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Taylor Swift doesn’t give a damn about her ‘reputation’

| Monday, November 13, 2017

Joseph Han

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion urges in her famous 1966 essay on keeping a notebook. The value of recording the events of one’s life is not, Didion suggests, to have a factual account of what happened, but to record your subjective experience. “Remember what it was to be me,” she emphasizes, “that is always the point.”

On her new album “Reputation,” Taylor Swift claims she’s no longer on nodding terms with the talented country songwriter who grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, nor with the world-conquering star who produced some of this decade’s biggest pop hits. “Sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” she dramatically informs us on the lead single “Look What You Made Me Do.” “Why? ‘Cause she’s dead!”

The new Taylor, as presented on “Reputation,” is darker and angrier, but also more conversant with the sounds of modern pop music. Swift’s blockbuster album “1989” found her diving headfirst into sleek Reagan-era synthpop. This time around, she reunites with her “1989” collaborators — production duties are split between Swedish pop masterminds Max Martin & Shellback and Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff — but opts for a modern sonic palette. Nothing on “Reputation” quite reaches the ecstatic highs of “1989” — “Blank Space” and “Style,” particularly — but as a whole, it is a more cohesive, compelling work.

The sparse, moody rhythm-and-blues-leaning pop on “Reputation” is more of-the-moment than Swift’s ever sounded, replete with throbbing bass lines and trap drums. Unlike the tasteful “1989,” the production is often harsh and abrasive, as with the industrial electropop of “…Ready for It?” or the dubstep drops on “Don’t Blame Me.” Melody is less central to these songs, with Swift frequently singing through a vocoder or adopting a not-quite-rap flow. This approach often comes across as stilted, and Swift proves she almost certainly does not have bars: hearing her rap, “He can be my jailer, Burton to this Taylor” is particularly cringeworthy. While the production can be jarring, however, it largely works because Swift is such a strong pop songwriter and keen storyteller.

Swift’s previous two albums — “Red” and “1989” — were primarily breakup albums, tracing the infatuation of new romance, the anguish of a breakup and the catharsis that comes from getting over it. On “Reputation,” Swift grapples with the dissonance between her private self and her public persona. Unlike her past albums, the relationship she recounts doesn’t go down in flames; instead, she tells a story about retreating from the spotlight and finding solace in love. “Reputation” is a love story, yes, but like most of Swift’s best work, it’s about much more than which famous boyfriend each song is about: This is an album about learning to live life without getting hung up on what others think about you.

The specter haunting “Reputation” is — as anyone even mildly familiar with celebrity gossip knows — Swift’s long-running feud with Kanye West. Her carefully-crafted persona suffered a major blow in July 2016, when Kim Kardashian caught Swift in a lie and shared the receipts with the world via Snapchat. Swift claimed she had not approved a lyric from West’s song “Famous” — “I made that b—- famous,” he raps about her — but the video Kardashian shared suggested otherwise. “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative,” Swift shot back, but the damage to her public image was done.

Throughout the album, Swift delves into her complicated relationship with fame and her reputation. “You heard about me / Ooh, I got some big enemies,” she chants brashly on “End Game,” her collaboration with Future and Ed Sheeran, reveling in her newfound notoriety. Sheeran’s stab at rapping makes Swift sound like Nas in comparison. On “I Did Something Bad,” she embraces her villainous side, gleefully singing, “They say I did something bad / Then why’s it feel so good?”

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” — which plays like a “Bad Blood” sequel — most directly addresses her feud with West and Kardashian. Swift alludes to the chorus of West’s “Runaway,” offering a toast to her friends and family, before singing, “And here’s to you / ‘Cause forgiveness is a nice thing to do.” Her attempt to be the bigger person doesn’t last long, as she quickly erupts in laughter: “I can’t even say it with a straight face.” Swift’s pettiness is more exhausting than exhilarating.

For the most part, thankfully, Swift’s grudges serve mostly as subtext to more introspective concerns, especially on the album’s second half. “Delicate,” which recalls the sensual minimalism of The xx, is a vulnerable look at how her public image affects her relationships. My reputation’s never been worse,” she sings in hushed tones, “so you must like me for me.” On “Getaway Car,” which ranks among Swift’s best songs, she employs a Bonnie and Clyde conceit to highlight the perils of a love triangle. Driving is a typical motif in Swift’s songs, usually underscoring the euphoria of a new relationship. Here she reverses the image, in a self-critical examination of her actions: “No, nothing good starts in a getaway car.”

The great theme of Swift’s oeuvre is memory. While so many of her songs are written in the past tense, looking back on something that happened, they seek to preserve how she felt in that moment (or as Didion puts it, “Remember what it was to be me.”) She captures that best on “New Year’s Day,” the sparse piano ballad that closes “Reputation.” It features some of Swift’s best lyricism, painting a vivid portrait of a boyfriend who stays with her in the aftermath of a New Year’s Eve party. She sets the scene with small details: “There’s glitter on the floor after the party / Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby.” The party shifts from literal to the figurative, in a canny move, becoming a metaphor for intimacy. “I want your midnights,” she sings, “but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” It’s a testament to Swift’s power as a songwriter and the most affecting moment on “Reputation.” Turns out the new Taylor is not so different from the old Taylor after all.

Album: “Reputation”

Label: Big Machine Records

If you like: Taylor Swift

Tracks: “Delicate,” “Getaway Car,” “New Year’s Day”

3.5 / 5 shamrocks

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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