Taylor Swift Switches From Safe to Screw-You

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift is one of America’s favorite pastimes. Who she is dating, the current state of her famous gang of supermodel friends, and her long-lived feuds with Hollywood cohorts Kanye West and Katy Perry have been a topic of conversation and criticism for nearly a decade. But clearly America cares more than she does. Swift’s new album, Reputation, is her story of being knocked down by critics, rising back up to defeat them, and flipping them off while she’s at it. It’s a twisted version of the Japanese proverb “fall seven times, stand up eight,” with a touch of “screw you” for embellishment.

Reputation closely resembles the attitude of ’80s rock song “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett, with the famous catchline “I don’t give a damn ‘bout my reputation.” Love her or hate her, the underlying message of Swift’s new album is ridiculously clever. But whether you like it or not, she doesn’t seem to care. That’s where the beauty lies: Reputation as a whole is completely unemotional (contrary to previous Swift albums), and isn’t the slightest bit concerned with its reception. Swift knows she’s winning—now it’s all about retaliation.

When Swift released the album’s lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” in August, it was evident Reputation would be following a darker, weirder, and more mature path than her previous records. However, not every track is as bombastic as “LWYMMD.” “Delicate,” one of the album’s more personal tracks, sheds a new light on the crazy and overwhelming lead single. Its constant drum beat is reminiscent of Drake’s “One Dance,” and the honest, stream-of-consciousness lyrics directly contrast the sharp, harsh ones of “Look What You Made Me Do.” “Delicate’s” smooth thought process  shows the doubts that everyone has, as opposed to the confident and self-reliant assertions made in the latter, with lyrics like “Is it cool that I said all that / Is it chill that you’re in my head?”



One of the most noticeable aspects of Reputation is new, risque material, by Swift standards. Even though she is 27, this is Swift’s first album that contains profanity—“If a man talks shit, I owe him nothing,” in “I Did Something Bad,” or any references to alcohol (of which there are multiple). Swift also shows a rather promiscuous side, which most her previous music was almost completely devoid of. “Dress” basically revolves around the one sultry line “I only bought this dress so you could take it off.”

Reputation contains lyrical gems in every song. Instead of telling long, detailed stories, Swift, dominating the vernacular, now resorts to quick, funny comebacks. The “old Taylor” may be dead, but the new Taylor is witty and sharp—and makes fun of herself so that nobody else can. “Don’t Blame Me,” an ode to Swift’s boyfriend Joe Alwyn, contains snappy lines that are sure to both raise eyebrows and get stuck in heads. She pokes fun at herself, singing “I’ve been breaking hearts a long time,” in response to the media’s obsession with her love life. This is a common theme that threads Reputation together; “Call it What You Want” is basically an invitation for critics to put a label on her relationship.

“Gorgeous” also contains witty one-liners, as well as some clever rhymes: for every “You make me so happy it turns back to sad / There’s nothing I hate more than what I can’t have/ Guess I’ll stumble on home to my cats,” there is an “Ocean blue eyes looking in mine/ I feel like I might sink and drown and die,” sung with such desperation that you truly feel her pain. On Reputation, Swift truly is the master of catharsis.

Reputation is undoubtedly Swift’s most self-aware album, exemplified on almost every song, but especially on “End Game,” a witty, sarcastic, and humorous rap (or attempt at rap, although she pulls it off) featuring Ed Sheeran and Future. This unlikely trio contains snappy lines and funny rhymes galore, and is the closest thing on this album to 1989’s “Bad Blood.” “Big reputation, big reputation / Oh you and me would make a big conversation,” Swift chants, clearly in total awareness of the media’s perception of her.

The most shocking song on the record is undoubtedly “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which takes jabs at Kanye West. She directly calls him out numerous times, saying“Friends don’t try to trick you / Get on the phone and mind-twist you,” and comically expresses that she won’t let the fight go “Here’s to you, because forgiveness is a nice thing to do / Haha, I can’t even say it with a straight face.” Therein lies one of Swift’s biggest flaws: she needs to let go of her feuds, enemies, and exes. They dominate much of her music, and although she has every right to express her frustration using song (it’s what she does best, after all), it often gets repetitive.  

Another downside to Reputation is its reliance on a synthetic beat. Most songs on the record are synth-pop heavy, and although it suits most of them, it is overbearing in others such as in “King of My Heart” and “I Did Something Bad.” The one acoustic track on the record, “New Year’s Day,” is perhaps the sweetest. It is the closest glimpse at the “old Taylor” we can get on Reputation. The touching lyrics describe cleaning up after New Year’s Eve with someone, and although the fancy aspects of the party have faded, their love is enduring, saying “I want your midnights/ But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” The song gives Reputation an optimistic end, with “Hold on to the memories/ they will hold on to you” repeating endlessly, giving both closure and a memorable perpetuality to an emotional and dramatic 15-track story.

The world Swift creates in Reputation is a hostile one. It does not ignore her adversaries—frequent jabs at them are commonplace throughout the record, but often in a humorous light. But as the album marches on, its pace softens, and its cadence weakens. The harsh and biting tones of “Ready for It” and “End Game” fade out to sweeter love songs such as “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” (perhaps a subtle reference to ex-boyfriend John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”) and “New Year’s Day.” This is precisely what Swift does best: mixing the strong with the touching, the dramatic with the level-headed, creating a limitless balance of emotions.

Reputation is Swift’s renegotiation with the world. And even though the “old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” she hasn’t changed that much: Reputation had over 400,000 pre-orders and is expected to sell over 1 million copies during its first week of release, and all of her three previous albums have surpassed this benchmark. She shouldn’t have any concerns about her “reputation” as long as her music keeps selling. With the current album sales projections, Swift will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Retribution, retaliation, requiem—whatever you choose to call it, Reputation is definitely one for the books.

Featured Image by Big Machine Records