Reputation was the biggest album of 2018. There’s absolutely no doubt in that. It is also the best selling album of 2017. There’s no doubt in that either. But ever since its release, the media and others have criticized it as being Swift’s biggest flop in her career. But is it really? The simple answer is no. But if we dive deeper into the undercurrents, perhaps we would see the essence of the album more clearly.
Fast backward three years, the release of 1989 was phenomenal. It was heralded as the most iconic, textbook example pop record of the 21st century. Through the sound and delivery, Swift created a world that mixes the vintage and modern, that’s both nostalgic and energetic. A world that places love, and more importantly, the courage to love, on a towering pedestal.
But the aftermath of the 1989 era was not pretty.
As the summer of 2016 unraveled, Swift’s “American Sweetheart” image shattered. Overnight, the media’s perception of her turned from the relatable country princess turned pop queen to a nasty snake suffering from victimhood complex. From Kanye West’s “Famous” (and its music video) to Kim Kardashian’s rapid fire attacks to the god awful breakup with Calvin Harris for songwriting credit claims to the rebound of Tom Hiddleston that lasted a total of 3 seconds, Swift’s reputation suffered and plummeted and crashed.
The friends she once had, or partied with, or went on the Victoria’s Secret runway with, or made music videos with turned against her. The media that once adored and supported her slandered her. The innocently misled public again showed their viciousness and flooded her social media with the snake emoji. And although it’s impossible for us outsiders to know what really happened underneath the drama, it’s undeniable that the happenstances of that summer seriously affected Swift and fueled the creation of this album.
As such, she took a one year break from releasing material, which was unprecedented to say the least and severely hampered her systematic release schedule. But then came Reputation, an introspective saga about the aftermath of the collapse of a pop queen’s impeccable reputation— the entire album feels more like Swift’s journey of making peace with the taint in her public image than a traditional love-pop album or diss album. She starts her journey with no sense of remorse whatsoever in I Did Something Bad and Don’t Blame Me:
But if he drops my name, then I owe him nothin'
And if he spends my change, then he had it comin'
Don't blame me, love made me crazy
If it doesn't, you ain't doin' it right
But gradually, that strength she feigns and desire for vengeance seems to fade away, as she scores a new love, a love that is delicate and pure, yet unbreakable by the rumors and defamation. The mid-album songs, such as Gorgeous, King of My Heart, and Dancing With Our Hands Tied, give off a 1989-ish sentiment regarding love, although presented with choppier and darker songwriting. Towards the end of the album, time and love together have been able to heal the scars left behind by the smearing criticisms. In This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Swift makes snarky remarks that point at specific people:
Friends don't try to trick you
Get you on the phone and mind-twist you
But I'm not the only friend you've lost lately
If only you weren't so shady
Through joking about the agony and injury of the past, she proves that she has grown, that she is indeed beyond the drama, that she has let it go like clouds blown away by the winter wind. Call It What You Want is the final statement that marks the attitude of the Reputation era. Her castle of friends that she used to fortify herself against her insecurities crumbled. Her unpreparedness in the fight forecasted her defeat. She lost her crown, yet in the end, she found something greater. She lost her impeccable reputation, but that’s alright, because she’s stronger now, and the media can really just call it what they want.
Sonically speaking, the album mixes elements that are indeed new to Taylor Swift albums, with a greater emphasis on electronic and hip-hop influences. Lyrically speaking, the album is as strong as ever, and Getaway Car is the prime example of that. The entire song tells such a vivid and convincing story of a love that was doomed to fail since its conception. The contrasting colors create an ominous atmosphere while the couplets forge a rhyme scheme that strongly aligns with the beat. The lines easily morph into visuals:
Well, he was runnin' after us, I was screamin’, "Go, go, go!"
But with three of us, honey, it's a sideshow
And my personal favorite part comes with the bridge:
I'm in a getaway car
I left you in a motel bar
Put the money in a bag and I stole the keys
That was the last time you ever saw me
She leaves him with no regret. Takes the money and the keys. Just like how she rode in the car, cried in the car, flew in the car, now she’ll leave in the car. With a light push on the gas pedal and she’s gone, leaving the dusts dancing behind the getaway car. The story is fateful, and brutally honest, the exact same brand of honesty in storytelling that serves as the hallmark of all her songs.
In the first half of the album, Swift discusses reputation and dreams of revenge in tracks shrouded with a dark, industrial voltage. Yet in the second half, she continues the iconic vibe of 1989 that pushes the passion of love to momentous heights. She climbed up the ruins of her wounded reputation, and then found salvation in love— that’s a concept that everyone can relate to. Thus, the listening experience is the audience’s journey, along with Swift, to find the exit to the pain and the gleaming sun of a newfound comfort.
Speaking of success, Reputation was a gigantic commercial success. In a world with streaming dominating the scene, Taylor Swift is one of the few artists that can sell a million copies in the first week. Aside from sales, the Reputation Stadium Tour grossed 345.7 million dollars, which is 100 million more than the 1989 World Tour with 50% less shows. Also making it the second highest per show gross in the history of concert tours. The production of the tour doubtlessly makes it the best of 2018, with marvelous performances from eras old and new, incredible choreography, and stunning stage design and fireworks. Without essentially any promotion, the fact that Reputation accomplished all of the above is absolutely phenomenal.
Overall, Reputation is an unmissable album from 2017, and I was rather speechless when it wasn’t nominated for Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammys, especially since it’s the first year of expanded nominations. In fact, similar to Speak Now, Reputation did not receive any General Field nominations, and like Red, it did not win a single Grammy. This might mean that Reputation is a flop according to Swift’s standards, or at least, the Old Taylor’s standards. I mean, remember how she went on to make 1989 to slap the Recording Academy in the face after her defeat with Red? But then again, the Old Taylor is dead, and perhaps she is simply tired of the massive routine promotional effort behind a Grammy run. With 10 Grammys in her pocket and gracefully marching into her late 20s, maybe what we are seeing is, in addition to a sincere reflection of a lost prestige, a growth and maturity signifying that she’s unbothered by cosmetics like these.
However, looking at the other nominees this year in the General Field, we are seeing a growing dominance of hip-hop. Whether this is due to the rise of streaming platforms or the Recording Academy’s attempt at "inclusivity," it’s undeniable that hip-hop is becoming the new “pop.” No matter how some dislike the new sound, or how the promotion is lacking, it’s hard to deny that Reputation is a successful pop record that totally deserves to be nominated, and entries like End Game and Delicate totally merit a nomination and even the award.
Or perhaps Reputation’s “flop” is a portrayal of a larger phenomenon: the decline of pop as a genre. A phenomenon that started with The Chainsmokers’ Closer, which marked the beginning a trend of mixing of EDM into pop that produced a series of forgettable releases and unexciting tunes that sound all too similar. Somewhere in there, pop lost its appeal. And with many of the major pop stars on hiatus, the necessity of the revival of pop is imminent.
In this sense, Taylor Swift is like a single-handed warrior that tries to save the waning pop scene besieged by hip-hop but is left aside. The road for pop will become narrower and more limited; an average hip-hop album might score good reception with the push of streaming platforms, but a high-quality pop record might not attain comparable success. In the coming years, pop stars will have to seek different sounds or bring something new to standout in the sea of mediocre hip-hop.