Taylor Swift’s career as a Cultural Question begins with her video for “You Belong with Me”. In the video, Swift plays the role of the popular-but-undeserving cheerleader and the role of the nerdy indoor-kid, who takes off her glasses at the end to kiss her love interest. It was a bizarre moment of self-consciousness — Swift playing both “the cheer captain” and the girl “on the bleachers.” Taylor Swift the Cultural Question was once the sympathetic, jilted lover and the blonde, loathsome, normative overdog.
Looking like a lab experiment for Eurocentric beauty, toting a bank account full of platinum records and a panoply of celebrity friends, if Swift couldn’t seem to find love, and she wrote about this problem often, rooting for Taylor Swift the Cultural Question to find happiness was a bit like rooting for the house in blackjack. If there was a sound to Swift’s music, it was the same sound repealing the Estate Tax makes.
With the arrival of 1989, her fifth studio album, critical darling, and commercial monument, Swift ceased to divide. She embraced her dominance. On 1989, she became a pop mobster, a delightful heel turn that couldn’t be denied. In the video for “Blank Space”, Swift transformed into a mixture of Biblical Eve and Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds. We were in her house, and it was her apple into which she bit gleefully. Even committed Taylor Haters couldn’t deny 1989’s dominance and quality — or its seven bankable singles. Hell, “New Romantics” wasn’t even on the album, and it eventually found its way to a single release — yes, her B-sides were also hits.
This all goes to say that Taylor Swift the Cultural Question resolved itself on 1989. Like so many American stories, Swift had nowhere to go but down. But, even forgiving the millstones of expectation, Reputation, Swift’s sixth studio album, is a bloated, moving disaster. With “Look What You Made Me Do”, the album’s first single, Swift tries a second heel-turn, and the song’s video even returns to the Biblical Eden imagery, only now she isn’t Eve; she’s the serpent. “Look What You Made Me Do” is Madonna’s cone bra, Britney’s “If You Seek Amy”, and Miley’s twerking, all rolled into one desperate attempt to shock an increasingly inured audience. And lyrically, the song functions, perhaps at best, as an ironic commentary on cultural capitalism: We wanted more from her when there was no more to give, only a saturated market left to collapse. Which raises the question, was “Look What You Made Me Do” designed to stink? Was that the point?
Surely enough, Reputation doesn’t improve past its initial singles, even if the chorus of “…Ready for It?” is one of the few vestiges of 1989 Taylor on the album. Elsewhere, Swift finds trouble: She raps, she adopts African-American Vernacular English, and she bizarrely collaborates with Future, who one suspects couldn’t cash the check fast enough. “I see how this is gunna go,” she says on “…Ready for It?”, like another white woman who thoughtlessly put “dat” and “doe” in their Instagram captions. For Swift, blackness can be tried on and discarded. Let’s not forget how she capped off Reputation’s roll-out by having her lawyers sue bloggers and writers who called her a white supremacist, another poor decision that was on par with letting her friend Ed Sheeran rap on “End Game” alongside the aforementioned Future.
So, what works? Not surprisingly, Reputation’s strongest moments are its most restrained. “Gorgeous”, “Delicate”, and “Call It What You Want”, three of the more mid-tempo songs, offer a reprieve, especially when they’re each paired against the soulless production of everything else. The production on “Gorgeous” recalls the plaintive, synthesizer line of Yazoo’s ’80s hit “Only You”, and Swift includes a stand-alone chime to announce one of the album’s best earworms. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we’re supposed to hear the chime on “Gorgeous” and salivate, knowing the hook is coming. It’s one of the few moments where Swift gets the conditioned response she desires. Similarly, “Getaway Car” is as close as Swift fans will get to 1989’s aesthetic; the song’s hook hits but doesn’t punish.
With Reputation, Swift seemingly has the idea that bigger, wider, and louder is necessarily better, but the dopamine rush that modern pop music can so reliably produce never arrives. When Swift reaches for the top, like on “I Did Something Bad” or “So It Goes”, it sounds like an arrangement Lorde wouldn’t have let anywhere near this year’s Melodrama. In fact, it’s impossible not to hear Lorde’s monument to modern pop and how it fills the spaces that litter Reputation. Instead, these songs fall shy of hits, leaving the audience to pick from the glittering pop moments hidden among the wreckage.
If 1989 was a pleasant totalitarian regime, Reputation is a dictator too dumb to even do authoritarianism right. The album is as embarrassing as it is garish, like gold curtains in the Oval Office. Perhaps a reflection of a wider cultural problem, this Taylor sounds both expensive and empty. On “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, co-producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff writes the chorus in his sleep, like Future, cashing his check, too. (We all get paid on the way to the abyss.) The song’s capacious sing-along just can’t rouse an album that seems open to any idea, provided it is big, current, and potentially bankable. As such, Reputation ends in a cruel paradox: An album willing to do anything to be liked winds up being unlikable.
Yet some of the delight and bewilderment of Reputation is its failure. It’s rare to see an American celebrity, with her stable of co-writers and Swedish hit-makers, stumble so conspicuously. Success can be had for a price in America, and, part of the charm of Reputation lies in its density of failure: Every gesture sounds so poor, each decision so ill-advised, so many of the mistakes sound so avoidable. The failure begins to bizarrely re-humanize Swift, moving her from cheer dictator back to sitting on the bleachers. Because if there’s a sympathetic moment on Reputation, listeners find it in Swift’s struggle to navigate her enormous celebrity.
Though, we hear her future – predictable as it may be – on “New Year’s Day”, the closing track off Reputation. Piano and acoustic guitar emerge for the first time as if she’s already signaling her next “Return to Roots” record a la Miley. Maybe it will feature slide guitar and “back of a truck” love stories of Middle America? Maybe she will consciously reject the black culture she adopted here – a dalliance on her way back to conspicuous whiteness? And maybe she’ll see Reputation as a lark, a tryst with failure for an artist who has never failed. Of course, she’ll be back, in two or three years’ time, like the Dow Jones and our unearned, irrepressible belief in ourselves. Besides, she, like so many before her, has a voice that sounds like money.
Essential Tracks: “… Ready For It”, “Gorgeous”, and “Delicate”