EDM bass drops and klaxon blasts, pop was becoming more downbeat and interior. Reputation might have sounded thrilling in 2015, but in 2017 it frequently feels pushy and overdone.

That problem may have less to do with Swift’s career arc than with that of producer Max Martin and his cohort (prominently Shellback here), the coterie of Swedish big-beat studio shamans who have dominated chart pop for nearly two decades. They were Swift’s prime collaborators on 1989, but on the slightly more than half of Reputation they co-wrote, they seem to be running out of fresh structural and sonic tricks, and replacing inspiration with bombast. It’s never smart to count Martin out—he’s been the 2000s’ equivalent of the Wrecking Crew, who ruled the pop studios of 1960s L.A.—but every pop reign does come to an end sometime. Her other producer and co-writer here, this year’s pop MVP Jack Antonoff, contributes more flexibility and invention, on songs such as “Getaway Car”—which underlines its Bonnie-and-Clyde, love-on-the-run extended metaphor with sizzling synths that sound like headlights cutting through fog, accelerating to a “Total Eclipse of the Heart”­–level crashing climax.

As for Swift’s own pop reign, I’d hazard Reputation marks much more of a stutter than a stop. A much delayed but rather inevitable one: The crisis at once described and embodied by Reputation, about her fraught relationship with “the old Taylor,” feels like the product of the hothouse effect that afflicts adolescent stars—whether they are (as Swift sings on the gospel-chorused “Don’t Blame Me”) your “poison ivy” or “your daisy.” It may hit as quickly and embarrassingly (but recoverably) as it hit Justin Bieber, or as slowly and devastatingly as it hit Michael Jackson. In Margo Jefferson’s 2008 book, On Michael Jackson, she writes: “Nothing charms grown-ups like seeing kids imitate them. Children make our needs and habits entertaining; they follow our scenarios. Who do we want them to be? Wounded innocent? Flirt? Vixen? Naughty little chip off the old block? They know how to do it, but they can’t know exactly why they’re so alluring. They embody adult secrets, and that gives us the upper hand.”

When those young entertainers try to transition to adulthood themselves, they often seem to get lost in between that secondhand sophistication and all the standard formative experiences they’ve missed. Swift comes from a privileged white family, from the 1 percent, so she’s more secure and protected than most. But the moves and compromises she once made for the sake of attention and fan attachment became traps ready to spring shut. She’d fostered the voyeuristic and effectively sexist interest of the press and public in her love life, and her paradoxical image as at once empowered conqueror and, as Jefferson says, “wounded innocent.” But when she needed some privacy to grow into a more integrated, autonomous adult self, it wasn’t readily available. The petulance of songs like “Look What You Made Me Do” (which sounds better in the context of the album, more like comic relief, than it did as a single), as well as some of her public pronouncements, seem like symptoms of that attenuated development.

The world tends to blame young stars as individuals when they go astray. (After all, they have it so good!) We should know better. Celebrity culture is a system, one in which the performers and media and managers and fans all partake. For quite a while, Swift has been struggling to distance herself from it, by rarely doing interviews and by backing away from social media (except, granted, for her fans’ Tumblr pages). She writes about the issue at length in an essay called “Reputation (Prelude)” that appears in the glossy magazine that accompanies the album’s physical release: “Let me say it again, louder for those in the back. … We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us.”

I’ve always been averse to the hunt for details about her private life that follows every release—because, as Swift seems to have realized, even self-exploitation by a showbiz kid is still exploitation, and it will be used against her. But I have to admit I share writer Lindsay Zoladz’s fascination with the “Kaylor” subcult on the internet, which maintains that Swift is or has been in a secret same-sex relationship with her supermodel friend, Karlie Kloss. It intrigues because it seems to suit the conspicuous stage-managing of Swift’s relationships, and her constant defensive stance. Of course, in the end, looking for lesbian subtexts is only more of the same invasive pursuit. But its deeper resonance, I think, is with the conflicted place of the child star, beset by the pressures on her identity, unfree to inhabit her own sexuality, because it’s been so colonized.

Think of the long history of gay men’s identification with female child stars such as Judy Garland, recognizing forms of suffering and strategies of self-invention they share in common. There’s an inherent queerness to the gaps and unsaids in Swift’s position, irrespective of what takes place in the “sacred oasis” of her bed, as she puts it in “Dancing With Our Hands Tied”—a title that would be perfect for a queer anthem, if only it were a better song. Similarly, the (acknowledged) parroting of the tune to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” on the chorus of “Look What You Made Me Do” is like a sashay of solidarity in the direction of camp, that aesthetic voice of private passion within public repression, whether that was deliberate or not.

In any case, sexuality is far from a minor matter here. Because of its tabloid-themed cover art, its title, and the advance singles and videos, I was one of many people who worried that Reputation was going to be an album singularly and solipsistically focused on the travails of celebrity squabbles and media management. Now, that all seems like a deliberate diversion from the fact that Reputation would be far more about sex than any other Taylor Swift album.

The sensual highlight is “Dress,” which, with its synths-and-falsetto chorus, its allusion to bathtubs, and the line “I don’t want you like a best friend,” strongly evokes Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (speaking of queer anthems). “I only bought this dress so you could take it off, take it off, ah-ah-ah,” Swift sings—perhaps a teasing callback to herself singing, “shake it off, shake it off, ah-ah-ah” in 2014. What a difference a letter or two makes.

But all over the album, Swift is looking and touching and leaving scratches, or seeking to entice someone somewhere with lower lighting. Not to mention mixing drinks and drinking drinks and, on “I Did Something Bad,” uttering her first and only public cussword (“If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing”). While the arc winds up in Swift’s established domain of romance, some of the sex along the route is decidedly outside the bounds of a socially sanctioned partnership.

Compared with Swift’s habitual precision, some of the songwriting feels a little slack or rote, especially when it comes to describing her dudely paramours (with their obligatory oh-so-blue eyes and their obligatory oh-so-fitted jeans). But that may be because she’s more attentive to details of place, as if to situate her body, as it moves into willful action, to give a setting to the rising and falling intensities and potencies of her own desire. Often she layers her voice atop itself like a Greek chorus of interjections and sighs and audibly raised eyebrows, as if to wink, My goodness, what am I up to?

On “Gorgeous,” the tactile buzz and frustration she communicates when she says, “I guess I’ll just stumble on home, to my cats, alone,” after playing cat and mouse with an unavailable guy (“unless you wanna come along …”) is a particularly nice moment of erotic comedy, juxtaposed with one of the album’s strongest melodies.

As someone so closely associated with teen and preteen audiences, Swift still has to be circumspect next to the triple-X standards of 2017 pop. But she had already started taking apart her regular-wholesome-girl façade on songs such as “Blank Space,” and that’s the emotional work she continues here. It’s sometimes stiff and a little unconvincing, but she’s finding her new voice by trial and error. Reputation may be the sound of a control freak fighting her way out of a long panic, but at least she’s coming out of it.

Even the weaker songs have their little fireworks of inspiration. This album remains a gathering of superb craftspeople, with Swift first among them. On the lumbering Martin production “So It Goes…,” for instance, there’s the point where she seems to cut her lover a break on the bridge, by singing, “You did a number on me, but honestly, baby, who’s counting?”—and then undercuts the sentiment and doubles the pun by whispering, “1, 2, 3 …” Which of course does double duty as a count-in back to the chorus. Throughout, there are structural flips, modulations, one-note recitative patterns that suddenly burst into tunefulness, and tunes interrupted by sarcastic asides, all letting you forget about the sections you don’t like for the length of a pre- or post-chorus that maybe you do.

Still, the nearly hourlong Reputation overstretches its material, like most major releases in the age of stream-count chart metrics. Once Swift stops milking the market by withholding the album from streaming services, I’ll cut my playlist down to nine or 10 tracks, shedding the ones that somehow feel like they go on forever even though they’re under four minutes long, such as the dreary-from-the-title-down “King of My Heart.”

I doubt this will wind up being many people’s favorite Taylor Swift album. With her mojo recovered, she’ll surely top it. But it might be her most vulnerable, even in its own resistance to that vulnerability. And we may well look back at it as the moment that the fully grown-up Taylor whom we’ll soon come to know and love knocked so hard against the hull of her carapace, you could hear her future echoing back.

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