Swift can confidently say, “Nobody’s heard from me for months/ I’m doing better than I ever was.”
When Taylor Swift released “Look What You Made Me Do,” her first single off of her sixth studio album, Reputation, none of us had any idea what exactly it was that we made her do. The singer has enjoyed adding shock value to her discography over the past 10 years, especially once she transformed her sound from a country-infused, singer-songwriter style to 80’s synth pop on her acclaimed last album, 1989. But upon the release of “LWYMMD” this summer, the direction Swift was heading felt wrong for the first time. The song sounded like a mixture between Panic! At the Disco, Evanescence and a horror movie soundtrack, included an interpolation of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” and, worst of all, demonstrated a major weakness of Swift’s: letting pettiness over dissolved friendships fog otherwise dazzling songwriting. The New Taylor has been welcomed since her poptimistic declaration of 1989, but announcing that the Old Taylor was dead, though comical, was also cringe worthy and confusing. What did we make her do?
Gratefully, nothing on Reputation sounds like “LWYMMD.” In fact, after releasing a single that sounds as far away from her 2006 self-titled country-labeled debut as humanly possible, Taylor Swift on Reputation sounds more like herself than she has since 2012’s Red. Her pop music sounds closer to 2017 than 1989 with shattering bass drops, sheer synths and arena-worthy high notes. In her lyrics, she’s diaristic, silly at times, and still in love with the idea of being in love. The only difference is that on Reputation, she’s actually found that love. Taylor Swift no longer feels the need to sing about fairytales and fighting dragons like on Speak Now’s “Long Live” or Fearless’s “Love Story.” She’s had the real thing for about one year now with (almost definitely) actor Joe Alwyn, and it is reflected on Reputation, her most intimate album to date. After taking three years, her longest break between albums in her career so far, Swift can confidently say, “Nobody’s heard from me for months/ I’m doing better than I ever was” on “Call It What You Want.”
Taylor Swift’s perspective on the word “reputation” is unlike what Joan Jett doesn’t give a damn about, or what “LWYMMD” conveyed. It is mentioned sparingly within the album, often considered to be an obstacle, a formidable deal breaker. On “End Game,” the sole collaboration of the album, Swift is joined by a peculiar, verging on parodic rap combination of Future and Ed Sheeran. Each vocalist’s verse acknowledges their past saying, “Reputation precedes me,” before Taylor insists, “I swear I don’t love the drama / It loves me.” On “Delicate,” Swift becomes more vulnerable about her reputation, as she somehow finds a New York City dive bar where no one recognizes her to consider, “My reputation’s never been worse, so / You must like me for me. It is the most exposed Swift has ever been about having a crush. No longer does she innocently wonder if the high school boy driving her home will kiss her when he drops her off. Now, she could be a liability. “Is it cool that I said all that? / Is it chill that you’re in my head? / ‘Cause I know that it’s delicate,” she asks, pronouncing that final word like it’s the last breath she can spare before she finds out where her relationship stands.
The “New Taylor,” in love despite her reputation, is synonymous with “Bad Taylor.” Swift’s first recorded curse word is revealed on “I Did Something Bad” (“If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing”), further portraying her mixed feelings over her reputation, along with confessing to spilling wine in a bathtub and playing older guys. “They say I did something bad / Then why’s it feel so good?,” she asks, shouting over a trap beat. On sexual tension filled “Dress,” Swift reveals that she only bought her favorite article of clothing just to take it off. On “So It Goes…” Swift references “scratches down your back,” finding something alluring and empowering about saying “I’m not a bad girl, but I / Do bad things with you” after having to sing about her happy ending version of Romeo and Juliet for so many years.
Reputation loses value when “Bad Taylor” tries to become “Taylor the Villain.” Ever since Speak Now’s “Better Than Revenge,” Swift is weakest when she allows herself to feel resentful and grudging about frenemies and boyfriend stealers. “LWYMMD’s” sister track is “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” on which Swift victimizes herself because someone ruined her “feeling so Gatsby for the whole year.” Her tone when she announces, “Here’s a toast to my real friends” and when she gives a false apology before laughing into the mic verges too close to a line out of the Mean Girls “Burn Book.”
Just when we think that we might have to tolerate Taylor Swift’s villainous tendencies, and that the “Old Taylor” has officially been pronounced dead, the album closes with “New Years Day,” a stripped-down piano ballad. The song narrates the morning after a glamorous party, where “There’s glitter on the floor after the party/ Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby.” Swift is left to clean up the mess with her special someone, learning that part of love is feeling ready to share every moment, happy or sad, fun or boring: “I want your midnights/ But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” In the bridge, she harmonizes only with herself with a one-liner Swift fans have craved since the heartbreaking masterpiece of Red’s “All Too Well:” “Please don’t ever become a stranger/ Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.” Taylor Swift has seemingly enjoyed adding shock and awe to her more recent performances and releases, no longer worried about her reputation to those who no longer matter to her. The most shocking aspect of Reputation, however, was that the “old Taylor,” or at least her lyricism, never truly died at all, she just needed someone to sing to.