Friday’s release of Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, Reputation, had me like a kid on Christmas. I didn’t sleep a wink on Thursday, visions of an authentic, honest reckoning dancing in my head to the beat of “Look What You Made Me Do.” With the first single’s suggestion of the death of the “old Taylor” and the video’s imagery of a darker, more badass pop star dismissing her former selves, I held out hope that Swift would truly unpack her (ahem) reputation, lyrically laying bare her soul for redemption and reinvention.
Because, in truth, that’s what we need from Taylor Swift. The many wrongs that she’s committed that have led to her bad reputation over the years, and the criticisms leveled against her are legitimate. Sure, you can argue that her feud with Katy Perry is petty and undeserving of attention, or that her status as a world-famous, boy-crazy heartbreaker has more to do with slut-shaming than anything else. But when you look at the ways that Swift exemplifies and weaponizes white victimhood, particularly against black artists like Kanye West and Nicki Minaj, it’s clear that she has a lot of introspection to do — and that she owes some people an apology.
Instead, over the 15 tracks that make up Reputation, Swift once again assumes the familiar-to-her role of the fragile, misunderstood victim. The only difference is that, this time, she’s embracing how her experiences have hardened her. She proudly admits to being a liar and a manipulator — indeed, a snake — but only with the caveat that others have done her worse: “For every lie I tell them, they tell me three,” she gives as an example on “I Did Something Bad.”
And she explains on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” that it’s because people break things — promises, rules, loyalties — that she has to take her kindness and generosity away. Yes, she admits, she can be a bitch — but what did you expect?
This isn’t the only way that she tries on the “bad girl” role. As an artist who has made her career by appearing sweet and innocent, she’s been careful about how she talks about love and leisure activities in her music. Her first full-on pop album, 2014’s 1989, hints at sex and alcohol, but in ways that are arguably still kid-friendly. (The line “His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room” from “Wildest Dreams,” for instance, is suggestive without being explicit.) On Reputation, she’s happy to indulge details about both topics. In fact, the album features an entire song, “Dress,” about, well, undressing.
At the same time, she’s careful not to fall onto the “whore” side of Freud’s dichotomy. She’s met the love of her life, and she’s engaging in sex with him, loyally and monogamously. As she explains on “So It Goes,” playing both sides, “You know I’m not a bad girl, but I/ do bad things with you.” Of course, denying the roles of the virgin and the whore that women are too often cast in is powerful. Women are neither. We all exist between those two stereotypes. But Swift’s flirtation with the dark side feels manufactured and dishonest. As such, it falls flat.
If Taylor had taken on media depictions of herself in order to subvert them and call attention to her role in them — the way that she did so brilliantly on 1989’s “Blank Space” — Reputation could have been a truly illuminating concept album. Alternatively, if she had used her lyrical genius (you can’t listen to Red’s “All Too Well” and tell me she’s anything but) to narrate a journey from one version of herself to another, she could have given us a sense of her internal growth. Neither would have equaled an outright answer as to how her privilege has allowed her to be successful at the expense of others, but they would’ve at least been a step in the right direction.
Instead, Reputation chronicles the period of her life in which she fell from grace. After she was caught lying about the now-infamous phone call between her and Kanye West, and then asked to be “excluded from this narrative” wherein she was outed as manipulative, Swift’s reputation took a nosedive.
But instead of falling apart because of it, she wants us to know that she’s become “harder” and “smarter” to battle it. And this supposed strength came to her in no small part due to her boyfriend, British actor Joe Alwyn, whom she reportedly described to her recent secret sessions guests as an “angel.” The album is, at least partially, an ode to him — because he truly sees her for her, “which is more than they can say,” and he doesn’t let her reputation precede her.
The album is a little dark and a little brash, which is probably exactly what Swift needed to heal from her experience with the media spotlight. But with “I Did Something Bad” lyrics referencing that experience as a witch hunt — wherein she’s innocent, but being burned at the stake anyway — she doesn’t truly offer us a new narrative at all. And with clear disses to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and the admission that “I’d do it over and over and over again if I could,” she regurgitates the same old story, just packaged in black leather.
And that sure as hell doesn’t redeem her reputation.