Arts and Entertainment

What’s In a “reputation”?

A review of “reputation” and an exploration of what it means for Taylor Swift as an artist.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Tony Chen

For months, the world saw little of Taylor Swift. Turns out, it’s because the “‘old Taylor is dead,” as Swift herself declares in “Look What You Made Me Do,” the lead single of her newest album. Taylor Swift’s sixth album, “reputation,” was released November 10, 2017 amid great anticipation and controversy, and Swift has taken care to present it as a clean break between her old persona and her new image.

From the start, Swift tries to distinguish herself and her album’s new style as unlike anything she’s ever done before. “… Ready For It,” the album’s first song, is dark and fast-paced; Swift’s tone is aggressive and much more reminiscent of rap than her former country-style crooning. The static and deep bass create a white noise effect underlying Swift’s singing that reflects a heavier sound than she’s put out before. It serves as a warning shot that this new Taylor Swift is nothing like the gentle America’s sweetheart that fans have grown used to.

And yet, as the song reaches the chorus, Swift’s voice reverts back into the familiar high-pitched, soft quality that marked her previous work. In fact, it’s almost impossible to not be reminded of “Wildest Dreams,” Swift’s single from her 2014 album, “1989.” Within the first minute, “reputation” established the inescapable question posed by the album and by Taylor Swift as an evolving artist: is the old Taylor really dead?

Perhaps dead is an over-exaggeration. Swift’s collaboration with rapper Future and singer Ed Sheeran in “End Game” of the same album makes for a unique song and an interesting blend of musical styles, but Swift’s key characteristics prevail. In her verse, Swift sings, “And I can’t let you go, your hand prints on my soul / It’s like your eyes are liquor, it’s like your body is gold,” continuing to display lyrical talent and a specific eloquence and romanticism when describing a lover that she has long been associated with.

At the same time, the song seesaws between brimming with confidence, as Swift loudly mocks her “big reputation,” and what appears to be vulnerability, as Swift expresses, “I don’t wanna be / Just another ex-love / You don’t wanna see.” Ultimately, her direct declaration of her expectations in the relationship—to be the “end game”—unveils a new depth and a change in Taylor, who seems to be taking increased control in her own fate, breaking from the helplessness of her former self.

This shift in Swift’s approach to relationships is consistent throughout the album. For the first time, Swift is secure rather than miserable. “Call It What You Want To” embodies this message: Taylor can be content and happy in her relationships without having to define them to anyone. In singing, “My baby’s … high above the whole scene / Loves me like I’m brand new,” Swift truly establishes a new Taylor, one that won’t be subject to manipulation, and a new sort of love, one that is steadfast and real.

It is refreshing to see Swift finally embrace her sexuality. “Dress” is breathy and unmistakably suggestive. Swift is blunt like never before as she croons, “Only bought this dress so you could take it off.” Perhaps it does harken back to the old Taylor in its sense of want and (as Swift herself says) “pining and desperately waiting,” but it does so in a way that is new and different because Swift is making the choice to be vulnerable. Whereas before Swift might have been defenseless when it came to love, she now intentionally lets her guard down.

Furthermore, it is shocking to see Swift directly referencing sex or, as she does later in the song, drinking. These more mature elements shield “reputation” from the naivety that blanketed the old Taylor; she has, invariably, grown up. Carnal themes have always been excluded from Taylor Swift’s image, which centered around her innocence. By finally incorporating them, Swift acknowledges that her image has inevitably changed as she herself has evolved into a grown woman.

Swift is defiantly unapologetic, evident in “I Did Something Bad” where Swift loudly declares, “They said I did something bad, / Then why’s it feel so good? … And I’d do it over and over and over again if I could.” Behind her singing, the drums are explosive, a feeling which pervades throughout the song and evokes the sense of a person being pushed past the edge. Swift finally indicates her own guilt, a stark contrast to her previous role as a victim. Her lack of remorse is a strong rejection of her role as “the good guy.” By combining her fiery lyrics with the song’s forte, Swift effectively creates the feeling of intense liberation.

Swift also poses a direct challenge to her accusers as she sings, “They’re burning all of the witches even if you aren’t one / So light me up… go ahead and light me up.” In doing so, Swift becomes a much more empowered and fearless figure; she fully embraces her bad press, freed from having to preserve her reputation.

Musically, “reputation” is dramatically distinct from Swift’s previous work. “Don’t Blame Me” is a dark, soulful sermon enveloped in Gothic undertones. The percussion sounds like a heartbeat, while Swift’s deeper, drawled voice that sounds less like singing than it does talking sounds like a confession. The slow, powerful tempo matched with declarations such as, “And baby for you / I would fall from grace / Just to touch your face,” reveal a side of Swift that is raw and heartfelt.

Meanwhile, Swift’s voice seems to be endlessly flexible. In “Delicate,” her hushed tones and sweet singing are magnetic and sensuous. The electronic influences are expertly employed, with Swift’s voice taking on a robotic sound distinguished by its wavering quality. The inhuman, electric sound provides a beautiful juxtaposition with the delicate tone of Swift’s natural singing, resulting in a surprising contrast. It’s a bold presentation of Swift’s musical genius.

Curiously, the album’s closing song, “New Year’s Day,” is written and sung in a very classic Taylor Swift style. It is gentle, slow, and one of the few occasions where Swift retains an aura of innocence. The minimalist piano tones in the background allow Swift’s ultimately optimistic message to pervade; despite all of the turbulence of her previous romantic endeavors, she intends to stay with the person who’s willing to do the same. Thus, Swift ends her revolutionary album with an old-fashioned acknowledgement of her growth beyond the romantic notions of midnights and preference for the steadiness of someone who helps clean up the mess in the morning.

Certainly, “reputation” is a heavy album. Its sound is a melting pot of classic Taylor styles and new, darker, uncharted musical territories. Despite Swift’s insinuations that her image is always what she has carefully crafted, she is nevertheless sincere and open within her music as she always has been. I cannot say that I believe there is a new and old Taylor. More likely, there is just Taylor Swift, an artist and media sensation and human who grows and evolves while her music follows suit.