Monday, November 13, 2017

album review: 'reputation' by taylor swift

It's hard not to feel sick of Taylor Swift at this point. 

And when I say that, I'm not really referring to the music with this, but more of the media circus and controversy. The celebrity feuds, the fan wars, the over-analysis of her artistic persona and image by critics and journalists fascinated by the inherent contradictions that have run rampant through her career, and that's not even touching on the relationship drama and TMZ-esque gossipmongering that I end up having to care about because it'll inevitably show up in the music! And since her image has been micromanaged within an inch of its life and her publicity is so carefully regulated, it's hard not to get the sneaking suspicion that all of it is so carefully crafted as not to represent a shred of anything real, all so much artifice but no real core.

And it didn't really use to be like this. I'm not going to say that Taylor Swift's pop country roots always felt the most authentic, but there was a level of balance and craftsmanship that went into her first three albums- especially Speak Now, her best record - that represented a fascinating contradiction: the hardworking, perfectionist musician behind the scenes that could somehow also represent the American everygirl because on some level it still fit her experiences. But starting with Red and continuing onto 1989, that balancing act became even more precarious, as her fame and image not only overtook the music but also more of her artistic identity: her songwriting has always had a limited scope but her transition to pop added layers of gloss to the every girl image that became less relatable and more striving for symbolic iconography - she wasn't your everygirl best friend but the hypermodern American girl ideal you wanted to look up to, complete with the ambiguous moral center that began curdling in slow motion. But that balance comes at a price: if you're trying to be that defining archetype and yet you don't have a stable core of ideals, everyone else can project their image of what they think you are on you and if you refuse to ground or take control of your narrative, the negative projections will inevitably overrun the positive. As I have said a number of times in the past, I'm not big Beyonce fan, but one reason why Lemonade remains her best record is that it took all the 'Queen Bey' image and humanized the hell out of it - by grounding the narrative and image she made it so much more powerful and resonant. Whereas with Taylor Swift... it seems like we were going in the opposite direction, the ground sliding away so at best she became representative of a catty, thin-skinned control freak of an artist, or at worst like the projection of white female victimhood, or a projection of far-right leaning authoritarianism! I'm not saying she is any of these things, but the more you lose control of your artistic narrative and can become anything to anyone, the more these alternative viewpoints can take root!

Hence, we have Reputation - and I'll be straight with you all, I didn't expect this to be good. 'Look What You Made Me Do' is a terrible song that gets worse with every listen and sees her try a heel turn and not stick the landing - or maybe even succeeding too well at owning the more pronounced negative narratives - but I will say I was intrigued by the potential of a record like this. If Swift was trying to set the record straight, return some real humanity to her image warts and all and give some definition to that artistic image, there could be potential there. On the other hand, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the artistic contortions that Swift would have to make, especially with all signs showing that the music itself wasn't going to be all that interesting or compelling. But we've danced around this long enough: what did we get on Reputation?

Honestly... I think we're all too close to this to really tell. And that's not something I typically say about records, but the more I listened to Reputation and its glaring issues with tonal whiplash and production inconsistencies and framing issues that made me want to tear my hair out - and yet I was certain I didn't hate this - the more I felt this record would probably read a lot more cleanly with the benefit of distance. I'm not saying it  would be better - indeed, I cannot say Reputation is a good record and for some fans I can see this being a breaking point - but for as fundamentally broken as this album seems to be, a contradiction of insane calculation balanced with a frontwoman trying to control a narrative long off the rails, I predict music historians will have a field day discussing this record. 

And so, to make any sense of this now, we need to start with the content - because, on paper, there's a seed of a good idea here. People - including myself - have characterized Taylor Swift's recent singles as a heel turn, but that's not really the case here - following from 1989 you could have seen some of this coming in that she was willing to tilt into a more negative image of herself. And getting a snapshot into the whirling, cacophonous, and yet highly staged world that Taylor Swift inhabits, full of contradicting expectations, tremendous pressure, sex and substance abuse - we'll come back to this - there's a degree of potency to that, if only because Swift's personal framing is going to remain very intimate to her... but not too intimate, of course. And here's where one element of the Yeezus comparison actually does make a bit of sense, because that record was all about Kanye embracing the foulest parts of tabloid image, if only because he thinks it's a way he can cut loose and protect his family in a world that is just as phony and quietly hostile to his presence. Now Swift doesn't really have that motivation, and you can make the argument that the only motivation she needs is just to reclaim her artistic and personal narrative, especially given how entwined they are, and if that means turning to a darker edge, so be it! Hell, given how much 'good American girl' iconography has been plastered onto her, if she wanted to send all of that up in flames, analogous to what Miranda Lambert did on her starmaking song 'Mama's Broken Heart' four years ago, I'd probably support her. And make no mistake, this is an ambitious undertaking - given how potentially alienating this could be to fans and onlookers, there is risk to this path that I can respect.

So okay, powerful idea at the core, world-class songwriters and producers behind her, all the tools are in place to make this work... and yet almost immediately Reputation goes wrong, and it comes in framing and context. For one, while I understand Swift's desire to reclaim her image and identity, if you have not bought into her cult of personality - and for the record I never really have - your questions will start with motivation and go from there. If all you know of Taylor Swift is her hits or you really don't care about her pop culture presence - and fans, hate to admit it but that's the majority of people - the question you'll hear after a song like 'I Did Something Bad' or 'Look What You Made Me Do' or 'Don't Blame Me' will be, 'okay, what did she do, who is she fighting and why'? And this is the first huge issue with Reputation: a lack of distinctive lyrical detail. Comparing to her years in country music, where her eye for detail made her songs feel more relatable than ever, many of these tracks work more in iconography than anything that feels grounded or more real. There's some cursory details around the edges describing the guys and the alcohol and some details of her surrounding, but the guys are all faceless and nameless in the album's text, and those accusing her are always a nebulous 'they'. And I can't stress how much of a problem this is, because when you're placing so much weight on this artistic pivot and redefinition, the victim of a witch hunt that drove you to this darker place to come back stronger where you'll do whatever you want and not care - even though with as many songs as you made about them on this album you clearly do care... Well, this is not 'No Good Deed' from Wicked where the threat and actions are very tangible, it's murky and indistinct and feels increasingly calculated, which neuters your sense of raw, dramatic tension and any righteous anger. And then you have to consider the rest of the songs here like 'Don't Blame Me' where she's trying to preemptively justify how all the 'love' has made her crazy as she toys with people, or on 'Gorgeous' where she's very much looking to cheat, or 'Getaway Car', where she deliberately refers to herself as a traitor and that she never wins - in fact, she seems to get out just fine in that track. Hell, on 'This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things', she doesn't even pretend to offer an olive branch to all the haters - which would be absolutely fine even if it makes her attempts to say she doesn't love the drama even more nonsensical, but now I'm asking a new question: what are the stakes for Taylor Swift here? I have no problem with her going through guys, but at this point, I can't get invested in it, and if it's about her reputation around the world poisoned after the events of last year... look, she was the one who lost control of that narrative, she doesn't have the moral high ground here, especially when there's an abject refusal to show any deeper self-reflection we didn't already get on 1989, or actually put names on wax, or even show the real consequence of what this has meant to her!

And now we have to get into the second major problem: even assuming the text could support this - and for the most part it doesn't, even if she's trying to elevate that text on songs like 'King Of My Heart' she references being an 'American Queen' and he moves to her like a Motown beat that makes me think she's never heard a Motown record - Taylor Swift still has to be able to sell it. And when it comes to the heel turn... no, she can't sell it. This is also an issue of framing, but it might actually run deeper into miscommunications between Swift and her producers, which was evidenced by Antonoff claiming 'Look What You Made Me Do' was going for camp when it's clear that Taylor was taking it way more seriously. But even then, her limited dramatic range in the music hurts her: from a hook that utterly squanders the buildup on 'Look What You Made Me Do' to the incredibly obnoxious and haughty 'This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things' to the majority of the production across this project, if you're expecting some sort of lean, intense, potentially dangerous or raw side of her delivery or writing, or even some brand of cinematic theatricality that could propel underwritten subject matter to meaning more... well again, it doesn't come through - it's not dangerous or sinister, it's more petty and thin-skinned and increasingly insufferable. Let's compare to another heel turn to trap sounds that happened earlier this year: Kendrick Lamar on 'HUMBLE.', which if you heard the context coming off of 'FEEL.' and 'PRIDE.', it made the embittered turn to self-flagellating arrogance work. Now a big part of why that worked on DAMN. was because Kendrick did set all of it up - check out my review, I explained a lot more there - but if Reputation was remotely sequenced effectively it could have gotten closer! To explain this let me focus on one element I actually think really works on Reputation: alcohol abuse. I'm not joking there, if you consider how much she drinks on this record a lot of the less rational decisions start snapping into place - it's a depressant, it's numbing, and when thanks to fame she already doesn't feel more consequences that sense of emptiness can have some human pathos, and her usage of vocoders and autotune seem to emphasize that detachment is excellent - ironically taking a page out of Kanye's book again, this time from 808s & Heartbreak. It's also one of the reasons that I think Future fits way more on 'End Game' than Ed Sheeran given similar nihilistic, self-destructive impulses - yeah, Sheeran's flow was decent, but he sounds incredibly out of place against that production with its cracking snares and desaturated melodies. And thus when you get her sinking into swamped out melancholy on 'Don't Blame Me' and 'Delicate' where she's nearing her lowest and the record is building drama... then you get 'Look What You Made Me Do' and the atmosphere goes out of the window. Or take 'Getaway Car', the best song on the album by a mile thanks to building some real momentum in the synth leads and a great key change into the bridge and even if I have lyrical issues I still like the song a lot - mostly because on a instrumental level it's basically a Bleachers song, so hi Jack Antonoff - but then you throw out a great second wind to break into atonal bassy trap progressions with too much autotune on 'King Of My Heart'. And on that topic, if I were to give any faint praise to 1989 it would come that the album's arc flowed naturally across this record, but here that's gone too, with tempestuous relationship songs juxtaposed against hookup tracks like 'Dress' and 'Dancing With My Hands Tied' where she talks about him turning her bed into a 'sacred oasis' - and yes, it's exactly like the metaphor Fifth Harmony used on 'Work From Home'!

But that actually leads to the problem that will hurt Reputation most in the long-run: for all of its ambition and attempts to suck us into Taylor's world, a lot of the actual music and production feels depressingly conventional. Yes, she's embracing the bass-heavy wallop of trap to modernize her sound, and yet she doesn't fix the inherent problems with so much of it saturating modern pop: hi-hat progressions that don't contribute to a groove, the glossy synth melody swamped out by the bass, an excess of unneeded effects, and more appropriations of hip-hop tropes and Taylor Swift's awkward rapping that can't capture the menace or power that can come with the best of the genre. And it's not like from a compositional standpoint it's building to dramatic hooks or grooves, much less anything that could make her sex songs remotely appealing or sensual. And it utterly kills any sense of decent pacing, not helped by trying to fuse in strings and classical elements that feel like she's borrowing from Halsey rather than trace her own path. Yes, she does know her way around a good lyrical cadence - it's one of the big reasons I actually mostly like 'Don't Blame Me', 'Delicate', the quicker beat behind 'Dancing With Our Hands Tied', at least until the hook kills the momentum, and yeah, the synth grooves and transitions on 'Getaway Car' are one of the few places where those interjections actually work, but let's talk about the final track 'New Year's Day'. It's muted, cowritten by Jack Antonoff and pretty sparse in its arrangement, a moment that feels sincere as she hopes for something that will last. And while with songs like 'Call It What You Want' you get the impression she's trying to set the stage for this arc to land, it increasingly feels like a good throwback to a better Taylor Swift era and one that feels increasingly disconnected... and honestly more hollow. I get hoping for it to actually work this time... just like with 'Begin Again' on Red or the cleansing moment of renewal going forward with 'Clean' on 1989, I've seen this arc attempted before and I'm not really buying, 'well, third time's the charm', especially with somehow less self-awareness this time around!

But as a whole... look, I'll say this right now, like most Taylor Swift records it's functionally critic-proof, it's going to move so many units and have attracted so much curiosity because of the image change, and nothing I can say or do will change that. And I said near the beginning, how well this record will stand up in Taylor Swift's career will depend more on history, because while I doubt this heel pivot will last, if Taylor Swift doesn't actually ground her material going forward I can see this fading from all but the diehard fans really quickly - hell, given much of the sound, I expect that anyway! And given that for non-fans you need buckets of context to make sense of what she does here, I have a really hard time seeing this record win people over. And I'm not asking for Taylor Swift to follow some moral imperative that's been foisted on her - if she wants to buck that projection, I'm all for it, but do it by taking ownership of that darkness and complicated humanity, not obscure it under increasingly flimsy layers of glamour, accusations, contradictions, and ambiguous artifice. If anything, I think the greatest loss of Reputation is the sense of deeper populism that ran through her work at her best is finally gone, amidst a scattered, misshapen story with little was learned and the tones and ideas felt distressingly by-the-numbers, seeming to actively avoid the grounded human moments that could have resonated. And as such... light 5/10, really just for the fans at this point, and really if you're looking for better, more distinctly human pop records... well, Lorde and Kesha both dropped terrific records in 2017, I'm going to stick with those.

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