Taylor Swift embraces thoroughfare synth-pop with ‘Reputation’

Taylor Swift - ReputationCredit: Mert & Marcus
Big Machine Records/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Taylor Swift, perhaps more than any of her contemporaries, has built herself as a brand queen.

That brand, much like the “not like other girls” persona she plays in “You Belong With Me” circa 2008, is more often than not centered on the way in which she is different from every other pop star. She’s cultivated an image as an independent, ferocious businesswoman via her ongoing reticence toward streaming services. More than that, the country-turned-pop singer has spent her last two albums, Red and 1989, eking out a space for herself as a pop singer who writes pop songs that don’t sound like the standard fare of the industry.

Reputation, Swift’s sixth studio album, finds her sliding into comfortable lockstep with the pop starlets around her on the conveyor belts in the song-manufacturing plants of Swedish songwriter-producers Max Martin and Shellback. For those unaware, these are the guys under the hood of some of the biggest hits by The Weeknd, P!nk, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Ke$ha, the Backstreet Boys, Usher, One Direction and Ellie Goulding, among others.

Despite many critics’ assertions, this has not been a sudden shift. Her first two albums found her sharing songwriting credits with multiple co-authors on two tracks each, and 2010’s Speak Now had only one. Her pop transition began in earnest with Red, which saw her first collaborations with Martin and Shellback and four multiple-coauthor tracks. On 1989, Swift has sole authorship on only one track.

She has none on Reputation.

There’s nothing explicitly wrong with that; it’s how the industry generally works. But Swift has never been about doing things the way the industry generally does. Reputation is a perfectly serviceable, and at times highly enjoyable, pop album. But while the sounds on it — and lyrics, cue “fly like a jet stream”-type constructions — are mostly new for Swift, they’re not in any way new for Martin and Shellback. Nor indeed are they new for the other primary co-writer on Reputation, Jack Antonoff.

Antonoff takes over the co-writing duties about halfway through the album, and while what Swift and Antonoff have produced some great songs here, they trend toward sounding like B-sides from a Bleachers album with Swift singing over them.

“Getaway Car” especially, both sonically and lyrically, sounds eerily like a repurposed Bleachers track; note the way Swift’s voice isn’t really ideal for the vocal construction around “I knew it from the first old fashioned, we were cursed” in the first verse and the “shot gunshot in the dark” that immediately follows à la the “shotgun lovers” of Bleachers’ “Rollercoaster.”

At other points in the album (see the verses of “Look What You Made Me Do” or “Gorgeous”), she drops her voice into a more sultry range that is immediately evocative of Lorde — ironic, given that Antonoff co-wrote Lorde’s most recent album too.

All this is to say that almost any 10-second segment off of Reputation can be directly attributed to another recent pop song or trend. That it is derivative doesn’t mean it is bad — the working definition of pop is that it is derivative of other pop, and that’s an inescapable result when the same group of songwriters are responsible for most music being released in the genre.

What it does mean is that for the first time, Swift is truly playing it safe.

The average song length on the album is 3 minutes, 42 seconds with a standard deviation of just 13 seconds in either direction — functionally cookie-cutter. And where Reputation could have been an interesting inward look at her own place in popular culture (as was hinted by early single “Look What You Made Me Do”), it arrives as an overwhelmingly standard Swiftian set of tracks pining for boys (and dumping them) under new production paint.

It’s an album pulled in three directions: toward the Ariana Grande-and-Chainsmokers pop of Martin and Shellback, toward the nostalgia pop of Antonoff and toward what Swift seems to want as a place in the middle that integrates her own unique touches — that Swift pushes through in the chorus to “…Ready For It?” and album closer “New Year’s Day.”

Swift’s fans probably won’t care about any of this, since outside a few isolated, cringeworthy production decisions, the album is pretty easy to listen to. “Delicate,” for all it’s genericicity, has a compulsive island-Latin beat. “Look What You Made Me Do” is exactly as provocative as it needed to be, with a killer pre-chorus. For all its vocoder-overtones, “King of My Heart” will be familiar in construction to long-time Swift fans. And those fans that have grown with Swift can now get hot and heavy to “Dress.”

Ultimately, sonics fall aside, given that her record-sales are in the bag. She’s forced her fans to shell out exorbitant amounts on album presales and merch just to get access to concert tickets for her tour, and in typical form, she is not porting to any streaming services — it’s no surprise she’s secured 400,000+ album sales before it even releases.

For Swift the businesswoman, then, Reputation is probably exactly what it needed to be.

Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.

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