Reputation sees Taylor Swift move from the bright neon, 80s inspired era of 1989 to a much darker, sinister era for the pop star.
The old Taylor may be dead but the new one isn’t necessarily better.
It’s hard for an indie kid to admit that Taylor Swift’s 2014 album, 1989, is one of the most played albums on his iTunes. It’s quickly followed by Grimes, Foals and Swim Deep if that saves my indie reputation? Perhaps. I mean we’re allowed a few guilty pleasures… right?
Make no mistake though, I’m not a Swiftie. In fact, there are a lot of things that I don’t agree with when it comes to Taylor. However, to simply dismiss 1989 purely because it is a pop album would have been a huge mistake on my part. It was, in short, a triumph. It showed how an artist could successfully change their image and sound to match the current musical climate. It was pure 80s inspired synth-pop, with meaningful lyrics (okay, maybe not ‘Shake It Off’) and through it, you could hear the pride and joy that Taylor had felt when making it.
After a long silence in 2016, cryptic promo posts, specifically of a snake, began to appear earlier this year on the popstar’s Instagram. The snake in the promo clips is seen as a metaphor for Swift’s apparent reputation following several feuds over 2016 with power couple, Kimye, Calvin Harris and Katy Perry. It suggested this era was going to be one where the singer addressed or owned her “reputation’” within the industry.
‘Look What You Made Me Do’ was the first single released from Reputation and I’ll admit I was excited to see how Taylor would top her previous record. In short, she didn’t and I was left disappointed. The song and video addresses Taylor’s many reputations, much like ‘Blank Space’ did, but the two, however, couldn’t be more opposite from each other. While ‘Blank Space’ highlighted her reputation of jumping from relationship to relationship, it was fun, a little campy and hey, I could totally relate to being psychotic and cutting my partner’s shirts up or smashing their car with a golf club. ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is darker, both visually and sonically, focusing heavily on the idea of this snaky persona.
The percussion on the released tracks utilise drum machines much like 1989 did, however, the kick drum on ‘LWYMMD’ is boxy, while the snare and claps are thin and weak, almost lost under Taylor’s vocals. More so when you compare them to the 1980s drum machine, the classic Roland TR-808, that was used for ‘Blank Space’ and ‘Bad Blood’ on 1989. ‘LWYMMD’ lacks the intricate instrumentation of previous releases too, comprising mainly of percussion (kick, snare and hi-hat), heavily compressed, with very little melodic development from the piano and synthesisers. The thin bass is almost inaudible, overpowered by the kick and toms drums and the emotional build up to the chorus is lacking, with the chorus being very monotonous and anti-climatic.
‘…Ready For It?’ was the second single to be released and failed to recover my disinterest from ‘LWYMMD’. The synthesisers, particularly the bass, are gnarly and dirty, while the trappy beats of the drum machine, most notably the hi-hat, sound more like they belong on a hip-hop album than a pop album. While I support experimentation within music and believe reinvention is the key to longevity in this cutthroat business, this move does not benefit Taylor’s vocals. There is, however, a brief moment in the chorus where her vocals are allowed to breathe and aren’t so restrained to speak-singing and the synthesisers become slightly lighter in tone giving it a more optimistic feel before the gnarly synths kick back in to bring the song down.
‘Gorgeous’ is by far the worst of the singles in my opinion. This is due to the song lacking a well crafted and anchored melody making it forgettable. The only redeeming quality is its use of acoustic instruments, specifically the guitar, as well as electronic, which the previous two releases were lacking. In comparison, Red and 1989 saw Swift utilise multiple instruments like pianos (‘I Know Places’), acoustic and electric guitars (‘22’ & ‘Style’) and synthesisers (‘Welcome To New York’) to create large and layered sonic landscapes.
What is interesting about all three of the singles is Taylor’s vocal work. Her speak-singing and loose attempt to “rap” some of the vocals has meant that they suffer severely by limiting her range and ability. Her album Red proved the country singer was broadening her vocal range and production abilities, layer several takes of vocals (this is called multi-tracking in the industry) in order to create big stereo images (how tall and wide the music sounds through speakers/headphones) for songs like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’. She improved on this during 1989 too with songs like ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘New Romantics’ which have multiple layers of vocals with several different harmonies all at once to give the songs greater emotional impact.
Taylor Swift has had many reasons to get angry over the past year and a half, from the feuds with other stars to people questioning her silence over the US election and the bad press over more relationship breakups. Music has always been a brilliant way to channel negative energy into something creative, however, this, to me, has negatively affected the sound of her music and image. She’s taken on a snaky persona, bitchy almost, which I feel is not a great role model for younger fans. Whether this was the direction she wanted to take or not after 1989 the choices in production and overall sound of Reputation highlights her possible mindset during the recording and decision making of this album which will inevitably define this era of the popstar’s career.
Maybe it was always going to be hard for her to top 1989, it’s a multi-platinum album, with good reason to be. Maybe I’ll warm up to the new record upon release (I mean it’s a big maybe). Or maybe I’m just bitter because I still don’t have a new song about ex’s that I can drunkenly scream at 3 am. Whatever the case, this era is somewhat lost on me.
Words by Tom Kirby