The One Big Problem With Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’
'Reputation' is almost a good album. Almost.
Everything you need to know about the new Taylor Swift album can be summed up in a single image:
In The Simpsons episode ‘Summer of 4 Ft. 2’, Lisa Simpson goes on a family vacation determined to leave her usual, nerdy self behind. She brings an empty suitcase, makes Marge take her shopping and picks out a new set of clothes she thinks will transform her. It works, for a while — Lisa makes some cool new friends, before Bart eventually reveals her to be a fraud and it all comes crashing down.
Last year, as you’re no doubt well aware, Kim Kardashian exposed Taylor Swift as duplicitous in video leak that since been described as our generation’s moon landing. For the 12 odd months that followed, Swift went into hiding. With Reputation, her sixth album, she has returned determined to prove that the Old Taylor is dead and that the New Taylor is cooler, crueller and edgier.
It feels about as convincing as it did on Lisa Simpson.
As the end of the ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ video spelled out in no uncertain terms, Taylor Swift knows we are sick of watching her playing the victim. So on Reputation, she’s leaning in to being the villain. There is no contrition on this album, just a perpetuation of the narrative Swift once told us she wished to be excluded from, and an attempt at repainting Taylor Swift as a girl just-bad-enough to not care about having enemies, but not so bad that she’d alienate her conservative fanbase.
When Reputation‘s the tracklist was revealed in the lead up to its release, it read like the diary entry of a disgruntled teen. And, all told, five of Reputation‘s 15 tracks contain some kind of reference to the drama of 2016.
On ‘End Game’, she boasts about her “big enemies” and declares that she “don’t love the drama, it loves me!” Come ‘I Did Something Bad’, Swift tells us being bad felt “so good”. ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ — easily the album’s worst moment — has her lecture Kanye West with lines like “Friends don’t try to trick you / get you on the phone and mind-twist you” before straight up mocking his track ‘Runaway’.
Even when she isn’t referencing West, Swift is relentlessly trying to convince us that she never really was sugar, spice and all things nice, and that now she’s tired of pretending otherwise. She invites Future over for a guest verse but doesn’t let him swear or mention Percocet. She stylises her album title in all lower case. She drinks Old Fashioneds and gets drunk in bathtubs. She tells her lover that she “only bought this dress so you could take it off” and talks about leaving scratches down his back. She even says “shit” once.
The problem is that none of it is believable. Swift might have realised that she can’t play the victim anymore — but she hasn’t twigged that what audiences really want from their popstars in 2017 is authenticity.
So it’s no coincidence that best songs on the album are the ones where Taylor stops trying to adopt a bravado that doesn’t suit her. “My reputation’s never been worse/ so you must like me for me,” she admits on ‘Delicate’. ‘Call It What You Want’ has her concede that she did “one thing right” this year by snagging her new boyfriend, Joe Alwyn. ‘New Year’s Day’, which is as close to Old School Swift as this album gets, asks him to never become a stranger whose laugh she could recognise anywhere.
And that’s the thing — Reputation is not a bad album. It’s not as bad as that cover art, or that lead single, or that tracklist suggested it might be. Hell, it might even almost, almost be a good album.
If only two of the whitest people alive didn’t try to to rap on its second track.
Katie Cunningham is the Editor of Music Junkee. She is on Twitter.
Reputation is out now to buy via Universal Music Australia and hits streaming services on Friday.