Taylor Swift is pop culture’s most problematic fav: when she’s not demonizing black men, appropriating other cultures or making colonial music videos, she’s producing certifiable bops. Her problematicness has always been redeemed by the caliber of her song writing and world building. Who cares if she’s suing an activist author critiquing her white feminism if “You Belong with Me” helped a generation of angsty teens through puberty? Casually brush off the fact that the alt-right community upholds her as a symbol of white purity, because “Blank Space” is a banger with a cool music video.
Her sixth — and worst — album “Reputation” is the moment where the music stops being good enough to justify her ever-growing ego. Conceived in the aftermath of the infamous #TaylorSwiftExposedParty, Swift betrays her own talent, spouting full-intensity but half-baked songs that sound at best inoffensive and uninspired, and at worst, just boring.
Pettiness is a virus that corrupts “Reputation’s” DNA to its core. From the opening line that suspiciously sounds like “Loki was a killer” (Tom Hiddleston was evidently not “ready for it”), to the Kanye West and Kim Kardashian references bloating “I Did Something Bad” and “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” it is excruciatingly apparent that Taylor has learned nothing from her encounters with negative publicity. She never sounds triumphant, only vindictive and bitter.
But plenty of artists (see Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Cardi B) use entertaining egotism as their currency — their tracks just have to SOUND good. The only unifying sonic theme in “Reputation” seems to be destroying “1989’s” (admittedly excellent) musical background. Lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” is a clunky chimera of orchestral horror, Max Martin autopilot production, and rapping so poor you might laugh if you weren’t cringing. The album’s only guest features, Future and Ed Sheeran, are in particularly poor form on “End Game,” a wannabe Demi Lovato-esque banger built around the question, “How many times can I say the word ‘reputation’ in one song?” Pretty but forgettable, the album’s middle is littered with flaccid filler trop-house-lite exercises like “Gorgeous” and “King of My Heart.”
“Reputation’s” lack of imagination is particularly sad because when we last left Swift, she seemed to have finally come into her own as a proper pop star. Take, for example, “New Romantics,” the “1989” manifesto that snuck onto the album’s deluxe edition. “We play dumb / But know exactly what we’re doing,” she sings. Synths soar like waves of nostalgia, every syllable weaponized with moxie, urgency, and wisdom; it tackles all of “Reputation’s” themes of fame and backlash more effectively. She handles haters with poise and joy: “I could build a castle / Out of all the bricks they throw at me.”
Besides standouts “Delicate” and “New Year’s Day,” the closest we get to this sublime introspection on “Reputation”—albeit pretty darn close — is the penultimate track, “Call It What You Want.” With a melancholy interpolation of “New Romantics’” synths, percussion like a steady heartbeat, and the introductory lines, “My castle crumbled overnight / I brought a knife fight,” it’s a sudden relapse into the type of arresting world-building that made the old (dead?) Taylor famous. “Nobody’s heard from me for months / I’m doing better than I ever was,” she sings about her current beau Jon Alywn.
It’s the first time Swift sounds genuinely reflective, at ease with herself — living up to her reputation.
Wayne Zhang | email@example.com .