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Taylor Swift Stakes Her ‘Reputation’ on Big Sounds and Petty Grievances

On her new album, the pop megastar panders to hip-hop’s cultural dominance while fundamentally misunderstanding it

Taylor Swift with music notes coming out of a speech bubble Big Machine Records/Ringer illustration

Every living adult has a formative trauma from middle school that they have still not gotten over. For Taylor Swift, the catastrophic moment came when she learned—like a snapped E string to the face—that country music wasn’t cool. Or at least it wasn’t in the relatively affluent Eastern Pennsylvania town where she grew up, the only daughter of two financial advisers who raised her and her brother on an expansive Christmas tree farm. Taylor was a day-dreamy kid, and her day-dreamiest years of pre-adolescence happened to be a boom time for female country artists with pop appeal: Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, and Faith Hill. Those were her idols. She liked the stories they told in their songs, like quick sonic fairy tales. And so she started singing, first in private and then in karaoke contests and small-town festivals, trying to be as passionate and sassy as they were.

Then, one day, she looked up from her reverie and realized her peers didn’t share her tastes. “The kids at school thought it was weird that I liked country [music],” she recalled later, in a Teen Vogue cover story. “They’d make fun of me.” A normal 12-year-old might suck it up and try to be like the other kids. But this 12-year-old was Taylor Swift; she was going to get mountains to move. And so young Taylor convinced her parents to take her on several trips to Nashville. Eventually, after she’d piqued the interest of a label, she got them to move the entire family there, to a land where everybody else liked what she liked and where there was a market to buy what she was selling: a precociously talented teen songwriter with an ever-so-slightly exaggerated twang in her voice.

Some say that famous people get permanently stuck, psychically speaking, at the age they were when they first got famous. Taylor Swift’s debut album came out when she was 16, which was also the year she left high school and completed her education through a tutor. A spirited testament to the young female imagination, Taylor Swift spawned clever, vivid, emotionally resonant hits like “Tim McGraw,” “Teardrops on My Guitar,” and “Our Song,” which earned the distinction of making her the youngest person ever to both write and perform a no. 1 song on the country singles chart. She certainly showed those middle school haters. And yet, as she’s continued to achieve milestone after staggering milestone, it can sometimes feel as if Swift has been stuck in an I’ll show you pose long after anyone needed showing. “In a way, Swift’s emotional state seems to be stuck at the time when she left school,” Vanessa Grigoriadis noted in Swift’s first Rolling Stone cover story in 2009, tied to the release of her second album, Fearless. That sentence was written eight years ago. One of the odd things about Swift’s new album, Reputation, is that it makes it seem like it could have been written this morning.

“Big reputation, big reputation, ooh, you and me we got big reputations—aaaahhhh,” Swift chants on “End Game,” her cadence an uncomfortable mix of “Hollaback Girl” and an ill-advised late-night “Rain Drop, Drop Top” joke you tweeted when you were drunk. It’s not a song so much as a heap of questionable, seemingly on-trend decisions: a sputtering, high-budget trap beat, an appearance from Future (who I hope was compensated handsomely), a plethora of sports metaphors that seem to have Monday Night Football placement in mind, and Ed Sheeran rapping—rapping so hard that you can practically smell the sweat he breaks trying to keep up with Future, the MC who somehow gets second billing to the “Shape of You” guy. Amid all of this, unfortunately, is a decent chorus and lyrical conceit (“I wanna be your endgame”) that might have fared better in a more relaxed environment. The whole song calls to mind a girl practicing dabbing in the mirror alone so that it seems spontaneous when she does it the following night at the high school dance.

Swift called her previous effort, 2014’s bubblegum blockbuster 1989, her “very first documented, official pop album.” Reviewing it for The New York Times, the critic Jon Caramanica wrote, “Her idea of pop music harks back to a period—the mid-1980s—when pop was less overtly hybrid. That choice allows her to stake out popular turf without having to keep up with the latest microtrends, and without being accused of cultural appropriation.” The same cannot be said of Reputation, which contains a few regrettable, uh, “accents” (“I-I-I see how this is gon’ go”) and throughout exudes a sense of both pandering to hip-hop’s cultural dominance while fundamentally misunderstanding its essence and basic appeal.

Swift has never been a powerhouse vocalist, but she’s known how to turn her limitations into personalized strengths, fashioning herself into an expert stylist of the young, female voice—and turning its much-derided tics into a kind of poetry. Such is the magic of what’s still one of her best singles, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Take the verbal eye roll she gives the “indie record that’s much cooler than mine,” the dryly muttered like, ever, or the faux-overheard interlude when she mocks an ex who promises, “I still love you.” She’s not exactly singing these verses, and I would never suggest that she’s rapping them, but it’s a chatty, spoken-word kind of delivery that she makes her own by the sheer verve of her personality. It’s a little bit twangy, it’s a little bit Valley Girl; it’s just Taylor Swift, a real live idiosyncratic human who, too often on Reputation, seems to have been replaced by a replicant.

As you probably know from the singles like “…Ready for It?” and “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift’s delivery on Reputation often veers awkwardly close to a rap flow, with a debt to Right Said Fred’s novelty single, “I’m Too Sexy.” (Of all the sentences I never thought I’d type in 2017 …) Even in the high points of Reputation—and there are a few—Swift doesn’t sound like someone setting trends so much as sprinting to keep up with them. Pop music is moving and transforming quicker than ever, and given the various corporate interests a brand as established as Swift’s must keep in mind, it’s understandable there will be a little lag time between her and the rest of the world. It’s hard to exceed the speed limit in a fleet of UPS trucks.

In fairness to Swift’s arrested development, the world of pop celebrity is, too often, rich with the mystery-meat stench of the middle school cafeteria. Swift was reminded of this very publicly last July, when she made the grave mistake of crossing Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, who claimed Swift was lying when she said she had not given West permission to use her name in a salacious lyric on his song “Famous.” But if anyone on this godforsaken, rapidly warming earth has the receipts, you know it’s Kim Kardashian. And so, on July 17, 2016, Kim posted to Snapchat the incriminating evidence: a tape of the call in which Swift approves the “Famous” lyric and thus outs herself as the Patron Saint of National Snake Day.

Most people have moved on to worrying about other things. But not, it seemed, Taylor Swift, who late in August 2017 released a song that sounded like something concocted in a Bond villain’s underground cave, safe from the corrupting influences of CNN or a Wi-Fi connection. You know it, unfortunately. It’s called “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Though the song was panned by critics and received with skepticism from some fans, it broke first-day records on both YouTube (43.2 million plays) as well as Vevo (30 million plays), numbers that quickly propelled it to a debut atop the Billboard Hot 100. But, especially in the streaming era, a myopic focus on its initial successes does not tell the whole story of “Look What You Made Me Do.” According to Billboard, the song had the “largest fall from the top” in the history of the pop songs chart (where it fell from no. 1 to no. 7 in a week, and continued to plummet) and it also had the steepest fall from the top five in the history of the 27-year-old radio songs chart. Its fall from the Hot 100 has, too, been precipitous; it currently sits at no. 34, while the song that ousted it from no. 1, Cardi B’s insurgent hit “Bodak Yellow,” continues to linger in the top three. Billboard has, in recent years, been restlessly tweaking its chart formula to make sense in the streaming era. But it has not yet taken into account the fact that—especially for an artist as visible as Taylor Swift—a rush of first-week streams does not necessarily mean that the song is resonant or will have staying power. There was a certain rubbernecking quality about many of those early plays of “Look What You Made Me Do,” and the sudden, steep drop-off tells a modern story. Success nowadays is more easily measured a few weeks out from a song’s debut, after that the curiosity factor has died down. By this measure, “Bodak Yellow” is a monstrously bigger hit than any of the four singles Swift has so far released from Reputation.

And none of the other 11 songs on the album hold much promise to command the zeitgeist the way 1989’s “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” did just three years ago. The dark, brooding “Don’t Blame Me” sounds like a potential hit, but maybe that’s because it sounds so much like an Imagine Dragons song. There are a few Reputation songs, like “Dress,” that are genuinely sensual. And then there are a few songs that remind me of that Lonely Island video in which someone flies a plane to spell out in big letters in the sky, “I JUST HAD SEX.”

One of the most compelling—and impassioned—songs on Reputation is “Getaway Car,” a prismatic synth-driven anthem cowritten with Jack Antonoff. Sure, the titular metaphor is stretched thin by the first Bonnie and Clyde reference, and there’s a ridiculous quality to the vocal delivery—but that’s also what makes it so quintessentially and enjoyably Taylor Swift. She’s the girl with no chill, but she’s also a girl who should never use the word “chill” as a noun in a song (as she does on Reputation, twice.) “Getaway Car,” though, makes it work: It’s “Take My Breath Away” sung with the clenched-fist urgency of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” I wish the rest of the album were more this kind of cheesy.

And then there’s “New Year’s Day,” the arresting closing track that on the eve of the album’s release she performed—because corporate tie-ins—during a commercial break on ABC’s Scandal. Swift also shares a credit with Antonoff on this one, and he gives her a palette even more sparse than he did for Lorde’s wrenching “Liability.” (Antonoff will still need a few more Ws to be absolved for “Look What You Made Me Do.”) “I want your midnights,” Swift sings, accompanied by nothing more than a soft piano, “but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” This is the only song on the album that sounds like Taylor Swift, by which I mean the adult woman who was once that dreamy, sensitive, defiant girl getting lost in the stories told by Dixie Chicks lyrics. It’s a little corny, sure, but it commits deeply enough to the emotion that in the end it just feels like a very personal kind of sweet. “New Year’s Day” is disappointing, because where was this person for the last 50-odd minutes? But it is also promising, because it is proof that that girl has not gotten completely lost in the machine. I hope we hear from her again. I’d so much rather listen to her version of dorky than her approximation of somebody else’s idea of cool.