BY PARKER KLYN
“From humble beginnings to fame” doesn’t seem to capture the full scope of Taylor Swift’s ascendance. Her first big single, “Tim McGraw,” is still an excellent testament to how massive high school love feels at the time, despite its insignificance as people grow and move apart. Growing from the girl who cries over her guitar to the woman who realizes that anyone she even glances at will be scrutinized by paparazzi, Swift is the single biggest name in pop music today.
She’s been able to accomplish this through the most basic, yet seemingly unattainable, series of accomplishments: all of her music to this point has been consistently fantastic. The list of perfect country and pop songs that she’s recorded is in the double digits (“Tim McGraw,” “Our Song,” “Picture To Burn,” “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “Mean,” “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” “Stay Stay Stay,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space” and “All Too Well,” her single best song), and the gradual evolution of a simple country songstress to 80s pop revivalist has felt natural.
Aside from being a simply great songwriter, Swift’s music has been great because it’s been intensely relatable. The sentiments of songs like “Picture To Burn” and “Blank Space” may be petty and slightly sociopathic, but they’ve been cathartic as well, as generations of men who only want one thing have left many women exhausted. These feelings, even if they’re not ones that people usually act on, are natural.
Swift’s newest album, “Reputation,” is the first time in her career where her sentiments and feelings do not feel genuine. In a disappointing yet unsurprising move, the Kanye West/Swift feud is front and center. Lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” was supposed to be an earth-shattering cultural moment and a clapback to West (“The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now, because she’s dead”); instead, its dated EDM drops and generic lyrics left it to almost immediately fall off the top of the charts.
This is by far Swift’s most synthetic album in both production and lyrical style. Vocoders and AutoTune pop up frequently as the album’s two curators, Max Martin and Jack Antonoff (the two most in-demand producers in modern pop), take the reins. In the past, it seemed like Swift put enough of her personality into each song that her natural charisma and humble origins were able to be felt in every chord, but here, she sounds like just another faceless, generic pop star. Other Martin-Antonoff collaborators, like Ariana Grande and Lorde, make great pop music because they have enough talent (Grande) or personality (Lorde) to overshadow the maximalist production. “Reputation” doesn’t have that.
There are so many moments on “Reputation” that are immediately forgettable. “Delicate” is a pleasant if boring piece of vocoder-pop, while “So It Goes” has the single least satisfying hook of any Swift song this side of “Out Of The Woods.” This is the same woman who wrote all those incredible pieces of pop perfection. What happened?
If it’s not boring, the rest of “Reputation” is flat-out bad. Opener “…Ready For It?” has about 14 seconds of an exhilarating pop sugar rush at the beginning of the chorus; the rest of the track is ostensibly an introduction to Swift’s re-invented character, but there was no need to dedicate a whole song to it. Immediately after, on “End Game,” a laugh-out-loud moment happens when freaking Future shows up to scream and gurgle his way through an incomprehensible verse, and Ed Sheeran sounds as faceless as he ever has.
There are occasional moments of brilliance. “Gorgeous” is the album’s best song because it sounds real. Swift acts just like we would if we were suddenly thrust into a life of stardom mingling with god-level celebrity, flat-out telling someone how stunningly beautiful they are: “I can’t say anything to your face, ‘cause look at your face.” “Dress” could have been a “1989” leftover, as its sparkling synths and wide-eyed chorus (“Only bought this dress so you could take it off”) match the bright lights of that record. Finally, songs like “I Did Something Bad” and “Getaway Car” have great chances of dominating the charts based on how ridiculously catchy they are, but the themes at the cores of the songs are forgettable and somewhat dated.
Interestingly, with “Reputation,” Swift’s career seems to match West’s to a certain degree. Each of them started solidly in their respective genres, conquered pop with their third albums, radically changed their sound with their fourth, and went full pop domination on their fifths. “Reputation” is Swift’s sixth album; “Yeezus” is West’s sixth. Both go in the direction of industrial sounds and trap music, but West’s was successful because he doubled down on his personality — that of a conflicted, egotistical genius. Swift, too, doubled down on aspects of her personality, but she chose the wrong parts: the controlling, scorned lover and the immensely driven songwriting prodigy who would do anything to get to the top.
Both albums even end with a left turn, a back-to-the-basics moment. Kanye’s “Bound 2” brought back his chopped-soul hip-hop beats, and “Reputation” closes with “New Year’s Day,” a lovely piano ballad that genuinely sounds like the unsure morning after a transcendent night. And while “Reputation” isn’t anywhere as transcendent as Swift may have wanted it to be, this song proves she still has it, whatever “it” is. “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere,” she pleads. There are flashes of that “old” Taylor on “Reputation.” I hope she’s not actually dead.