Friday, November 10, 2017

Album Review: Taylor Swift - Reputation

At its best, music is enlightening. It can be used to teach us something about the human condition that is easily forgotten, but more often if shines a light on the soul of the songwriter, and allows us to see through the veneer to the core of the person behind the music. Emotions fuel the best music, whether singing in ecstasy or agony. Great songs send a tingle down our spines, as we connect on a fundamental level that our polarized society doesn't often acknowledge. There is something magical about what music is capable of when in the hands of a master crafts-person.

Taylor Swift has been in the spotlight for so long, and has graced so many tabloids, that it's easy to take for granted our access to her. We feel like we've heard from her so often that we know who she is, and have lived life alongside her. The truth of the matter is that Taylor has been remarkable at keeping herself arm's distance away from her audience. Every song we know in our hearts is about a public heartbreak has never been confirmed. They could be stories made up from the same foundation and rouge that paint her cheeks into a flawless canvas. Taylor Swift is a pop star, a celebrity, but she is also strangely anonymous.

"Reputation" is the album that aims to change all that, where Taylor aims to take on her own public image, and tear it down as the web of misconceptions it most likely is. The problem is that because Taylor is so guarded, skepticism means that we shouldn't take anything she says on this album as the truth. She has been private, as is her right, but that means a sudden change of heart is not going to accepted on face value, especially when there is a glaring flaw running through the album that cannot be ignored.

We feel like experts in Taylor Swift's life, because of how omnipresent she has been in pop culture, which makes "Reputation" a stunning misfire. If Taylor was indeed trying to reveal more of herself, and fight back against the image the media has created of her as a contrived pop star hungry for fame and attention, the worst way to fight back would be by releasing an album that is this shallow. Taylor turned to pop on "1989", but now that she is viewed as a pop star, she has leaned into the image by making a record that is so blatantly trend-hopping that it almost feels like a joke. The dirty trap beats and utter lack of melody running through singles like "Look What You Made Me Do" wouldn't even be recognizable as Taylor Swift songs if not for the music videos she appears in.

Beyond that, Taylor's writing is not mining the depths of herself for truths no one else could tell. These songs are the same girl-meets-boy songs she has been singing for years, only this time without the nuance and detail that made her wise beyond her years. "Gorgeous" is man-hungry in a way that would be called misogyny if sung from the other perspective. When she speaks (not sings) that the old Taylor is dead, its as believable as the special effects in "Plan Nine From Outer Space". We can't tell if the old Taylor is dead not just because we didn't know her as a person, but because the new Taylor isn't any more open than the old one. The only difference is that her surface-level observations are more bitter than before. It's depth in the sense that we have gone from the sweet zest of a citrus fruit to the bitter pulp. We haven't reached the fruit yet, but the flavor has become intolerable.

Taylor Swift has never been honest with us as an audience, but that's actually ok. She was a nimble enough songwriter that she made her inauthenticity work. We knew it was an act, which made it all the more remarkable that she was able to turn it into such fantastic pop singles. Now, however, the songwriting acumen she displayed has been replaced by the pop conveyor belt, which has stripped away anything that was ever unique about Taylor, whether it was authentic or an act. She has become just another pop star, and she doesn't have the charisma to play the part of a bad girl.

I don't know who Taylor Swift is as a person. I'm not saying that to pass judgment on her, but to illustrate a point. After so much time in the spotlight, I don't feel like I'm an closer to understanding her now than I was when I first heard "Red" on the radio. In the pretext of this album, which is supposed to correct the record, being as in the dark as ever before means only one thing; even if the songs are good, Taylor Swift has utterly failed with this record. She hasn't taught us anything, and she hasn't entertained us. She has failed on multiple levels, which makes "Reputation" one of the biggest busts in modern pop history. 

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