“You did a number on me but honestly, baby, who’s counting?” Taylor begs the question on “So It Goes…” before counting down in salacious whisper: 1, 2, 3. A moment. The bass drops. This is Reputation. And it is rife with moments of unbearable, often tautological schoolgirlishness that tear the listener into equally consuming impulses—cringe at its Dickens-referencing, bass-dropping, pseudo-profundity (“It was the best of times/ The worst of crimes”) or vaguely, and perhaps ritualistically, self-identify.
If you—like me—grew up in the noughties, chances are Taylor has been priesting your love life since “Teardrops on My Guitar” came out in ’06. She encouraged us to nurse our school crushes into fantastical obsessions, made us fall in love till it hurt or bled. She transcended every casual collegiate ‘thing’ into the golden age of something good and right and real, if not another bad girl phase—stop me if I’m projecting—that wound us back to our Brooklyn stoop sad and lonely and drunk. It’s hard if not impossible to willingly dislike a Taylor Swift album when your personal history is ruinously entangled in Swiftian romance. You’re inherently programmed at least to want to try. With Reputation, however, her own metamorphosis becomes suspect: is Swift Angela Chase dying her hair Manic Panic red, meditating on the confines of what we call personality? Or is she Cady Heron with a smudge of bad girl eyeliner and a taste of revenge, smelling like a baby prostitute?
Reputation is schizophrenic. It finds Swift swigging whisky on ice in Hollywood, jet setting to New York to rhyme ‘handsome’ with ‘mansion’ and singing about motel rooms like she’s been in one. At some point the experience of listening to Reputation removes you, despite your best intentions, from the experience of listening to a Taylor Swift album. It is no longer a palimpsest to which you’d ascribe your feelings. Instead the experience somewhat resembles vacantly scrolling through filtered images and emoji-splattered captions, passively fading into an Insta-trance. It feels guarded, as though you’re seeing someone as they would like to be seen. This is fair considering Taylor Swift is fully cognizant that she’s being watched. Her reflections on her ‘big reputation’, however, seem restricted to dime-store aphorisms (“They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one”) that make woeful poptimists who have long championed her songwriting scratch their heads in wonder. There are no lovers singing in the car, getting lost upstate. No alienating silence shared between strangers in an elevator, no micro-universe crafted with careful consideration in each song to remind us “people are people and sometimes we change our minds.” The case becomes stiffer for Leonard Cohen parallels with Reputation’s slick, love-addiction tracks like “Don’t Blame Me,” often sung in the key of Lana Del Rey-lite: “Lord, save me/ My drug is my baby/ I’d be usin’ for the rest of my life.”
The crafty Ed Sheeran and Future-featuring “End Game” reminds us that Taylor doesn’t love the drama; it loves her. And there’s an understated sincerity—not quite self-importance but rather a wistfully sweet teenage solipsism—to a self-conscious persona infinite-looping through adolescence, however unwitting. Like watching a younger, prematurely jaded version of yourself make your way through the world dressed up as something brand new. Invincible but so easily destructible at the same time, you’re a mess, but a mess that was wanted, and the world dissolves around the darkest shade on your lips.
There’s nothing sillier than begging for authenticity in pop music, but it’s past midnight on a Sunday and I’m listening to Red and discovering a Russian nesting doll of emotions that I remember all too well. Suddenly finding raw narratives unravelling at the core of an expensive, big-studio production doesn’t seem utopian. Reputation leaves us with glossy production and perfectly symmetrical refrains that’ll linger in our bedrooms for a good six months before the magic dissipates. It becomes hard to imagine reaching for callous questioning like “is it cool that I said all that? / Is it chill that you’re in my head?” when you’re dumb-drunk and emotional. It’s hard to imagine embarrassingly needing Reputation like you do the rest of her discography.
“New Year’s Day,” the final and quietest moment on the album, is a lover’s plea that makes all preceding motifs of reputation feel like wasting distractions. For the first time on the album, it feels like we have her alone. Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere. It’s a small, private, humbling request that brings us back to the everyman world of Red. It makes us solicit the same from her.