Monday, November 13, 2017

Reputation | Taylor Swift

Three years ago, Taylor Swift sat atop the Empire State Building, surrounded by a live studio audience of fans and cameras that streamed her announcement around the world in real time: After a long career that flirted with the thought, she pledged herself as a bona fide pop star. And she would go on to become quite a successful one, unveiling the neon-lit 1989 and fanning its success across nearly two years. The album and its six singles intoxicated audiences with their shimmering '80s pop, and Swift's unshaken songwriting style kept pop Taylor Swift from seeming too foreign for comfort.

But the Top 40 landscape that allowed her to dominate with the one-two sucker punch of "Shake it Off" and "Blank Space" is no more; a diverse portfolio of hip-hop artists occupy the spaces that used to hold gold-plated reservation cards for pop titans like Swift, Katy Perry, and Adele. Nothing if not an industry mastermind, though, Swift already knows rule number one to pop stardom survival: reinvention. Toying with her tried-and-true two-year album cycles, she spent an extra year in the dark amid an embroilment with Kanye West before unleashing plans for her sixth studio album, Reputation, a high-gloss set that proves Taylor Swift committed herself to the right genre.

She killed off county Taylor for the new, shiny pop Taylor just one album cycle ago, and as it turns out, 2014's pop Taylor was only the first of many versions to come. "The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, because she's dead!" she says on lead single "Look What You Made Me Do," a dark-toned manifesto that sneers against an unnamed entity – some argue West, though I tend to align with the theory that it damns the media personified. (West becomes the direct target, however, on the bratty "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," which reopens the wounds from VMAs and recorded phone calls past.)

The exaggerated self-portrait on "Look What You Made Me Do" paints Swift as the bad girl, the lying, cheating, sleazy snake that Kim Kardashian implied she was. A preoccupation with her public image lingers throughout Reputation, the first half of which concerns itself with selling – not rebuking – the idea of Taylor Swift as pop culture's ultimate villain. "They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one. So light me up. Go ahead and light me up," she declares on "I Did Something Bad," a jarring, gunshot-sampling banger. Also revealing a wolf in sheep's clothing, "Don't Blame Me" is a burning slow-jam that admits to shifty behavior but projects that blame onward: "Don't blame me: Love made me crazy. If it doesn't, you ain't doing it right."

Swift has built a career that is reliant on being egocentric – that quality just hasn't been so outward until this point. She has found great success in music that exists almost exclusively in a vacuum, immune to sociopolitical forces that don't pertain to her brand, her relationships, or her music. That, perhaps, is why it seems ridiculous that an uprising has appeared for her to make career-shifting comments on American politics or sexual assault, especially in the wake of her high-profile (and successful) countersuit against a deejay who grabbed her inappropriately. Swift's brand has always been, and even now still is, relatively inoffensive fodder; she has planted herself into American households as a sister and a friend, making her gossip as worthwhile and entertaining as a real relative's newest neighborhood scoop.

At 27 years old, Swift is in her own class among her 20-something contemporaries, having built an empire without a preexisting celebrity preamble from Disney, Nickelodeon, or the like. Since her 2006 debut, she has aged alongside listeners naturally. The ordinary girl who cried over unrequited love in a freshmen-level classroom has grown into the superstar who gets plastered at her own bougie, Gatsby-level parties – and after 12 years to get here, it actually feels later than it should for Taylor Swift to reference alcohol for the first time. (Yes, Taylor Swift acknowledges that she drinks alcohol and has sex a few times on Reputation. Insert slight gasp when she wisps, "Carved your name into my bedpost, 'cause I don't want you like a best friend. I only bought this dress so you can take it off.")

She dismantled her good girl image, but it's important to note that the fundamentals of the old Taylor Swift – the one who found comfort in love and heartbreak – are still intact and are integral to Reputation's story arc. As the world descends on her public image, she shutters inward and toward a lover who calms the waves: "My reputation's never been worse, so you must like me for me," she croons on the bouncy, vocoder-drenched "Delicate." The album's back half is almost entirely dedicated to her love life, once her songwriting's mainstay but now reduced to a subplot. The synth-propelled "Getaway Car" best represents love, even if doomed from its start, as the vehicle for escape: "I was ridin' in a getaway car. I was cryin' in a getaway car. I was dyin' in a getaway car," she sings.

"Getaway Car" is the closest Swift comes to brushing against 1989's sonic palette, and although it is an outstanding highlight, that may be for the best. Swift's image overhaul and commitment to her newest reincarnate make Reputation as successful as it is. Ditching the guitar, her longtime instrumental companion, she is clad in heavy electronics and soupy vocoders. Her vocal showcase and songwriting are more conversational, leaning into a causal sing-rap in places like "...Ready for It?" and "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." And she pulls it off well: Throughout "End Game," a song that features Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Future, the one who feels most uncomfortable is Sheeran – who would have ever guessed such a development?

A shiny, 2017-chic release fueled on a breakneck sugar rush, Reputation manages to come off as both a natural progression and a wise, albeit calculated, business endeavor. Though she does chalk up her actions as the vengeful consequences of others' doings, Swift no longer plays the outright victim of others' crimes and has aged out of a squeaky clean image. This all plays out over premier power pop that camouflages Swift within this year's Hot 100 cool crowd, which guarantees success even amid an anti-pop era in the mainstream. Reputation proves Swift knows how to read the room, survey the lay of the musical landscape, and plant her feet where they need to be. And if she can continue to do this throughout her career's lifespan, this won't be the last time an impressive new Taylor kills off an old Taylor with one swift slice to the jugular.

Reputation is available now under Big Machine Records.

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