Just over three years have passed since Taylor Swift won me over, and just two years have gone by since I made that information public. At the time, I admonished myself for the lack of empathy I exhibited toward Swift as she reckoned with fame in the midst of her youth. Her latest album, Reputation, dives headlong into that very conversation from every angle imaginable.
During the album’s rollout, as narratives flew wildly, it was easy to forget that the past three years of Swift’s life consisted of more than just petty feuds with Kanye West and Katy Perry. As stories of sexual misconduct in entertainment continue to crash ashore, remember that Swift handled herself with strength and grace this summer while winning a lawsuit against an ex-radio DJ who groped her.
Even one of the most powerful cultural forces in recent memory is not immune to abuses of power and had to fight for the public perception of her own character. With that in mind, Reputation takes on a significantly more meaningful role than you might think on the surface.
That’s not to say that Reputation is a great album. It’s flawed, certainly, but its significance remains.
If you’re like any of the other 700,000 people that purchased Reputation last Friday, you’re aware that several of the album’s 15 tracks are much better than the singles we were given. In this case, the missing pieces fill in the gaps quite well, making the purpose of Reputation clear. Taylor Swift isn’t embracing her dark side – she’s resolutely stating the control she has over her own relationships, her own persona, her own destiny. It’s kind of powerful in that way.
And oh, by the way, the majority of the album pulses shamelessly with buzzing synthesizers and rattling bass lines, as if to emphasize her point. When it works, as it does on the delightfully trappy “I Did Something Bad”, it elevates Swift to another level of pop excellence. When it doesn’t, we get handed hollow wannabe bangers like lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” or the impossibly clumsy “End Game” with Ed Sheeran and Future.
The aforementioned “I Did Something Bad” works so well because Swift conveys her message with such flare and clarity. During the track’s bridge, she alludes to a dying culture of victim-shaming and misplaced anger, singing, “They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one / They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons”. That self-awareness and snark makes her chorus of, “They say I did something bad / Then why’s it feel so good?” all the more bold and empowered.
It’s a strategy that plays well on other tracks like “Dress” and “Don’t Blame Me”, where Swift defiantly embraces her sexuality and control of her own love life. On “Call it What You Want”, when she sings, “I want to wear his initial on a chain round my neck / Not because he owns me / But ‘cause he really knows me”, it’s not a reinvention – it’s a reclaiming of her own story.
These moments make Reputation worth its while, even when things become uninspired (“Delicate”, “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”). Such has been the case with nearly every album of Swift’s career, so offering another cry for her to trim the fat merely seems like wasted breath at this point. Besides, this is what Spotify’s queue feature was made for.
If you’re still in need of finding a storyline in which Swift stands not in the best light, opportunities are available. For instance, take her firm apolitical stance at a time when her voice would be welcome – a stance so steadfast that she is willing to sue a blogger for even questioning her silence against dangerous alt-right groups that seem to support her.
As it turns out, Taylor Swift is complicated, just like the rest of us. Reputation, on the other hand, is not. With her sixth full length album, Swift has boldly declared her own narrative, others be damned. Whether you choose to scoff or turn up the beat and dance is up to you.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.