‘Old Taylor’ Is Alive but Hidden on New Pop Record

On “Reputation,” Swift’s signature songwriting is more guarded and generic, but promises greater things to come through transformation.

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On “Reputation,” Swift’s signature songwriting is more guarded and generic, but promises greater things to come through transformation.

With 'reputation', Taylor Swift came back swinging (Image via New Yorker)

In 2006, the world was first introduced to Taylor Swift on her self-titled album—a twangy, bona-fide country record—about high school hopes and heartbreaks. Over ten years later, Swift’s newly released “Reputation” couldn’t sound farther from that description. Her most mainstream pop album yet is filled with back beats, synthesizers and lyrics that are seemingly more vague and guarded.

Underneath all the extra stuff, however, is a record that still screams, at its heart, quintessentially “Taylor.” Through the lens of fame and notoriety, Swift is still exploring romantic hope and heartbreak. She sings about love and loss, and her signature confessional lyric style is present even when watered down. Despite what she says on lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” “old Taylor” isn’t dead; she’s merely going through changes, taking one step on a longer journey that will deliver us to Swift’s unique corner of the pop market.

The record is Swift’s most uniform yet in terms of sound; once caught between her country roots and pop-star appeal, “reputation” now fully embraces a bass-bumping radio sound, complete with catchy hooks and an appearance from rapper Future. LA Times music critic Randy Lewis agrees, calling it her “most focused, most cohesive album yet.” The cohesion doesn’t just come from the backbeats, however. It also comes from Swift’s decision to abandon the innocent optimism that marked so much of her beginning career (seen plainly on classics like “Our Song,” “Fearless” and “Welcome To New York”) for a jaded outlook on friendship, feuds, romance and life when conducted in the public eye.

Several songs see Swift “owning” her bad reputation, including first track “…Ready for It?” and later tracks “I Did Something Bad” and “Don’t Blame Me.” All contain a self-awareness of her own role in creating her fraught media presence (and function as great workout jams), but the I-don’t-care confidence on display doesn’t ring as true as in more vulnerable tries such as “Getaway Car,” a story-driven song in which she blindsides her love with a breakup, singing “It’s no surprise I turned you in / Cause us traitors never win.”

These softer, more reflective meditations on fame can get overshadowed by the showier songs, especially when you throw in obviously-targeted tracks such as “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” in which Swift sings “Friends don’t try to trick you / Get you on the phone and mind-twist you.” While tracks like these seem to bring out the petty, self-described drama magnet version of Swift, they’re balanced out by songs that focus on Swift’s fail-safe topic: love.

Sprinkled throughout the songs about struggles with fame are also songs that explore her perceived antidote to it: true love from her current beau. Tracks such as “Delicate,” “Gorgeous,” “King of My Heart” and “Call It What You Want” detail the escape and safety of a relationship where Swift is loved, away from flawed public image and all. “Delicate” especially gets to the heart of this question with the softly-sung lyrics “My reputation’s never been worse so / he must like me for me.”

These songs move in a positive direction, but they also, as critic Mikael Wood notes, “describe a relationship in terms of the protection it provides from both the glare of public scrutiny and the perverse value system that scrutiny allows.” Even when Swift is singing about new love, her songs seem to be less about the new beginnings love offers and more about the safe harbor it provides from the international fame Swift has cultivated.

As the record’s title promises, the lyrical focus of almost every song, in some way, is Swift’s internal and external battle with her superstar status and the growing pains it has caused her. All songs, even the ones that focus on new love, are still meditations on the ways her public reputation has affected her private life.

The one outlier on the album is final song “New Year’s Day,” a soft piano ballad that most closely resembles the classic Taylor Swift sound. She gently describes picking up bottles with her beloved the morning after a big party, alluding to the idea of a relationship that can weather the good moments and the bad. The repeated lyric “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” especially hearkens back to Swift’s ability to write songs that capture an entire story in a single line.

Ultimately, critical reception has been positive if a little mixed, and many seem to agree that this album marks growth, not permanent change, for Swift’s music. Journalist Car Wilson writes, “I doubt this will wind up being many people’s favorite Taylor Swift album. With her mojo recovered, she’ll surely top it. But it might be her most vulnerable, even in its own resistance to that vulnerability.”

That vulnerability, even in the guarded form, is ultimately what the superstar’s loyal fan base has always connected with, more than her sound or her classification as a country or pop star. It also still sells records as seven hundred thousand copies were purchased during its first day in the U.S., according to Billboard, a feat that seems impossible in the streaming era, where buying an album on iTunes or in the store already seems like an archaic act. As of Sunday, November 12, the album had sold nine hundred and twenty-five thousand copies and was on track to break one million by the end of the week.

The record sales come even with Swift’s decision to do almost no pre-press with journalists before its release, instead keeping in tact the tradition of “secret sessions” where Taylor super fans are invited to an exclusive sneak peek of the album. This decision also makes evident what Swift was banking on, or knew all along: that her fans, who have already seen her through many changes in sound and image, would continue to stand by her music during this next phase of growth and change, and will stick around for the promise of a more mature, wizened, fully-realized Taylor to come on future albums.

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