Taylor Swift would be a bad serial killer.
She’d be a bad serial killer for a bunch of reasons, but specifically, the country girl-next-door turned pop center turned heel can’t help but leave a trail of breadcrumbs in her work to explain herself. Even before easter egg hunting and reference spotting were content industries, Swift littered her creations with nods about who or what certain songs were about, most famously by leaving secret messages in liner notes. The old Taylor is dead, but her compulsion to explain isn’t; instead of just not doing interviews for the reputation cycle, she captioned her announcement of Target-exclusive reputation magazines with, “There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation.” and then liking tumblr posts that speculated that she wasn’t doing interviews. She rewards those who are observant, which could explain why I can’t get part of the magazine’s introductory letter (readable here) out of my head. Buried halfway through the third paragraph comes this line, “I’ve been in the public eye since I was 15 years old.” and that sentence feels like it should be in 48 point font. More than any lyric or video gif, that quote unlocks reputation to me; it’s the album where Taylor Swift is telling us, “I’ve been in the public eye since I was 15 years old, and I’m not sure it was worth it.”
Which is why reputation feels like an attempt by Swift to deescalate her status from “mind shatteringly famous” to “mega famous.” It tries to retrofit the last year and a half of pop/rap trends into a sound that gels with the decisively non-rap Swift of 1989, largely to middling effect. Sometimes, it sounds great (“So It Goes…”), sometimes it faceplants (“King of My Heart,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”), but mostly it’s just okay. For the first time in her career, there are no new worlds left for her to conquer, nor does reputation try to. The record’s also something of a feint: instead of a meditation on fame, media personas, and how much Kimye and Katy Perry suck, we’ve got an album of 12 crush/love songs with 3 seemingly left-field, context dependent screeds against some enemy that’s barely above the haters and fakers of “Shake It Off.” If nothing else, slotting “Look What You Made Me Do” as the lead single was a canny way for Swift to quiet the narrative up front: the initial controversy stuck more to the single, and she’s able to center the record on less incendiary topics.
The music of reputation suggests deescalation, too. Swift’s last five albums have–to varying degrees–incorporated stray elements into her core singer-songwriter sound, from the pop country of Fearless to the omnivorousness of Red to 1989‘s synthpop overtones. reputation marks the first time where she goes overtly contemporary, which might tie her to the moment. Working again with producers Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff, Swift goes all-in on the sounds of 2016 and 2017, which means lots of echoing synths, stuttering drums, digitized vocals, and some of her most icy and metallic production. It’s brooding and unfriendly, but not unfamiliar for a pop landscape that’s had Blackout and 808s & Heartbreak in its DNA for the last decade, especially since these are still friendly enough pop songs (“Look What You Made Me Do” excluded). You can see this most readily in the album’s opening run, where “…Ready For It?” “I Did Something Bad,” and “Don’t Blame Me” have smoother moments to reign in their louder, more blustery, impulses.
Swift’s work with Martin and Shellback doesn’t have a great payout here. They do more with less on the airy “So It Goes…” a robo-ballad whose vocoder-ed verses and swooning chorus approaches the soft-touch electronica of ’00s Nine Inch Nails, and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” works because of Swift pushing her range to the limit and a few synth tricks. These are the exceptions, though, since the productions are letdowns elsewhere, and Swift sounds locked a cell when it comes to Martin’s melodic math. These beats suffer because they’re pop approximations, and beg the question of what’s stopping Swift from going right to the source? If you’re going to try for an “urban radio” single, why not tap Cirkut or Metro Boomin? Instead of Shellback’s decent OVO impression on the dancehall adjacent “Delicate,” why not see if Ninteen85 will do it?
The other big name collaborator on reputation is Jack Antonoff, inflicting a third major appearance on a pop album aside from his own in 2017. I don’t begrudge Antonoff’s decision to shamelessly cozy up to every commanding female artist with a singular vision and a MetroCard so he can pop up in Vulture to say “And I helped” while dropping some pseudo-therapy talk about process, but if we’re going to let this guy run wild, he needs new sounds. My biggest criticism of Antonoff is that he lack imagination; his lone style is the bass-deficient, reverb reliant, arpeggio synth, gated drum, bouncing piano blast of ’80s worship that’s been a pop fixation for the last like, decade, and his version of it got tiring halfway through the first Bleachers album. It’s why something like “Getaway Car,” a synth-y late album opus, should feel exciting and effervescent, but just reads as stale.
One thing you can say for Swift’s tracks with Antonoff is that at least she sounds like a person. “Dress,” “Call It Want You Want,” and especially the intimate, sparse closer “New Year’s Day are her best performances, where she sings about having her heart interlinked with someone she is afraid to lose. She’s human, but coming from a weirder angle on other Antonoff collaborations “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” the record’s Kanye West takedowns. When “Look What You Made Me Do” came out, I thought it might make more sense on the album, but if anything, the electroclash single sounds even more out of place between the dancehall crush song and glitchy torch one. And it’s somehow preferable to “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” where Swift boasts about living like Gatsby (. . . as a member of the nouveau riche whose life of glamour conceals their loneliness and longing for love and acceptance they’re incapable of receiving?) before dissing Kanye, only she does it by referencing two songs better than almost anything on reputation. This is all set to a bubbly mash-up of “Royals” and “Roar,” it’s buried at the end of the album between love songs, and there’s also a fake laugh and “oh my God I caaaan’t” bridge. It’s all very confusing.
Which might be preferable to the times she sounds like an algorithm result. I’ve mentioned this before, but Swift doesn’t mesh with Max Martin’s calculated songwriting, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the duo’s over-processed tracks. Is there a point you can make about digitized-to-death vocals representing the loss of Taylor Swift’s humanity at the hands of mass culture? Yes, but the album doesn’t engage with that idea. Instead, it sees her try rapping several times, using a light accent of something every now and then, and reheating the soggiest parts of “Bad Blood.” Look no further than what we made her do on (inevitable single) “Endgame,” where she has a tripping, over-practiced rap verse that falls somewhere below a double timing Future, but above #bars covered in flop sweat by Lannister bastard Ed Sheeran. Swift doesn’t sound awful on “Endgame”, but her performance is indicative of reputation writ large: someone getting by without playing to their strengths.
Not that it doesn’t sometimes work. The quiet romances detailed in “Delicate” and “Gorgeous” sound worth it, and once the record dispenses with the bangers and Swift has room to breathe, the second half improves. Closer “New Year’s Day” peels away layers of production until it’s just Swift and a piano, and her performance is outright compelling. She sings like she truly just went through midnight after midnight after someone with drinks (quick tangent: Swift mentions drinking so much on reputation that I thought it was the new Japandroids record), and wants to stay, no matter how tired she is or how many challenges await them in the outside world. It sounds relatable, which goes back to why she left all those little clues in her work in the first place; she wanted to tell us she was with us. If the swirl around reputation did more of that instead of obsess over Swifts interlinked within Swifts interlinked, or if the songs themselves were as sturdy as they were on her previous albums, then maybe this record could have been an interesting “turn back the curtain” to show what Swift’s fame has cost her. But it pays (red-painted) lip service that idea, offering anodyne relationship songs instead. Swift is ready to exit the narrative; she told us she was going to be bad, but really, she’s saying “Leave me alone.”