From Red to Reputation

This past year, Taylor Swift’s been in the headlines for what I’m sure she’d call all the wrong reasons: snapchat stories, white nationalist fans, and a weird lawsuit involving the ACLU. Perhaps it’s a weird rollout for her new album Reputation, but really, it’s also sort of fitting in it’s own way.

Indeed, a few days after it’s release, most of the positive reaction around Reputation seems to revolve around the idea of Swift striking back. A promotional Snapchat story featured fans – mostly young white women, it should be noted – saying stuff like “she’s dragging all her enemies,” or “she kept her receipts.” The new Taylor seems to revolve around anger, revenge and playing the villain. In pro wresting this would be called a heel turn, which I suppose would make Taylor the pop music equivalent of Kane. After all, they both like flames and the colour red.

 

So, how did we get here?

Obviously, there was a bunch of weird drama which seemed silly at the time and even more so in retrospect. There was Taylor’s silence throughout a polarizing 2016 presidential election, one where peers like Katy Perry and Beyoncé decidedly took bold stances. And most striking of all: the rollout for 1989, which faded at the finish line, weighed down by a handful of lackluster singles and Swift’s almost indifference when performing live. Indeed, the album’s had less staying power than work by Perry or Knowles; it’s monster opening single aside, 1989 seems like a misstep, a work of an artist overreaching.

But to really figure things out, it works best to go back five years to Red, perhaps Swift’s best album and definitely the one where she laid out all her cards.

In November 2012, Swift was riding the country charts and reaching for crossover success. She had two singles on the Billboard 100 and all four of her albums were charting. Red debuted at number one the week of November 10, just edging out Kendrick Lamar. Things were breaking her way.

I suppose by this time, people were tiring of her aw shucks persona, the shocked expressions at award shows and her acting like a regular person who somehow became a music star. But at the same time, Red, showed her coming into her own as an artist: it was mature in a way her earlier albums weren’t, with driving rhythms and new musical textures, a mix of country roots, AOR rock, and pop bangers.

Red opened with what could pass for a stadium rocker: the pounding “State of Grace.” Here the simple drum patterns and chiming guitar chords could pass for a U2 tribute, but Swift’s singing – the way she bent notes and worked with the rhythm – showed her pop leanings. Even now, it’s still an effective performance, with Swift still playing the hero:

“This is the golden age,” she sings, “of something good, right and real.”

 

Meanwhile the title track leaned back on country music in its instrumentation: Ilya Toshinskiy plays a banjo, while Paul Franklin plays pedal steel. But under the surface, Swift and producers Dann Huff and Nathan Chapman mix different elements: as Swift sings lines like “loving him was red, burning red,” a string section starts to churn under the music while the tempo builds and crashes. Strings aren’t aren’t anything new in country, but the energy the title track builds up and releases has more in common with pop music than Swift’s past records.

By the bridge, Swift is all but yelling over the music and a roaring guitar break.

 

Elsewhere on the album, Swift made stabs at a crossover pop sound. On “I Knew You Were Trouble,” she stutter-sings, working against a piano and jangling guitar before the chorus turns with a pounding synth break and Swift’s autotuned vocals. It doesn’t quite work, instead sounding like two different songs mashed together, but the ambition’s there.

 

It works better on the two big singles from Red: “22” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

On “22” she takes elements from country – a stomping acoustic guitar rhythm and Swift’s vocal phrasing – before launching into a keyboard-driven chorus. While the song also moves back and forth, Swift’s singing moves effortlessly between the styles. Meanwhile on “Never Ever…” she speaks a mouthful in each line, packing each bar with as many words as possible; on the chorus, she adopts the stomping effect she used in the verses for “22,” but this time syncopated like dance music.

The last gasps of the old Taylor show up in the album’s back end: the goofy “Stay Stay Stay,” driven by a mandolin and Swift singing at the higher end of her register; the slow ballad “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” which is about as Nashville as anything on the record.

For all of Red’s steps forward, there’s a few missteps:

Swift relies hard on a lazy trick of repeating the song’s first lines at the end, an effect with grows more noticeable each time. The duets don’t quite work and leaving in the studio chatter was probably supposed sound informal, but really just sounds like sloppy editing.

From here, it was a hop, skip and jump to 1989, an album of ego (a whole suite of songs inspired by the year you were born?) and reinvention. In a short time, Swift’s public image changed with light speed, often from video to video. “Shake It Off” had her chopping her hair short, but still being awkward and not quite fitting in with the choreographed dancers; “Style” was a Don Henley-tinged backward glance at her old looks. And on “Bad Blood” she was a member of an all-robot A-Team, I suppose.

 

But on “Blank Space” the new Swift came into focus: styled to the nines, with her makeup emphasizing the sharp lines of her face, Swift played the vengeful ex. She trashed cars, stabbed voodoo dolls, and looked like she was enjoying every minute of it. This wasn’t the girl next door of her earlier records, this was someone who liked to hit back.

“I just figure if you don’t get the joke, you don’t deserve to get the joke.” – Taylor Swift, 2015

 

About a minute or so into “Shake It Off,” Swift starts poking fun at her image: “I go on too many dates, but I can’t make them stay,” she sings. Tucked away in the mix is a little snicker. Is that the joke? Is Swift laughing at the absurdity of her image? Or just at it?

Indeed, when she starts talking about how her music is satire – which generally means it’s supposed to be funny – this little laugh is the first thing I think of, the first clue that maybe we’re not supposed to take her music as a gospel truth. Which sounds foolish, except in the past Swift’s deliberately taken potshots in her songs, leaving clues for people to pick at. So when she says, like she did in a 2015 interview with Chuck Klosterman, that her songs are satires about how people perceive her I’m left with one question: why aren’t they funny?

This year’s model of Taylor Swift has her decked out in jewels and designer clothing, biting on chains and blaming others for what she’s doing.

Taylor Swift Reputation Rainbow Dress

She’s lashing out at people who she says wronged her while copping hip-hop and R&B trends in her music. Her speak-singing turns into an attempt at rapping, while the music has all the harsh edges of Yeezus without any of that’s album tension or release. She dabbles in trap beats, has a cameo from Future and sounds utterly, completely self-serious at every moment.

“I don’t regret it one bit,” sings Taylor on “I Did Something Bad,” “because he had it coming.” The album’s full of statements like this, statements of self-justification for the her album and it’s new sound. She flatters narcissists, runs away with the car keys and calls herself the “American Queen.” Throughout, she’s trying to sound darker and edgy, but like a character in Suicide Squad, it comes off as flash and spectacle, quick-cuts and posturing trying to cover up the problems in production and writing.

Perhaps the new sound and images are here to cover up another problem: Swift’s stagnation as a pop star.

Granted, people don’t really turn to pop for deep songwriting, but even as far back as Red there was something resembling a Swift formula; by now it seems like she’s stuck in that rut: writing about how her relationships fall apart, how to be the dominant person in a relationship and, most telling of all, how she’s the kind of woman you’ve been desiring.

But if there’s anything resembling a joke here, it’s in the way she takes everything so personally, in the way she’s so deadly serious that it must all be some kind of joke. But that doesn’t jibe with the Swift people have been listening to for over a decade. This is someone whose ambitions were hardly disguised on Red and reached for the skies on 1989. And now, when she’s one of the biggest stars on the planet, Swift turns around and scowls. It’s all very weird.

 “They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons,” – Taylor Swift, “I Did Something Bad”

Perhaps the most interesting tell on Reputation is the style itself: a vaguely hip-hop look and feel. There are references to royalty, a typeface in gothic script and trap beats littered all around the album. There’s the obligatory cameo from Future and a few moments where Swift tries to rap.

 

Country music has a weird relationship to hip-hop. On the one hand, there’s the problems black artists like Darius Rucker have in working the genre; on the other, it wasn’t long ago Nelly made a cameo in Florida-Georgia Line’s crossover hit “Cruise.”

In the past decade, hip-hop’s gone in two interesting directions. More established artists like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar have gone in a socially conscious direction, while younger ones like Lil Uzi Vert have gone in something closer to pop punk. And Swift, because she can read the tea leaves or has someone who can, has moved in on the glossy pop gap left in this split: she’s copping the class-conscious images, the infliction and language and the beats of modern hip-hop, but filters them in a way to make them palatable for the mainstream.

There’s been an unspoken name running through Swift’s career for reasons deeper than their chance run-in at the MTV awards over a decade ago: Kanye West.

If Swift’s been the person latching on to trends and making them her own, West’s been the man creating styles and trends, only to abandon them as something else comes along.

It’s easy to write him off as an ego-driven jerk, and perhaps there’s more truth there than he’d like to admit, but it’s hard to deny the impact West’s had on music in the past 15 years. With each new album, West’s music has pointed new directions for others and changed what most people’s ideas of what hip-hop sounds like.

Take 808s and Heartbreak: with pounding drum machines, ice-cold keyboards and his voice pitched through auto-tune as a way to create emotion, West showed the cathartic possibilities of rap; within a couple of years, rock bands were covering his music and chillwave had taken up this style as a full-fledged movement.

Kanye West’s influence is felt on Reputation, as well:

Swift’s autotuned vocals bring to mind 808, the harsh trap beats are similar to Yeezus’ aesthetic, while the album art – with overlapping fonts dominating the frame – is reminiscent of The Life of Pablo. This is all on top of Swift’s use of hip-hop motifs and styles, not to mention the public history between the two which has provided months of fodder for those picking through the lyrics, looking for second meanings and hidden references.

And indeed, that history ties back into Swift’s reputation and the rollout of this release. Since she accused West of sexism, only to have a recording of her approving his lines emerge, Swift has been awful quiet. She hasn’t made a political statement anywhere near the ones made by Perry or Knowles; she’s restricted her rollout to Tumblr, a more easily controlled space than Twitter or Facebook. And, that as much as anything, is what’s impacting her reputation on Reputation.

“Miranda Lambert with a drum machine.”

Taylor Swift the Snake

I have a vision of what’s coming next for Swift. Reputation seems like as far as she can push in this direction without alienating herself from her base of country fans, so it’d make sense if she pushed back in that direction. I can see her now, pink lipstick and blonde hair, acoustic guitar slung over her shoulder and a pedal steel player behind the other. Fans listen to her while they grab a latte at the Starbucks drive through.

It’s not really that far away. Even now, on songs like “Getaway Car,” the roots are showing: even through the song’s tense rhythm and sparse keyboards, the songwriting is pure country: a song about a doomed relationship, one where the woman steals away at the end. It’s Miranda Lambert with a drum machine.

Would a veering back mean that Reputation was a misstep or a creative failure?

I don’t think so: at it’s best, it’s an interesting – if mostly dull – pop album; at it’s worst, it still suggests Swift has an ambition about being more than just a crossover star. For all it’s vanity and appropriation, it’s a C+ record from someone who’s grown from a teen idol to a gossip magazine staple. It doesn’t show growth in itself, but taken in context with her past records, it shows the ambitions have always been there and suggests they always will be. Swift might be the biggest pop star in America right now, but it’ll never be enough.

 

Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.