Taylor Swift’s latest album was released early on Friday morning. It follows months of her silence on the series of fickle celebrity dramas that confronted the singer in 2016. So, when the first sounds we hear on the album are of deep bass and a throat clearing, it becomes immediately clear that Swift is a woman with something to say, loudly. The album is, in a word, unapologetic.
The album centres around passionate, hopeful and failed romances, yet it is highly self-conscious and done in a very different way to her previous work: her focus is reasserting her agency when it comes to relationships, song-writing and her own reputation. Combining the ethereal romance of older hits like Wildest Dreams, with rap, techno and deep bass influences, the initial songs conform to and reject her own stereotype as a hopeless romantic. Lines like ‘let them think they saved me’ and ‘they’re burning all the witches’ in I Did Something Bad, directly challenge these gendered stereotypes.
Swift shows a renewed confidence in her own art, for which she has been so critiqued. The aggression of the songs makes a powerful (and dare-I-say feminist?) statement that Swift is, while promiscuous and sensitive about relationships, also the autonomous decider of her actions. She satirises her reputation for submission and playing the victim through lines like ‘I’m so very tame now’ in Ready for It?. She makes it clear that she is by no means weak purely by nature of being in love.
The album juxtaposes fierce declarations of power with explorations of tenderness and vulnerability, such as Delicate, forcing listeners to reassess their judgement of her as she refuses to conform to the sexist discourse that brackets her as a victim. Immediately after Delicate comes Look What You Made Me Do, a sharp contrast and an angry dig, which seems to be a direct refutation of the criticism in her frequent choice of love as a theme on the album.
The album regains its focus with a combination of seductive, romantic and playful tracks. Each song reveals in some way the singer’s awareness of her reputation, her self-consciousness. Getaway Car and Dancing with Our Hands Tied address facets of her celebrity profile and her sense of paranoia about threatening external forces. She masterfully interweaves a rebuttal of the negative press she has faced using her characteristic story-telling style, creating music that simply stands up for itself.
This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, like Look What You Made Me Do, is the second and last openly controversy-indulging song, reacting directly to her ongoing feud with Kanye West. The song rewrites the discourse surrounding them in her own terms, and is fantastically patronising. However, Swift, thankfully, closes the door on the subject with the final songs on the album: Call It What You Want and New Year’s Day. The latter is a piano ballad, and the only song on the album that doesn’t engage in the slightest with the themes of reputation or external judgement. It is a love song with no agenda other than a simple and touching ode to a lover, reminiscent of her older songs Last Kiss or Begin Again. As the finale, this is refreshing, and seems to mark the end of the conversation with the media that she has immersed herself in throughout the album. The album ends with a sense of turning a page, and a new indifference to reputation itself.
In Reputation, Swift radically challenges the media’s inability to imagine a woman writing about love as a powerful and creative individual. She subverts and reclaims her form, themes and reputation, from a culture that misread them. In doing so, Swift radically challenges the gendered stereotypes at play in pop culture.
– Katie Rivers
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