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Talking Through Taylor Swift’s Latest Album

On November 10th, Taylor Swift released her sixth studio album Reputation. The managing editor of A&C, Joshua Lu, and section editor Josh Wartel discuss the new album.

Joshua Lu: Before I share my thoughts on the album, I should admit something: I’m just sick and tired of Taylor Swift. I’m tired of her as an artist, of her as a celebrity, a media personality, a human being, and every other way she’s been poked and prodded and analyzed these past months. I was a fan of hers for a long time—Red is easily one of my favorite albums of all time—but I haven’t personally connected to her music since then, and her antics as a celebrity have turned me off from her repeatedly. It’s not just stuff that all popular figures have, stuff like annoying fans or relationship drama, but it’s stuff like feuding with the ACLU and threatening her fans to delete stuff off the internet—it’s tiring to read and hear about. I have to be honest that I didn’t go into this album very excitedly—I only liked one of the songs she released beforehand, and the prospect of Taylor Swift going through her edgy phase at the age of 27 just didn’t entice me.

Josh Wartel: Wow, haters gonna hate hate hate. Yes, I agree she is being petty as fuck, and no one needed her restarting feuds with Kanye, but isn’t this kind of relatable? Unlike Trump, who has nuclear weapons but tweets random shit all day, Swift isn’t an existential threat to society, so if she wants to spend her time whining about a blogger calling her a Nazi and putting out music videos where she transforms into a nude cyborg, I’ll allow it…Also, no way is Red her best album!

JL: Well, we’ll have to disagree on that. But I agree that she’s not that important in the grand scheme of things, of our politics and our future, and if she wants to hate on a blogger calling her a Nazi then that’s her prerogative. It’s just tiring to hear these conversations constantly.

But as for the actual album: I enjoyed a lot of it. I like it about on the same level of 1989; lots of good songs, and some songs that just didn’t vibe with me. Strangely enough I found myself not really minding the songs where she turned the pettiness up to the max or was unafraid of coming across as a massive jerk. “I Did Something Bad”—which is one of my favorite songs despite having my least favorite title—and “Gorgeous” were particular highlights for me, because they used an edgy persona to create something that was still interesting and catchy. I think a lot of the complaints I had about Taylor as a celebrity can be forgiven in her music as long as the output is still high-quality, which I can say is the case for at least those two particular songs.

JW: “I Did Something Bad” reminds me of “Blank Space,” which isn’t really my style. “Gorgeous” has a dreamy pre-chorus—“Whiskey on ice, Sunset and Vine / You’ve ruined my life by not being mine”—that captures the same feeling as one of the best tracks of 1989, “Wildest Dreams”—“standing in a nice dress /  staring at the sunset, babe.” But Reputation is full of songs that could boom through the malls of America. “End Game” feels destined to hype up football games for ESPN. And “Getaway Car” was so obviously written and produced by Jack Antonoff, since it’s a mirror image of one of his best Bleacher’s songs, “Rollercoaster.”

JL: “End Game” is so weird. I do agree with you that it’d be perfect for ESPN, and I do like the song, but I feel like you can only enjoy it if you get over the fact that it has Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran rapping and doing pseudo-hip-hop stuff on a track with Future. It’s a big “If.” And you’re on point about “Getaway Car”—it’s basically “Out Of the Woods” 2.0, with the racing choruses and themes of intense nostalgia, but I loved the original, so I like the sequel too. I don’t think Antonoff is a particularly good or diverse producer, but he excels in certain areas.

JW: The “oohs” and “aahs” of “End Game” are the sort of deep breath the album definitely needed to get past the endless hype and speculation. And even though “End Game” features her and Future repeating the phrase “big reputation,” I think we get a bit closer to the truth of the past year when she sings in “Delicate”: “My reputation’s never been worse, so / You must like me for me…” It’s a sweet and intimate moment.

JL: Taylor does have a point unfortunately, but it’s interesting how she turns a negative into a positive. It’s definitely a clever line. It makes a lot of the rest of the album kind of frustrating to listen to though, because there’s a lot of lines scattered around where it feels like she’s trying to simultaneously exonerate herself while still coming across as this cold-hearted badass. Stuff like “All the liars are calling me one” are good lines but aren’t what I want to hear from someone with the self-admittedly bad reputation of Swift. I don’t want to use this term, but it feels like she’s playing the victim again with a lot of the album, which is her choice as an artist, but it’s not enjoyable to listen to a lot of the time.

JW: This is honestly the same argument that has been going on for years. Just think of the music video for “You Belong With Me,” where Taylor tries to claim the mantle of the rejected outcast on the bleachers not wearing a short skirt and then ends up showing up to the big dance looking like a prom queen. The joke of that music video, of course, is that Swift plays both the mean girl and the girl-next-door, so it’s not like Swift’s reputation has ever been anything other than self-aware.

JL: I know! And it’s frustrating to still be talking about it! She definitely knows what she’s doing, that this’ll get people talking. I feel like the stakes are different now, though—it’s one thing to be a mean girl in high school, but another one to be actively feuding with other big pop stars. It’s both aggravating and fascinating to see how far she’s willing to extend this persona.

A lot of the album still holds up even with this persona that I personally don’t find enjoyable, but some of the songs are undone by it. “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is the “Bad Blood” of this album, just a confusing mess of petty jabs that don’t come together in any significant way. The petty jabs aren’t the problem, as I said before, but just that the song itself doesn’t do anything to justify them. And even then, I still prefer the love songs on the albums, like the closing track “New Year’s Day.” I think they just fit her particular songwriting style well.

JW: So much for the old Taylor not coming to the phone right now because she’s dead. “New Year’s Day” begins with the image of “glitter on the floor after the party.” But some of us have not forgotten when she sang on Red of “the Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place.” That was the underrated track, “All Too Well,” which also saw Swift declare: “I’d like to be my old self, but I’m still trying to find it.” The play of personal identity is inexhaustible, an eternal struggle for Taylor Swift to become something new and remember who she was last album.

Some finals thoughts on the album:

JL: It became impossible a while ago to talk about Taylor Swift’s music without talking about her as a person. Such is natural when one becomes one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, but the facets of her personality bleeding into her music are becoming more serious and not nearly as flattering. On one hand, she had to embrace these criticisms about her, and she does so in Reputation, but she deflects them as much as she accepts them. The album as a whole is good, but I fear that Swift’s reputation as a questionable human being living in radical, politically charged times will be her eventual undoing. Her fanbase is still massive, and I have no doubts that this album will be successful, but it’ll be interesting to see how the public responds in the years to come.

JW: Why pretend that Reputation is anything other than a corporate colossus, too-big-to-fail, mass-produced monument to pop music? When Swift sings in “King of My Heart” for us to “salute…I’m your American queen,” I’d say she’s already won. And yet the pleasures are diverse and dispersed across the 16-track album. In that same “King of My Heart,” she shows off her casually cool delivery of the lines: “Up on the roof with a schoolgirl crush / Drinking beer out of plastic cups.” Not exactly the lavish lifestyle of the world’s reigning pop star, but just a regular Friday night. Somehow both faking it and making it, Swift is still very much an American icon.