Arts album review

‘I swear I don’t love the drama’

The queen of pop’s reputation precedes her

Taylor Swift
Big Machine Records
Nov. 10, 2017

At long last, Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album has arrived.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: it doesn’t matter to me whether this album is good. It’s a Taylor Swift album. It’s immaculately produced pop. How could it not be, with heavyweights like Max Martin and Jack Antonoff involved, and of course Swift herself, now an industry veteran? It’ll sell millions of copies. (It already has.) It’s guaranteed to be a cultural phenomenon.

It’s hard to believe that Swift has been in this business for more than ten years. I swear it was just yesterday that I was listening to her very first single on the local country radio station. She’s come a long way from young love, blue eyes, and Georgia skies to the crushing cesspool of stratospheric fame.

The fundamental question that underlies most of Reputation is “how do you love in the spotlight?”

People do insane things in love. It can turn your mind inside out, or at least that’s how it feels. When you take something so simultaneously intimate and destabilizing by nature and broadcast those feelings to the whole world — and the whole world listens — you’re going to come across as crazy.

And in her songs, Taylor Swift is crazy. She’ll curse your name, kiss you in the pouring rain, blush all the way home after seeing you. She’ll burn her photos of you. She’ll stand up in the church and convince the groom to marry her instead. “Don’t blame me,” she says, “love made me crazy.”

But the thing is, I don’t think she actually does all or even half of these things. They are just convenient metaphors for how she feels in love. When you try to make people feel how you feel, you need to use these signals. This is what makes her lyrics masterful. It’s not because we do these things — it’s because we know what they mean. They’re seared into our cultural consciousness.

If pop music is anything at all, it should be relatable. Taylor Swift is the queen of relatability. She’s always been charmingly awkward, and her lyrics are a perfect balance of confessional and expansive — exactly the combination that characterizes great pop lyrics.

Of course, fame complicates Swift’s love life. A lot of the songs on Reputation are about failed attempts to keep her relationships secret, and when that doesn’t work, how the media destroys them.

It’s hard to carry on a relationship while running from the press the whole time, Swift points out in “Getaway Car,” an Antonoff-produced song that sounds like it could have come straight off one of his side- project Bleachers’ albums. And she knows there’s “no one in the world who could take” the pressures of dating her and being under so much scrutiny (“Dancing with Our Hands Tied”).

“I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me,” she sings in “End Game,” one of the strangest tracks of the album with its incongruous hip-hop influences.

But even after all the drama, the rumors, the romances overshadowed and ruined by her fame and her reputation, Taylor Swift still believes in love. And paradoxically, her lovers insulate her from the pressure of stardom.

Her reputation has never been worse, and her life feels like it’s crumbling, and everyone’s calling her a liar, but at least she could get her current relationship right (“King of My Heart”). And she still feels those same feelings — her lover can “make everyone disappear” and “make all her gray days clear” (“So It Goes…”).

So, in a lot of ways, she’s still that same innocent, curly-haired singer of ten years ago.

She’s also the same vindictive person who wrote songs like “Picture to Burn” and “Better than Revenge,” so she still manages to get in a few jabs at her enemies, real or imagined — most notably Kanye West in “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” But these songs feel almost out of place thematically — “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and “Look What You Made Me Do” are the weakest songs on the album. What’s more is that they feel less authentic. Swift never mastered the language of revenge like she mastered the language of love.

In a lot of other ways, she has matured. Reputation presents a Taylor Swift who has come into the sexuality of her late 20s gracefully. Songs on this album are much more forward than her previous album. She says she bought a pretty dress just so her lover could take it off her (“Dress”). “You know I’m not a bad girl, but I do bad things with you,” she sings (“So It Goes…”).

In the end, Swift is defiant. “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one,” she sings. “So light me up, go ahead and light me up” (“I Did Something Bad”). People can say whatever they want about her, accuse her of all kinds of crimes in love, in friendship, in cultural faux pas or celebrity feuds. They don’t know her.

And if you do want to know her, then you have to look past her reputation, which she says has “never been worse,” and see her for who she is.

But who is Taylor Swift? She seems to want us to know she is loyal. She’ll be there with you for the good times, the “midnights,” and she won’t abandon you the next morning in the mess of the party’s aftermath (“New Year’s Day”).

Everything else is obscured.