TS6: Taylor Swift's "Reputation" review
I do not like Taylor Swift’s sixth album, Reputation, and I’m going to spend a great deal of time explaining why. I tell you this up front so if you come here to read about film (…the movies I see…), you can stop reading, as this would be the “few other things” part. If you’re interested in the first sentence, carry on, because lord knows I’m going to.
Now, let’s go for a walk………
Two of Taylor Swift’s formative professional moments happened on television, and I didn’t see either of them as they unfolded. First, she serenaded a visibly-uncomfortable Tim McGraw with her breakout hit “Tim McGraw” at one awards show, and then, a couple years later at another awards show, she stepped up to receive an award before Kanye West interrupted her and a billion memes were born.
Barbara Mandrell famously sang that she was “country when country wasn’t cool” and I apply that filter to my view of Swift – I’m a middle-aged man who likes pop music, country too, and saw her star shooting before it even left the base. I was a Taylor Swift fan from the word go and I remain … so. Swift was, at 15, a cute blonde girl singing sweet songs about teenage love – so was Mandy Moore and a hundred other talented girls, but in 2017 there’s only one Taylor Swift. Cute girls make cute music, but they don’t build careers and massive musicographies and legions of followers and rock-star status – Swift is the biggest rock star in the world right now and it’s not close.
[How do you judge how big a rock star actually is? Good question – my test is this: me and the rock star decide to go out for a drink, in public, without security. Who gets the biggest crowd the fastest? Michael Jackson is dead, and that leaves Taylor Swift and maybe the Justins Timberlake and Bieber, but I still think Swift trumps.]
I’ve been writing about her since her career ostensibly started, and the second I heard the song “You Belong with Me” off her second album, I knew she was going to be, er, intergalactic. Beautiful girl who appeals to nerdy beta girls – yeah, it wasn’t a hard call. Preceding that, though, was The Song.
The song was “Tim McGraw” and it gnawed at me, in part because it rang something deep within me as true, and in part because I knew there was no way the girl who wrote the song actually experienced what she wrote. Country music is full of life’s moments – first loves, last laughs, getting drunk, sobering up – and Tim McGraw was such a creature; Leanne Womack sang about Strawberry Wine years earlier, and it’s basically the same song, but Swift’s evocation of song, time and place carries it.
See also: Life Ain’t Fair.
Swift herself has pointed out that when that song came out, she’d supposedly never even had a boyfriend. Hot science, working with mercury, you get the drill. [h/t Tropic Thunder]
Her eponymous was good, really good. Tim McGraw, Our Song, etc – heavy twangs, thick banjo plucks, heavy teenage-girl country music. The origin of Big Machine was the notion that there was a section of the country music market being ignored – teenage girls who like country music. Swift filled the void, and filled it fast. Suddenly, flower dresses and cowboy boots, pickup trucks and boys hauling hay, all this seemed realized.
That set the table. Big Machine now dominates Nashville.
Her second album was anchored by “Love Story,” probably my favorite pop song of the last 20 years. The song was so good they slyly made a second version, axing the banjos and replacing them with electric guitars. It was on movie soundtracks, it had a Rapunzelish video, and it was perfect, as were about six or seven other songs on that album. It elevated Swift into stardom.
The third album, Speak Now, remains (until now) the weakest, but it pivoted Swift from country to pop, and it also pivoted an attitude change – supposedly the album was supposed to be called “Spellbound” or “Stardust” or some such thing, but she insisted it have a more Type-A moniker, so Speak Now was born.
Red was the fourth album, and it remains – so far – her best. I’m not a music critic, but Red is my favorite album of the 21st century. It is Peak Swift, at least for me. There’s not a bad song on it, and it demonstrates the best of what she does. I would argue her best three songs are Tim McGraw, Love Story and Red, the latter being the second track from the Red album. I went to the Red concert in Tulsa back in ’13, had floor seats and it was good stuff. That tour was the one where the theme was “circus.” I wrote an entire novel based on Red and Morrissey’s “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”
That tour also featured Ed Sheeran opening, so I got to see him too. After Justin Timberlake, he is now the biggest male solo act on the planet. Then, the only song he had that people knew was “A-Team” but now, he’s everywhere, even on Swift’s latest album.
As a fan, the album Red also had something intriguing – its closer, Begin Again. By 2013, Swift’s love life had become a thing of tabloid fodder, something I don’t care about but something that was and remains relevant because it informs her lyrics. To her demerit, there were doozies like Dear John, what I would kindly call her November Rain. But Begin Again, a slow yarn about her going on a first date, opened a door into where she could be going with her writing and her music, and in Swift fashion, was supported by a video that matched the mood. It’s not my favorite, but pound-for-pound, it’s probably her best, most-honest song.
It is impossible to overstate how much I wanted her music to go in the direction of Red – State of Grace, Red and Begin Again – to me, as a fan, an older fan yes, but a fan, this is where she’s good.
Her fifth album, 1989, came and went – I listen to Wildest Dreams regularly as well as a couple others.
At this point in her career, she owes her fans nothing. She could quit recording and have a double-disk of greatest hits. She is among the most famous, recognizable people on the planet, and she is wealthy to a degree that people in their 20s should probably never be; and I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, and compounding it is she’s a 5’11 blonde woman in her 20s who stands out in a photo taken with two dozen *Victoria’s Secret* models, thus making her something more than human but less than god. She is one of those non-governmental people that doesn’t have a body guard, she has a security detail.
On Instagram last week she released a video of her and some friends going to Target in the middle of the night to see the Reputation section (if you’ve been to Target in the last two weeks, you know what I’m talking about) and people hover around her to the point where she finally says, “It’s Ok, you can talk to me.” One dude whips out his phone and shows her a picture of when he was about 8 and her when she was on her tour supporting Fearless.
How anyone can produce art, or even palatable product, in this environment, is beyond me. Turns out, you can’t, really.
To wit: Reputation.
Reputation, her sixth album, is a bad album. It is over-produced, largely derivative of other, better work and bears no resemblance to what Swift is good at, which is writing simple songs and singing them well. It is akin to responding to those who like you least and making an album to satisfy them, which is its failing – that the album is getting raves from people who never gave her a second thought should give her pause; that she quoted these critics in a series of Instagram posts last week with the faux humble “thank you” should cause concern, at least for anyone in her inner circle who cares about any semblance of artistic integrity on her part. She is not the best singer, but she is a gifted song-writer, and that talent is ruined on Reputation by glut.
So - It has a couple of good songs on it, and I say this as someone who:
- 1)Loves her work
- 2)Has listened to Reputation more than 20 times
- 3)Is a very easy mark
The first release from it, “Look at What You Made Me Do,” is catchy in all the right ways. The track “Gorgeous” is good for all the wrong reasons, and I’ll get to that in a second.
After listening to it all those times, all these times, those are the only cuts that stand out. The best track is a blatant rip-off of Hozier’s uber-catching “Take me to Church.”
Here are my impressions of Reputation:
- 1)Not that it should matter but it is relevant, I don’t ever remember TS referencing alcohol in a song – in Reputation, it’s referenced constantly; beer, wine, whiskey, etc – they’re all there, steadily;
- 2)After my first listen, my first thought was “wow, she’s trying to be a rapper without rapping”
- 3)There are no actual good songs on the album, and I’m being forgiving. “Look at What You Made Me Do” is catchy in the same way that “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is catchy – it’s catchy, but it’s not the block one lays a foundation with;
- 4)I love the line “nothing good starts in a getaway car;” Swift’s albums tend to be full of good one-liners, even in throwaway songs – this was the only one that struck me;
- 5)Sex is larded throughout the album, even though I don’t think she ever says the word. TS turns 28 in a few days and is one of the most famous people on the planet – of course she has sex. Her insistence on referencing her wealth and her playboys she flies around the world is strange, at least to me;
- 6)Way back in 2013 or 2014 I noted how it was odd she referenced Maserati, and she continues the label-dropping here;
- 7)Finally, part of my draw to her music is that TS always came off as a Romantic, intentionally or not – Begin Again and, to a certain degree, Red, demonstrate this most notably. She carried an aesthetic in her lyrics, her music, and the choices made therein – with Reputation, none of that is on display, sadly.
There is the Kanye West factor, and I think that would make a cynic out of most of us.
The story is well-known in part because it was captured on video - as Kim Kardashian films, Kanye is on speakerphone with TS (I assume she doesn’t know this is being recorded on video, but maybe I’m naive) and Kanye tells her how he has this song going and how he’s going to say something to the effect of having sex with her, and TS, not on camera, agrees. Then, the song comes out and he says the sex line and then refers to her as a “bitch.” And, for a few hours, the tabloid people exploded because she said she didn’t agree to that bitch part but there’s KK with her video proving that … she didn’t agree to that.
I no longer hold grudges – I used to, and it was a moral flaw of mine, and it’s taken a lot of work to get over, but I try to take people at their word and if they fail me, I try to consider the context and act appropriately. That said, these people are ghouls and the Kardashian Klan should be gassed. They ruin everyone they touch.
“Gorgeous” is about going out and falling in love at random. The song sounds like an insult to Calvin Harris, Swift’s former paramour who is currently a highly successful artist in his own right (sidenote: I love Calvin Harris’ music in part because I like Electronic Dance Music and in part because he is really good at making it – “Blame” is probably my most-played song of the last 2 years).
Swift is much higher up on the musical food chain than Harris and theirs seemed to be the first legitimate relationship she’d been in since John Mayer, at least publicly ergo, it is a low blow in the only way Swift can deliver one ie without Harris’ ability to retort except in an equally-tacky fashion. In the song, Swift makes an oblique reference to her boyfriend (“older than us”) at the club doing who knows what, and then proceeds to talk about a guy she falls in love with at the bar without ever talking to him.
The song is set in L.A. as the gratuitous Hollywood and Vine reference notes. She points out that it would be worse if he’s single, because he’s so gorgeous. She then notes that she can go home to her cats, unless – I forget how this part goes exactly – he wants to join her.
Its lyrics are impeccable, and anyone who’s ever gone out clubbing understands the sentiment perfectly, the notion of falling in love with a complete stranger yet never talking to them and never seeing them again. My favorite Jimmy Buffett line from a live performance of “God’s Own Drunk” regards falling in love for the 956th time – same point, different delivery.
The problem with the song, aside from being obscenely over-produced like ever other song on the album – is that Swift has never come off as a Mean Girl, and as she nears 30, she’s apparently decided to become a Mean Girl.
My problem with Reputation as an album and an artistic expression is TS is catering to the lowest common denominator. She can rue Kanye and Kim pulling one over on her, but this is the kind of music I assume they would enjoy, at least on that heinous TV show. The album is tacky and largely trashy, and there are a dozen other women who do that better than TS can even attempt.
I’m a libertine in the sense that I largely abjure judging people on their lifestyle choices so long as they don’t affect the pursuit of happiness of others. I don’t care that TS is suddenly referencing booze in most of her songs or that she relishes in a jet-set lifestyle that is filled with boytoys and Benjamins.
What I do care about is the music, and this is over-produced crap to the ‘nth degree. The de-evolution from Red to 1989 to this is astounding, and all the critics who would never have listened to her five years ago now heaping praise should produce caution – they are gossip-mongers and proles, for the most part, and woe be to the artist who caters to them.
That’s my take.