Taylor Swift has a Taylor Swift problem
If you even have a vague curiosity when it comes to the new Taylor Swift album, you might be wondering why Reputation is nowhere to be found on your preferred streaming platform of choice.
In the immortal words of Heath Ledger’s Joker, it’s all part of the plan.
Call it questionable, call it smart, or follow Swift’s explicit direction and 'Call It What You Want'… the strategy works. With Reputation temporarily withheld from the likes of Apple Music and Spotify, the physical product sold over 700,000 copies on its first day of release, a figure unmatched by any album over a full week this year.
As 2017 draws to a close, we’re at a strange crossroads in terms of what to expect from the current crop of music superstars. There’s a certain cynicism associated with major releases now, where albums feel deliberately bloated in order to dominate the pop landscape, as seen in March when Ed Sheeran took up places 1-16 on the Irish Singles Chart.
Contrast that with a multitude of political statements from heavy hitters in the entertainment world alongside a growing movement demanding social change, and it’s not unreasonable to ask more of Taylor Swift, not least when she’s tasking lawyers to crush lowly bloggers who dare disparage her name.
Swift has been increasingly called upon to use her voice and status as a role model to millions of young women, be it to support charitable causes, condemn acts of terrorism, and denounce the rise of the alt-right, with whom she has been indirectly associated. While her silence on such issues cannot be determined as endorsement, it is nonetheless a curiously passive stance to adopt.
But let’s turn to her latest long form statement, and why it feels quite hollow regardless of impressive sales figures. It might feel unfair to criticise solo performers for failing to look beyond themselves in search of their art, but Swift’s particular brand of self-obsession feels especially glaring when placed next to the knowing bravado of Kanye West, the fearlessness of Ariana Grande, the feminist power-pop of Dua Lipa, the communal expression of Stormzy, and the daring evolution of Selena Gomez.
All of the above are self-referential artists, as are countless more. Write what you know, after all. Swift, however, approaches her sixth studio album as an adolescent might regard their first diary entry. Case in point - Reputation’s provocative lead single; the overstuffed, Right Said Fred-invoking ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is a career nadir from a song-writing point of view, and ultimately proves too snarky for its own good.
From the parade of Taylor Swifts that duly assemble at the end of the video to the inadvertent victim complex underlining of the title, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is the perfect trailer for an hour of superficial petulance where lyrical content essentially boils down to one of three things; people that Swift isn’t terribly fond of (unnamed, but armchair detectives won’t be troubled), generic fantasy romance escapades, and her perceived put-upon sense of self.
She may proclaim that the “old Taylor” is dead, but Reputation picks like a vulture from the Swiftian canon in a manner as cold as the mechanics involved in its creation. In embracing conventional pop tropes so enthusiastically, Swift finds herself in the decidedly unfamiliar position of also-ran. Reputation is an album where you can hear every production trick and the money behind them. The presence of writer/producers Max Martin and Jack Antonoff is predictable, as is the focus group streamlining of chart-friendly pop and R&B.
One notable box goes relatively un-ticked. Reputation is curiously light on guest appearances – let’s not forget who the star is, after all – opting to unite Future and Ed Sheeran on ‘End Game’, a track that allows the former to sleepwalk to a fruitful payday as the latter once again indulges in his passion for spitting really awkward rhymes.
But it’s The Taylor Swift Show, and that’s a problem when bitter grudges and self-serving sentiment fight for attention amidst tame matters of the heart. At just 27, Swift now represents the old guard. She’s too big of a name to get completely left behind, but this is a regression. Katy Perry may have provoked a backlash when she floated the idea of creating “purposeful pop” but there’s something in that, even if she herself failed to make good on said promise.
As her Reputation connects with a paying, if not baying, audience, it’s hard to fathom that Taylor Swift is planning on course-correction any time soon, and that’s a shame. “I swear I don’t love the drama; it loves me,” she remarks on the aforementioned Sheeran/Future team-up. It’s a tired line, one that even the longest-serving fan can’t possibly find revelatory or the least bit true.