A common piece of advice for writers is to “write what you know.” Taylor Swift knows heartache, friendship, and exactly what her millions of fans want. And when she sticks to these topics, she makes some great music—whether it’s pop, country, or the new dance tracks off her latest album Reputation. But when she strays into areas less familiar, say Dubstep or diss tracks, the end product doesn’t go down so easily.
The best parts of Reputation sound like signature Taylor Swift. Lyrically, she is pretty consistent. Aside from the cringe-worthy hip-hop track “End Game” (you cannot un-hear Ed Sheeran saying “sprung”), she sticks to her reliable diaristic songwriting. Even the wobbliest synth hits on “Don’t Blame Me” won’t obscure her country roots, in a song filled with soul and sass. “Delicate” is as self-aware and mature as we’ve seen Swift to date, as she recognizes her “reputation’s never been worse” and self-consciously ruminates on a new relationship. “Gorgeous” is frivolous, an ode to the face of an unnamed object of desire. While it certainly isn’t brilliant, it works as an upbeat moment and helps add levity before Swift starts to take herself too seriously.
A quick glance at production credits will clue you in on who is making music that works best for Swift. The Swedish duo of Shellback and Max Martin are disciples of the Skrillex-style of dubstep, blasting sub bass frequencies and over-the-top buildups to drops. The album opens with full-throttle EDM on “…Ready For It?” This headfirst dive into the genre worked for Justin Bieber in 2015, when he paired up with Skrillex and Diplo on “Where Are Ü Now.” But the difference between that serendipitous pop pairing and Reputation is two years and the popular explosion of EDM. We were ready for it a while ago, and it’s starting to get old. “King of My Heart” demonstrates the Shellback/Martin method most thoughtfully, combining the theatricality of the genre with Swift’s exaggerated love ballad lyrics.
Jack Antonoff, pop maverick producer, recognizes her strengths, but nudges her in slightly different directions on tracks like the electroclash single “Look What You Made Me Do” and the soaring, ‘80s style “Getaway Car.” “Look What You Made Me Do” is the first single, Swift playing an insolent villain over motorik. While a subset of the Internet shook their fists at what many perceived as a Peaches rip-off, music snobs were probably just wondering when Swift discovered NEU!. The song is an undeniable earworm, made more palatable when viewed through a camp lens. If you don’t take her seriously when she dramatically proclaims, “the old Taylor is dead,” “LWYMMD” is sorority girl riff on a Death Grips track, not a manifesto.
Another Antonoff collaboration, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is cheeky and bright. A gleeful, passive aggressive call-out, it’s much more Swift’s speed than a bold-faced diss track. Antonoff, with credits on recent albums from St. Vincent and Lorde, has a knack for nuanced pop, using tired techniques in inventive arrangements.
She wraps up Reputation neatly with “New Year’s Day,” a sparse and evocative relic of the music that got her where she is today. Listening to “New Year’s Day,” I hope that Swift takes her own advice, never becoming a “stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.” Tight harmonies, simple instrumentation and up-front vocals prove the old Taylor is alive and well.
Above all else, Taylor Swift is savvy. She makes albums for her fans and Reputation sticks to the formula. Every track is catchy, scratching a confessional itch in different flavors for every fan. Recently dumped? Unrequited love? Haters mad? There’s a song for you! At her worst, she is shallow, which has never been an indictment in pop music before. Taylor Swift, once country music’s teen dream, is growing up and so is her fan base. They’re drinking whiskey and done playing nice. And despite some growing pains, most listeners can have a good time with the new Taylor.
Notable Tracks: “Delicate” | “Look What You Made Me Do” | “New Year’s Day”