Critical Voices: Taylor Swift, <i>reputation</i>

Critical Voices: Taylor Swift, reputation

By:
11/15/2017

Long gone is the sweet country girl who played acoustics about finding a place in this world while crying teardrops on her guitar. In her place is a confident woman ready to embrace herself and stand firmly against anyone who might cross her. Marking Taylor Swift’s musical shift towards a heavier pop sound— and a new artistic identity— that began with her last album, 1989, and was faintly echoed on Red with songs like “I Knew You Were Trouble,” is her highly anticipated sixth album, reputation. Already an enormous success, reputation is on its way to becoming 2017’s best selling album within its first week of release— and with good reason. From the music to the aesthetic and right down to the title, Swift’s reputation is a statement about transformation, riddled with references to her past selves on her journey to discovering her new identity and forcing the rest of the world to do the same.

From the release of “Look What You Made Me Do” in August, it has become increasingly clear that  Swift is on a mission to remake herself, especially by expressing a proud ownership of all the hurt and embarrassment she has felt at the hands of her critics. “Look What You Made Me Do” was received with mixed feelings, mostly because of the weirdly off-key pre-chorus and the anticlimactic bass drop the leads into a mediocre chorus. However, the messages sprinkled into the song lyrics and music video make it a perfect introduction to the album. There’s a plethora of important symbols, from the appearance of snakes that are clearly a reference to Swift’s critic’s calling her a “snake,” to the more subtle scene where she is laying in a bathtub of jewels with a single dollar bill which are likely references to a 2014 criticism about her whiney attitude towards men and the single dollar bill that she received after suing David Mueller in 2013 for sexual harassment. She even includes a little skit at the end of the video, depicting different versions of herself from past music videos and runway events bickering with each other. Not surprisingly, the most innocent versions of herself like 2009 VMA Swift, and the Fearless tour Swift happen to be the ones that are the butt of the jokes.

However, for all of the talk about reclaiming her pride and identity throughout reputation, Swift’s new style is geared toward fitting into a specific pop cultural mold rather than standing out. Nothing about her sound is especially unique— with the exception of maybe her voice. The heavy synthetic beats that compose nearly every song on the album are more evidence that Swift has changed from wistful country pop girl towards a more dramatic version of a “pop star.” Even her collaboration with Ed Sheeran and Future on “End Game” points to this change. In 2012, when Swift was in the studio making the melancholy song “Everything Has Changed” with Ed Sheeran, no one would have thought that the two would release a pop anthem interlaced with Future’s gentle singing and even an entire rap verse.

The album has a generic pop sound, but its lack of innovation was a trade-off for a collection of energizing, upbeat hits. Songs like “I Did Something Bad,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” demand to be played on full blast. There is hardly a point during reputation where listeners won’t be tempted to tap their feet or move their shoulders to the beat. Even the tamer songs like “Getaway Car” and “Dress” have catchy choruses and memorable bridges. The bass drops and exhilarating rhythms undoubtedly lend the bulk of this album to being edited and used by other artists, and it will likely result in some popular remixes. Overall, Swift’s sixth album might not be the most artistic and unique release of the year, but it is hard to deny that it is full of life and a perfect batch of pop hits.

Through and through, reputation’s closing song, “New Year’s Day,” is a whisper of Swift’s “former” self, perhaps signifying that she has not changed as much as she might want her audiences to think. The song is strikingly different in sound from the others on the album, and it almost feels like a bonus track that was not meant to be part of the original work. There is a clear shift from Swift’s new pop sound— which defines the reputation— to an acoustic piano melody reminiscent of her older works, especially on 1989 and Red. The lyrics repeat “Hold on to the memories / They will hold onto you,” likely meaning that Swift may be growing into a new person, but she has not forgotten her past. Even the context of the song, which describes cleaning up on the morning after New Year’s day, could be laced with messages about how, despite new year resolutions, people are still the same on the first morning of the new year. Similarly, Swift has not lost integral parts of her identity even while she embarks on a new era of herself.

One important part of Swift that has not been lost is her opposition to music streaming companies. As to be expected from the pop star, who has taken a stance against music streaming sites in favor of having audience’s pay for studio albums, reputation is only available to be purchased on iTunes, iHeart Radio or in hard copy. Comically enough, in the music video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” she and her masked accomplices can be seen robbing the bank vault of a streaming company, likely symbolizing Swift’s own fight to take back what she believes belongs to her and other musical artists.

Throughout “Delicate,” Swift repeats the line “My reputation has never been worse / So you must like me for me.” These lyrics embody the message of the album: Swift is stronger than ever and has stopped caring whose toes she steps on. Despite the Hollywood drama— with Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and Katy Perry— that, disappointingly, seems to be simmering beneath the surface of some of the songs, Swift is acknowledging the pains in her past and growing into a more authentic version of herself. Reputation is an ode to her new found sense of self that, lucky for fans, features a phenomenal tracklist. The old Taylor Swift might be dead, but she is as fearless as ever.

Voice’s Choices: “I Did Something Bad,” “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”

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Brynn Furey


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