Atwood Magazine’s writers weigh in on Taylor Swift’s sixth album Reputation in regards to reinvention, its place in her discography, and how it plays into the pop artist’s controversies.
Featured here are James Crowley, Kelly Wynne, Nicole Almeida, and Sara Santora
Going into Reputation, what’s your relationship to Swift’s music? What do you like or dislike about her prior material?
Kelly Wynne: I have listened to Taylor since I was young. Her music has always held a certain nostalgia to me. It was always comforting and relatable and simply fun. That being said, in the past year or so I felt I was outgrowing her. Especially with her drama, I felt I moved to neutral ground. I’d check out whatever she released in the future but would never again fangirl of really stand up for her to an opposing opinion.
Nicole Almeida: I grew up listening to her stuff but then lost interest after Fearless. I am not a fan of country music at all so it doesn’t surprise me that I gave up on her. That being said, I do think she made a more tolerable version of country music. I resisted succumbing to 1989 when it first came out because I was in a very anti-pop phase of my life, but then I did and fell in love with the album. I binged on it for so long, it was so different from anything she’d ever released and I loved the cinematic quality of the lyrics and the whole album’s aesthetic. The music video for “Style” is one of my favourite ones ever. I was never too invested on Taylor as a person though, only her music – I admire her as an artist quite a lot so I’m always curious to see what she’ll release next.
James Crowley: Prior to 1989, I went through a lot of ups and downs with Swift’s music. I found some of her songs catchy, but songs rarely stuck. For every massive lovable song like “You Belong With Me,” there was a tedious slog of a song like “Fifteen.” When “Shake It Off” came in 2014, I started to pay more mind to Swift, as a fun presence in music. The rest of 1989 made me a full-fledged fan. Even if certain aspects of Taylor’s personal life and controversial interpretations of her music have left a sour taste in my mouth, I still think that that’s one of the best pop albums to come yet in the 2010’s.
Sara Santora: I grew up with Taylor. She sang the the words that every teenage girl wanted to say but couldn’t. But after Speak Now, I fell off the Taylor train. Not only was I disappointed with her musically, but with all that has gone on with her in the last year, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I want to love her so badly, but I just can’t.
James: Since Reputation was marketed as a revenge album, Swift’s lack of public presence built mystique. I thought this was going to be Swift returning to the scene with an album that rallied against all that had seemingly done her wrong. This is the kind of comeback album I love, and Swift kind of fell flat on that front. This album really pulls its punches when Swift tries to get back at someone, and it can be cringe-worthy at times. That being said, Reputation is a solid album of pop-music, even in some of the moments that were easily parodied or criticized find a way of getting stuck in your head. I enjoyed some of the moments that a bunch of people cringed at, but I was also able to acknowledge when they were bad. Even though “New Year’s Day” or “Dress” were great, I still loved all the campiness of “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Kelly: Let’s be honest here for a second: The singles for this album were horrible and ultimately misleading. Once “Call It What You Want” was released, there was a better vibe going and I grew more confident in the album’s ability. On first listen, I found the album to have two parts, the first half being a badass version of Taylor, very foreign from her past, and the second more raw, lovey-dovey Taylor. I think both sides have their strengths, and from a marketing standpoint, this album was bound to be a hit. Taylor framed her new image off of the image others have created for her, yet still somehow managed to make it completely her own. I think she succeeded in having the last word as well as creating a meaningful collection that will stand the test of time.
Nicole: Well, after the first single I thought it would suck. Then “Look What You Made Me Do” grew on me, but “Ready For It?” was released and I just could not stand it. “Gorgeous” came as what I thought would be the salvation but no, it wasn’t. Then “Call It What You Want” actually saved the day and gave me hope for the album. After listening to the album, I saw “Ready For It?” in another light since it is such a good opener and “Gorgeous” became okay too, mostly because of James Reynolds. I feel like the album works best as a body of work rather than singles, and at first listen I admit I cringed at parts but from the second one on I could really understand where she was going with it. I clicked play ready to despite reputation, but I’m glad that didn’t happen.
Sara: I agree with Kelly in that the singles were terrible. I was so hoping that Taylor was trying to trick us, but I understand that that was just me being naive. Can I be honest? I’m not loving this album at all. I am not a fan of the production or her style/tone. I also think that she falls flat lyrically, which is sad to me, because that’s what she’s known for. What I find to be most unsettling about this album is that this so-called new Taylor is still very much a girl tied to everyone else. She still feels like a victim to me, and I’m sad about that because I want to see her really take control. She loves referencing the idea that people somehow locked her out of her castle, but I think that if she really wants to be a new Taylor, she needs to take ownership. Or, even play into her reputation. I loved “Blank Space” for that very reason. I wanted more of that on this album.
How does Reputation compare to Swift’s past work?
James: Reputation is an interesting step for Swift. The instrumentals aren’t as memorable as 1989, and she has more in common with other pop stars of her ilk. That being said, this album is born in a place completely different from 1989. It’s a much colder and darker album. The tracks don’t have the same welcoming feeling that you get on something like “Welcome to New York.” “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” has the same sheen as the previous album, but Swift’s diabolical lyricism makes it feel like the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror. The beat-driven tracks like “End Game” and “Ready For It” allow Swift to rap in ways that aren’t corny like she’d been parodied to in the past. As someone whose love for Taylor starts and ends with 1989, this is her second best album, but she blends in with a number of other pop stars now. In the larger Swift canon, this album may end up falling by the wayside.
Kelly: I think Reputation is Taylor’s best album so far. To me, there is a general cohesiveness with this album that her others have lacked. The sound, while varying throughout, seems uniform in production quality and style. Also, the songs have a new energy and passion to them. As a longtime Swift fan, this is the first album I can truly say feels like it has a genuine passion behind it. Sure, past songs may have been genuine heartbreak tunes, but this album feels like Taylor’s last fighting chance at her reputation, and I think she had that mindset while creating it. From the highest notes she reaches to the inflections she chooses, something about her articulation implies that this was her most meaningful album yet.
Nicole: It’s wild. I say this in a good way because we see her taking so many risks sonically and vocally, her crystal clean persona is gone and her lyrics are slightly more mature (she finally swore in a song, at 27 years old!!). I feel like this album was cathartic for her, not only because of all the scandals, but because since her image had already been tainted, she was liberated to push things further. Does it sound completely genuine? I want to say so, but I have a really hard time imagining Taylor Swift at a dive bar or a motel room, which she references in her lyrics, so no. She may enjoy living the normal life sometimes though, so I may be wrong. I like how it’s a celebration of love rather than an examination of her heartbreak, she is stronger when singing about happiness. It’s definitely a step further in her career, but is still no 1989.
Sara: It’s on par with Red and 1989 in that it’s pop-y and a tad more grown up, although now we have some trap influences. I don’t think it’s standout or much different than anything she’s done before. The production is new, but that’s about it.
Do you think Swift achieved a “new Taylor” in a darker light as her album promotion implied?
James: No, Taylor’s always been exactly who she’s playing into on Reputation. The difference is that now she’s actually playing a heel. The fact that she’s playing it up is just corny. “I Did Something Bad” is riddled with a clichéd chorus: “I Did Something Bad/Why’s it feel so good?” Seriously, Taylor? Also, following the “Look What You Made Me Do” video, it seemed like Swift was going to have a guns-blazing, pissed-off record, but she still has lyrics where she still tries to make it look like everyone is being mean to her without warrant. That being said, the love songs that Swift has also become known for reflect some sense of maturity. The breakup songs reflect sadness with a sense of nostalgia like in “Getaway Car.” She also manages to make a really sexy, intimate song with “Dress.” Some of the other songs bare a resemblance to some of her past breakup anthems, but in this sense, she’s a new Taylor.
Kelly: I think some of these songs are definitely heavier, but merely production wise. There are heavy bass lines, louder choruses, the sound has, in part, turned to the dark-pop arena. So in that case, sure. But Taylor’s new image is solely to support this album. She can wear all the black she wants and put snakes on all of her merch, but she’s still Taylor Swift. At the end of the day she’s still going to invite fans to her mansions and talk about cats. There is a limitation to how darkly she can ever be perceived. I think if anything, the dark has helped her to regain control of her reputation, but beyond that she’s still the same Taylor.
Nicole: Kind of, but only because she presented herself as such a seemingly perfect, innocent human being before this. Now she drinks, swears (once), has sex, and admits to making mistakes and toying around with people. She’s still not on the same level as us conventional human beings who wear sweatpants in public, occasionally drink too much, and take public transportation, but she’s around half a foot closer now. The album was somewhat marketed as a revenge album, but it mostly is one about being head over heels in love with a British boy, which I really like, because one full album of pettiness would be a disaster. Also, she seems happy, and that’s sweet. The sounds, especially the beats and bass lines may be considered “darker” but only because they’re so unusual in the world of Taylor Swift. There is “Don’t Blame Me”, which has the extended metaphor of drug use, and that’s as dark as she went but “My drug is my baby/ I’ll be using for the rest of my life” is so cliché and repetitive that it gets boring.
Sara: Again, I don’t really think so. I think she still sticks to the same themes. I don’t think that changing her sound necessarily makes her new. We still have tracks like “New Year’s Day” and “Call It What You Want” which are very reminiscent of old Taylor, which I love, but even with the new sound, I don’t think she comes off as dark or edgy.
Following controversy surrounding her relationships with other major pop stars (Kanye West, Katy Perry, etc.), where does Reputation place Swift within her own narrative?
James: As much as it seems Swift would like this to be her major heel-turn moment, she doesn’t reign like an evil puppet-master. I’m more sympathetic to Swift, because I see that she’s trying really hard and falling flat. “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” doesn’t hold its own weight as a dis track, and the songs like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Ready for It” seem to prepare the listener for some great reveal that never really fully comes to fruition. She’s beat out Katy Perry but putting out a better album than her, but The Life of Pablo is still leaps and bounds above this. I still like Swift, but I wish she hadn’t hyped this up as an epic revenge album. In my opinion, the best moments don’t really come from her trying to get back at anyone but from the more tender moments.
Kelly: I think she made a strong case with this album for her own worth. It was a little petty, a little sarcastic, and at the same time a lot of it was real. Honestly, I fall under the conspiracy group with these things, and I think half of the celebrity drama surrounding her is falsified for press on both sides. In either case, the press made this album, it made the new Taylor, and I think she successfully reclaimed whatever she needed to.
Nicole: It places her as someone who’s so in love with her boyfriend that she says screw the whole world and decides she’s going to be happy. Everyone thought there’d be such dirt on this album but honestly she used it to give us a quick recap of where she’s been this past year or so, and it’s great she did this. Of course there are a few subtle and not-so-subtle stabs at the famous names who have wronged her, but it wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift album if that wasn’t there. She reclaimed her name and story by putting an end to it all, briefly giving us her side of the scandals, but ultimately getting her best revenge by telling everyone she’s never been happier. Good for her.
Sara: I don’t think she made her own narrative. I think that this is the narrative we’ve always known. I don’t think that it’s at all surprising that she would try and shove the blame away or tell her own side. I will say this though. All things aside, it seems as though she is really in love with her new boyfriend, and I’m happy that with everything going on, she feels comfortable, confident and secure in her new relationship. It is nice seeing that side of her and a narrative that I love.
Do you have any standout tracks?
James: “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” is infectiously catchy. I also love the imagery in Swift’s lyrics like “I could’ve spent forever with your hands in my pockets/Picture of your face in an invisible locket.” Similarly, “New Year’s Day” is an excellent ballad to close out the album. The electric piano really sets a nice tone. It’s a nice, relaxing love song that actually does reflect the maturity in her lyrics. It also has great imagery, especially the first verse:
There’s glitter on the floor after the party
Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby
Candle wax and Polaroids on the hardwood floor
You and me from the night before.
Kelly: I love “Delicate.” The chorus/intro is very Bon Iver meets Taylor, and however weird that sounds, it works. I also love “New Years Day” because of the heartfulness behind it. And of course “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” because everyone needs a little petty anthem sometimes. And Taylor does it very well.
Nicole: “Delicate” is my absolute favourite song and will be on repeat for the foreseeable future. I think everything about it is perfect. It’s subtle and vulnerable, narrative, insecure, just so very human and genuine. “Don’t Blame Me” is Hozier and Taylor Swift’s love child and I am physically conditioned to love it, even though I could do with only a quarter of the repeated lines about her using for the rest of her life. “Call It What You Want” is a very sweet love song, the one which made me have some sort of hope for this album, and her acoustic performance of it on SNL was nostalgic and very beautiful.
Sara: “New Year’s Day” is probably my favorite song on the album. It’ very soft and, to borrow from James, relaxing. I could see the scene perfectly, and as I said, I’m happy that Taylor has found someone that she feels comfortable with. It’s not a midnight, it’s a New Year’s Day.
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photo © Mert & Marcus