There is no middle ground with Taylor Swift. On one side, you have the diehard fans for whom Swift is something between a wise older sister and a benevolent god, along with the smitten music writers who praise her for taking singer/songwriter auteurism to the top of the charts. On the other side stand her critics, whose recent points of contention (cultural appropriation, silence on political issues) can’t be dismissed as easily as the patronizing too-many-boyfriends gripes of old. Into the middle of this tempest drops “Reputation,” and in classic Taylor fashion it’s sure to annoy as many people as it pleases.
Between the tabloid cover and the grating, confrontational lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” released earlier this fall, some feared that “Reputation” would be an album-long airing of grievances against Swift’s many enemies. Thankfully, for most of the record Taylor the Aggrieved takes a back seat to Taylor the Romantic, as Swift chronicles the feeling of falling for someone just when you thought you’d been burned too many times to love again. When the two themes intertwine, it’s to illustrate how her paramour’s affection salves the wounds of fame (from “Call It What You Want”: “All the drama queens taking swings/All the jokers dressing up as kings/They fade to nothing when I look at him”). Yet anyone hoping Swift would apply the same level of introspection to her relationship with the outside world will be sorely disappointed; on the album’s nadir, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” she literally laughs at the thought of forgiving those she perceives to have wronged her.
Over the course of “Reputation,” Swift tries out pretty much every trend in modern pop: “. . . Ready for It?” alone features Swift’s surprisingly competent rapping over a dubstep beat on the verses before switching gears for a tropical-house chorus. The hip-hop dabbling continues on “End Game,” though between Future’s phoned-in verse and the terminally dorky Ed Sheeran’s try-hard rhymes, no one comes out of this one looking good. Most of the time, Swift has the good sense to play to her strengths; she finds more inspiration in the ’80s electropop of “1989” on “Getaway Car,” while the unabashedly melodramatic power ballad “So It Goes . . .” and the hushed, piano-and-voice intimacy of “New Year’s Day” prove that her songs hit hardest when she ditches any pretense of cool.
“Reputation” makes it clear that Swift would rather tend to the forever-loyal segment of her fan base than try to win back the people she’s alienated. From a purely musical standpoint, it’s a pretty good album — even when she’s throwing this many ideas against the wall, Swift is too talented a songwriter to miss her target more than a few times per record. However, the fact remains that, when a blogger called on Swift to denounce white supremacy, she instead had her legal team threaten the blogger with a defamation suit, making her seem more interested in silencing dissenters than meaningfully engaging with them. In that context, the unapologetic defiance of “Reputation” can’t help but leave a sour after-taste, and even the sweetest pop chorus might not be enough to wash it away this time.Terence Cawley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley