Swift fails to find unique sound in Reputation

By KELSEY KO | November 16, 2017


GABBOT/CC BY-SA 2.0 Taylor Swift’s new album Reputation dabbles unsuccessfully in hip-hop.

Everyone has a guilty pleasure artist, and, for me, it has always been Taylor Swift. There’s a certain shame that comes with knowing that she doesn’t make what people would call “good” music, whatever that even means.

But man, I practically grew up with her — whether it was singing along to “Our Song” in elementary school or jamming out to “You Belong with Me” in middle school.

The hype surrounding her newest release, Reputation, gradually built over the last month, starting when Swift dropped the first single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” The song’s strong stylistic departure from Swift’s previous album, 1989, drew attention from critics and fans alike.

Whether they loved it or hated it, people were listening to the track and watching its accompanying music video, which quickly topped records with 43.2 million views in 24 hours.

As I followed the releases of each of Swift’s subsequent singles (“...Ready For It?”, “Gorgeous” and “Call It What You Want”), I began to get the sense that Swift was trying to reinvent her sound into something drastically different.

Swift has had quite the musical journey in the last decade, debuting with palatable country, transitioning to a blend of country and pop, and then smoothly navigating towards Top 40 dance-pop hits.

Now, after a three-year hiatus, she’s venturing into waters she previously left uncharted with Reputation, which heavily borrows elements from rap, hip-hop and EDM.

If 1989 was Swift trying to establish her place as a serious pop star, then Reputation is Taylor holding up a mirror to herself and refusing to apologize for what she — and what other people — might see. With this shift, perhaps she’s signaling a radical change in her music as well.

Swift has always been quick to draw upon personal experiences in crafting her lyrics, but in Reputation she seems to reflect long and hard on others’ perceptions of her. At times, she is righteous, angry and almost vengeful (“I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined,” she sings on “Look What You Made Me Do”). In others, she is acutely self-aware and self-conscious (“My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me,” she sings about a tentative romance in “Delicate”).

According to Swift herself, the old Taylor is dead. But as I listened to Reputation, I missed the lyrical storytelling and raw, emotional vulnerability found in 2012’s Red (which will always remain my favorite and, in my opinion, her best). There’s something about the Hans-Zimmer-meets-trap aesthetic of tracks like “...Ready For It?” that makes Reputation feel a little gimmicky.

The same can be said of the weird atmospheric reverb and trap beats used on a few tracks, such as “So It Goes…” It’s not that these songs are bad, not at all. They’re catchy, radio-readymaterial. I just can’t seem to find what makes them any different from what other artists are already putting out.

What I loved about albums like Speak Now and Red was that they seemed to convey Swift’s distinct artistic voice. Swift’s focus hadn’t yet shifted towards engineering songs for radioplay.

Tracks such as “All Too Well,” “Dear John” and “Last Kiss” — despite their tendency to gush into over-sentimentality — had the storytelling and lyrical earnestness of country music, without being the stereotypical country ballad accompanied by banjo and fiddle.

This rings especially true for her magnum opus “All Too Well” from Red. Ironically the lyrics’ sheer specificity (“And your mother’s telling stories about you on the tee ball team / You tell me about your past thinking your future was me”) makes it feel all the more universal.

The songs that didn’t top the charts during that era were absolute gems because listening to them felt like honest-to-god emotional experiences. Swift found a niche in the gray area between country and pop-rock in which she could excel.

Maybe the reason that Reputation, in contrast, isn’t doing it for me is because there are black pop artists who could have done the same thing better or who have already done better.

Yet, even putting that aside, these tracks may be fun, but they are not unique enough to make me choose putting on Swift over the other female artists I’ve been listening to like SZA or HAIM.

However, Reputation does have its stand-outs. My personal favorite is the aforementioned “Delicate,” which features Swift pondering the possibility of a new romance in the wake of the negative reputation that she fears may precede her.

She uses a vocoder for the chorus in this song, reminiscent of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” The robotic harmonies add layer and depth while remaining true to the electropop style that she’s going for.

I also really love the last track, “New Year’s Day.” You can hear the swoosh of Swift’s feet pressing down on the piano pedals. The song is Swift at her most stripped-down, and, in the best of ways, sounds like her at the end of the day, singing alone in her living room.

Listening to this closing track, which sounds so much like it belongs on one of Swift’s older albums, I realized that there’s no such thing as the “old Taylor” being dead.

Taylor is Taylor, and she is a human who evolves over time like all of us. She’ll experiment with different musical styles. She’ll address her sexuality and her enemies unabashedly. While this album may not completely be my cup of tea, it definitely encapsulates Swift’s experiences at this moment in her life. None of us remain wholly unchanged, so why should we expect Taylor Swift to?

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