Taylor Swift has a right to sound bitter.
Since dropping her blockbuster album 1989 three years ago, she has gone from being one of the most scrutinized pop singers on the planet to the most scrutinized singer on the planet. She has endured a sexual assault lawsuit; an endless, exhausting public feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian; and calls harping on her to get more politically active, or at least denounce her fans on the extreme right. She’s handled most of it with dignity.
But it turns out shaking it off isn’t so easy after all.
The neon joy that Swift exuded across 1989 is missing from her new album Reputation, which dropped Friday. The chipper, globe-conquering heroine of just a few years ago? She can’t come to the phone right now. In her place is a nearly 28-year-old woman with long list of grievances in red, underlined; and a seeming belief that her life will always be consumed by drama.
"You heard about me / I got some big enemies," she sings on End Game. "I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em / reputation precedes me, they told you I’m crazy / I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me."
Reputation is the album where she embraces that drama right back. She often sounds defensive (Don’t Blame Me) and spiteful (This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things); she shifts blame and threatens vengeance (Look What You Made Me Do). Honestly, it’s a very 2017 look, if not a particularly flattering one — one needn’t go farther than Twitter or the nightly news to find another highly public figure with many of the same predispositions.
The music matches the message. Few of the album’s 15 tracks — mostly produced and co-written by Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff — exalt in the major-chord joie de vivre of Shake It Off, 22 or We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. There is a lush warmth in lower-key synth-pop songs like Dress, Delicate, Call It What You Want and So It Goes, but Swift seems more focused on dropping bangers. Sometimes it doesn’t work — the icy, vampish lead single Look What You Made Me Do, with its jiggly rolls of Miami bass beneath the chorus, feels like a reject from Disney’s Descendents. Hearing her kinda-sorta rap across Ready For It and End Game (alongside Future, no less) is initially jarring, but it doesn’t take long for their blown-out bass and staccato percussion to worm their way into your id.
When she’s not singing about "playboys" and "narcissists" shading her as a witch to be burned (I Did Something Bad); or sneaky ex-friends who "stabbed (her) in the back while shaking my hand" (This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things); she is lamenting how tough loving her can be.
"My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me," she sings on Delicate. On Dancing With Our Hands Tied: "I loved you in spite of deep fears that the world would divide us." And in a moment of introspection, King of My Heart, she laments: "I’m perfectly fine, I live on my own / I made up my mind, I’m better off being alone."
This is where the album’s darker themes work better. The thing about Swift — and maybe only Swift — is that her lyrics make her impossible life feel relatable, even to her youngest fans. Call It What You Want may be a pity party ("All the liars are calling me one"), but it’s also rife with lived-in images of adolescent/20-something love: initial pendants, blanket forts, "drama queens taking swings." Even acknowledging her real-life allure and power on Gorgeous, she manages to sound vulnerable: "There’s nothing I hate more than what I can’t have / guess I’ll stumble on home to my cats."
Some lines recall Swift’s country roots, miles though she may be from her Nashville sound. "Only bought this dress so you could take it off," she sings on Dress. She weirdly sings a lot about drinking — beer, champagne, spilled wine, Old Fashioneds, whiskey on ice, "eyes like liquor," at parties, in bars, on beaches, anything, everywhere, for a buzz — but the album’s most poignant imagery comes in its muted hangover of a closing track, New Year’s Day: "I want your midnights, but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day."
Swiftologists will parse each line to suss out her lyrical targets. I Did Something Bad is likely about ex Calvin Harris; This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is almost certainly about Kim and Kanye. But knowing this won’t make the LP any better. In fact, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things nearly undoes Swift’s heel turn altogether. She’s pretends she’s about to forgive Kim and Kanye for ruining her Gatsbyesque pool party by the "champagne sea" (ugh) when she breaks character with a childish cackle: "Ha ha ha, I can’t even say it with a straight face!"
Much like Kanye West with his sad, tabloid-baiting Famous, Swift should know she’s better than this. She has the right to sound bitter, sure, and getting Reputation off her chest might bring some closure to the drama of her 20s. Maybe the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. But we’re willing to hold until the new one lightens up.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.