The digital dances of the internet — the soft block, the finsta, a deleted subtweet — distinguish the ways in which we tend to ourselves and each other online. The choreography is complex and mesmerizing, yet frail enough to crumble with a misstep; these steps are designed to upkeep a persona which, with time, hardens into a reputation. A public thrives on these crumbling of kingdoms, hyper-consuming them until they fall. The endless theatre of persona maintenance sustains social media’s endless timelines. In the machine of pop music, these spectacles of social death are routine, a rite of passage.
Pop icon Taylor Swift embodies this social death literally in the music video for the iron-pumping opening song, “Look What You Made Me Do”: Her zombified corpse emerges from the dirt after a long media blackout to confirm the rumours and allegations with a self-coronation as evil queen. The reintroduction was obtuse and wacky, but potent enough to sledgehammer Swift’s usual naivety. She reemerged hardened and barbed with a detached aggression that prides itself on poignant self-awareness and empowerment, but the new Swift presents herself to be little more than a sulk.
“Reputation,” a record born out of Swift’s media silence, promises nothing but more silence; in an album note, she explains, “There will be no further explanation. Only reputation.” Usually, these silences indicate a godliness of one’s talent — Beyonce had stopped giving interviews after her self-titled album, ascending herself beyond her peers. For Swift, this elevation works more like a shield against the rage of interviews, implications and invasive questions. And like the subtlety of a subtweet or gentle rage of a soft block, “Reputation” is structured to work and be listened to around Swift’s vindictiveness like a labyrinth. “Ready For It,” a song that sounds like a “Yeezus” leftover Swift hijacked from Kanye West, revs up her fawning melody to give room for her to spit obtuse bars of her own.
Much of Swift’s reinvention deals with her explicit approximation to black pop’s vocabulary, like the embellishment of the trap beat in “King of My Heart,” a Max Martin-penned and produced gem that encapsulates much of Swift’s new formula: “Salute to me like I’m your American queen/ You move to me like a Motown beat.” It’s an interesting lyric that compares herself the grooves of a Motown beat (an inherently black style of music), a detail obtuse enough to clarify Swift’s use of black music to reintroduce herself in 2017 to be fully committed to what pop sounds like in 2017. Critic Jon Caramanica described “1989” to be the only successful white pop record of 2014 amidst a pop ecology invested in hip-hop. In 2017, hip-hop has since become the most streamed genre of music in the United States. The current musical landscape is one where where white pop stars have learned to either lean into it, or reach out to the nostalgia of country and rock to reimagine themselves (like we’ve seen with Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Miley Cyrus.) Swift, in 2017, has leaned into black pop without falling into the matrix of cultural appropriation like her peers, by reconfiguring her brand to compliment her mastery of melody and lyricism — rather than replicating the black sounds she’s influenced by.
Like in standout track “Delicate,” the use of rhythm and flow dominate over Swift’s typical use of melody. It compresses and distills her campy rage into something detached, cynical and paranoid that make her relatable even at her most obnoxious. Her anxiety permeates throughout the record in moments where she is at her most honest and vulnerable; her strength takes an emotion and fashions it to be something audible and visceral. In fuzzily textured autotune, she lets that anxiety fizzle and vaporize, “This ain’t for the best, my reputation’s never been worse/ So you must like me for me.” She rides the steady beat with a conversational flow, “Dive bar on the West Side, where you at?” So paranoid yet so cool and mature, Swift is able to speak to the ways in which a lot of of young women engrave romance through detail. In an age where privately hyper-consuming a crush online can feel perverse, Swift nails it in one line: “Is it chill that you’re in my head?”
In details and in iconography of femininity, Swift revels and finally pierces through an explicit declaration of desire in the Jack Antonoff-produced “Dress.” There have been many dresses for Swift (“Spinning around like a girl in a brand new dress,” in “Holy Ground,” “I talked to your dad/ Go pick out a white dress” in “Love Story”), but they have never been tied to her desires.
In a much earlier part of career, Swift made a personal choice to curate a covered-up image of herself to prioritize her commitment as a songwriter rather than sex icon, whereas before, she would only allude to such acts of hands coursing through hair and affectionate glances.
“Dress” glistens with classic Swift portraits of ordinariness (“I’m spilling wine in the bathtub/ You kiss my face and we’re both drunk”) that slow down the anticipation before unleashing the wish to be more than friends in the glittering, cinematic chorus.
Swift is synonymous to modern conceptions of pop femininity. Her entire brand is predicated on it and built around a lazy self-serving feminism that is often used justification for her missteps. This behavior had, in short, resulted in her own torn-up reputation. “Reputation’”s tracklist reads like white feminist bingo, a flaw Swift refuses to address, grow, learn, or to simply disavow — like white supremacy. It’s been a roadblock for Swift — a stubbornness of bowing out, which the public is hungry for, but something “Reputation” refutes. On the cover, she is beautiful and stoic in defiance, she looks onto us while newspaper-style text piles and spills over onto her porcelain face, affirming a refusal to be edged out. It’s a conviction that can outlast media cycles.
Verdict: I miss the old Taylor, straight from “Love Story” Taylor. Drag on the boys Taylor, set on her squad Taylor. I hate the new Taylor, the white feminist Taylor. The always rude Taylor, spaz in the news Taylor. I miss the sweet Taylor, the genuine apology Taylor. I gotta say, at that time I’d like to meet Taylor. See, I invented Taylor, it wasn’t any Taylor. And now I look and look around and there’s so many Taylors. I used to love Taylor, I used to love Taylor. I even had the sparkly guitar, I thought I was Taylor. What if Taylor made a song about Taylor, called “I Miss The Old Taylor?” Man, that’d be so Taylor. That’s all it was Taylor, we still love Taylor. And I love you like Taylor loves Taylor.
Best Tracks: “Getaway Car,” “New Year’s Day,” “Delicate”