Music Features

Taylor Swift's Reputation and the Death of an Ingénue

After three days of listening to Reputation, I conclude that Taylor Swift has become that which she most despises—a cool kid. It's obvious from the first three notes of ...Ready For It?, if you can call the fuzzy triad of synth blares "notes." Her sound is slick, glossy and electronic to the core (except for the last track, New Year's Day, which is sort of a piano ballad? Who even knows. It's the last track). Her vocals have improved tremendously, both in terms of timbre and confidence. Behind her mixing board are Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff, otherwise known as the premier hitmakers of the past twenty years. And, if it counts for anything, she's the leader of a pack of it-girls and supermodels. When Taylor feuds, she feuds with Apple Inc. and the Kardashian-West family. When she sings about her troubles, she makes one million dollars in royalties.

This is the same girl who sang about white horses, fairy tales and wedding dresses shaped like pastries. Taylor Swift, pre-2014, was the patron saint of the victimized, of the girls who found themselves on the awkward side of the "she wears high heels / I wear sneakers" dichotomy. Sure enough, Taylor the country singer held on to some small-town prejudices that are obvious now to anyone who's had a feminist awakening. The centering of personal happiness upon the possession of a boyfriend, the slut-shaming, the ham-fisted reliance on fairy tale tropes—criticisms of young Taylor abounded back in the day. But no one could deny her sinister talent for writing songs. Her singles were watertight compositions of dazzling hooks, sticky choruses and charmingly laughable bridges. She was the queen of savage one-liners, of which my favorite is this one from her song All Too Well: "You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest". With her dorky dancing, her corkscrew blonde curls and her cowboy boots, listeners sensed an element of truth to her portrayal of herself as a "loser." The narrative made sense.

Of this erstwhile Taylor, two traits remain: her songwriting talent and her insistence on playing the victim. Except this time, the former is no longer justifying the latter, and latter just isn't a realistic persona for her anymore. Taylor is one of the most powerful people in the music business and one of the most influential singers. She ditched her country aesthetic a long time ago in favor of the concert costume of the moment: sparkly bodices and thigh-high boots. Google her name and you'll find pictures of her belting into bedazzled microphones and posing like the diva she always claimed she wasn't.

For a second in 2014, with the release of 1989,  this transition from jilted, bullied ingénue to glamorous megastar felt like poetic justice. Finally, the meek have inherited the earth! The cads and playboys have been shamed! For once, it seemed like the queen of the moment was not some manufactured sexpot, of the kind that America loves to idolize and then destroy, but a radiant and beaming songwriting savant with long legs and a penchant for introspection. After 1989 was released, listening to Taylor's music was no longer the purview of teenage girls—suddenly everyone was humming along to Blank Space.

Curiously, Blank Space was the first time we heard Swift crafting hits out of blatant self-mockery (although not the first time she used self-deprecation as a shield against criticism in her songs). At the time, the strategy felt fresh enough to successfully deflect the accusations of serial dating that had hounded Swift for her entire career. The rest of the album just simmered with pure joy and abandon, a perfect meld of starry-eyed idealism with synth-powered joie-de-vivre. Tellingly, 1989 was her last album to feature a song by Nathan Chapman, the producer who helped streamline her country sound on all of her previous albums. No mention of him exists on Reputation's song credits.

None of this analysis purports to lessen or demean Reputation's obvious strengths; I merely include it to provide context. Swift's sixth album is a loud, explosive affair, difficult to ignore, and infuriatingly catchy. She doesn't cut costs when it comes to the producers she works with or the hooks she puts out. But sometimes even the grandeur of the production can't mask the incongruencies that afflict Swift's current persona. On End Game, an oddity of a track featuring none other than Ed Sheeran and rapper Future, Swift brags with a swagger not unlike Kanye West's: "Big reputation, big reputation, oh you and me / We got big reputations aaah / And you heard about me oooh / I got some big enemies." I transcribe the "aaah"s and "oooh"s because they function as integral parts of Taylor's newfound cockiness—she intonates them with the masculine gloat of a frat boy who just delivered a sick burn.

Similar instances of this "woe-is-me"-inflected conceitedness occur in I Did Something Bad, Look What You Made Me Do and This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things. If Taylor's spat with Kim and Kanye (not to mention her fallouts with Katy Perry and Calvin Harris) was the elephant in the room, she more than just addressed it—she adorned it with diamonds and rode it around town. With a complete disregard for subtlety and with none of her prior sense of self-awareness, Taylor's lyrics stomp like an angry cheerleader: "They say I did something bad / Then why's it feel so good?" Finally, as if to try and scare away any lingering hopes we had that the sweet, self-effacing old Taylor might still be around, she sneaks in a vicious cackle at the end of the following lyric: "And here's to you / Because forgiveness is a nice thing to do," as if to test whether we really thought Taylor was the same dumb dreamer she used to be.

Even the songs about her current relationship, which would have formerly summoned Taylor's inner Juliet, seem cracked with distrust and cynicism. "This ain't for the best / My reputation's never been worse so he must like me for me," she sings on Delicate, her vocals grungy and distorted, the instrumentation sparse. But here the shift in attitude works. There are few triumphs in life quite like walking home to the refuge of a lover's arms amidst the world's assaults. As Joyce Carol Oates puts it in her 6-word story, "The best revenge is living well without you." Taylor knows this when she chooses to inject songs like Don't Blame Me and King Of My Heart with the perfect measure of tension and relief. We hear it in the choir-driven ecstasy of the former song and the scuzzy, robotic breakdown towards the end of the latter. And then we have lyrics like those in Dress: "Only bought this dress so you could take it off." Although the song itself is rather bland, its sexual references hint at Taylor's maturity as an artist and woman. Perhaps Taylor's pious inner Juliet (who, if we may remember in her song Fifteen, once considered her friend Abigail's lost virginity as the worst of tragedies) may never return, and in this case, that's a good thing. 

Swift's ability to laugh at herself, to rise from the dead, to grow and evolve is an asset, one that she wisely pairs with her knife-sharp songwriting prowess. But at this point in time, I can't decide if Taylor sounds more genuine when she was (ostensibly) pretending to be the nice girl on her first four albums or when she pretends to be the bad girl on Reputation. I want to call her bluff when she claims that her old self is dead, even though sonically, it doesn't seem like she's picking up a guitar any time soon. As far as her actual reputation, she's already embraced and commodified her image as a snake. Perhaps to some it's an interesting reversal of roles, but to me it appears forced and unnatural, not to mention mercenary. Exploiting an identity that society has thrust upon us can only empower us up to a certain point.

I remember when Taylor responded to Kim Kardashian's incriminating Snapchat videos with an indignant iPhone note saying that she "would very much like to be excluded from this narrative." Had Taylor created an album asserting her identity as a fallible, sensitive, yet self-possessed human in a treacherous industry that demands calculated perfection, perhaps the pendulum would have swung back in her favor. Far from being excluded from the narrative, she would have been the one writing it again.