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REPUTATION, UNRAVELED

Taylor Swift has spent the last dozen years as one of the world’s most recognizable (and tracked) women. Yes, woman; not girl. At 27, the coltish blond has arrived at a crossroads where ubiquity’s drawbacks are as troublesome as the frozen-in-time state of permanent girlhood that’s been thrust upon her.

In spite of the much-discussed teaser campaign, early tracks and heavily deconstructed videos, reputation stands as a song cycle of self-ownership, foibles especially, and cutting one’s reality down to size. Like Pinocchio who yearns to be a real boy, Swift seems to have grown weary of fame’s trappings and now wishes to have a smaller life, a truer connection with whomever her companions might be and less of the blinding glare that comes with a bold-faced existence.

As “Call It What You Want” suggests, Swift made a decision to let the drama push back, to embrace the wreckage people deny and find the life she wants. Over a machined beat and quiet production, she ruminates, confesses and moves towards a happiness less about competing and more about private victories.

Not to say she’s relinquished her right to stand up for herself. The buzzy “…Ready for It?,” with its scratchy punctuations, staccato vocals and a lurching groove, is a hunter-captured-or-taunted-by-the-game that’s juxtaposed by a bridge of dreamy, creamy introspection. Is the song about a siren toying with a playboy? Or a young woman bedazzled and having erotic fantasies? Perhaps something in between? Ooooh, Taylor.

If she’s been coy and angry, reputation finds Swift pre-, post- and quite possibly coital, as well as actually drinking. If you get past the notion of the good/geek girl who’s existed hand-in-hand with her young goddess reality, she’s actually 27. Not engaging in these behaviors, especially with the level of life success she’s created, would suggest something’s slightly off.

Rather than obsessively viewing these 15 songs as memoir, consider them a universal hymnal of young women evolving. If “End Game”—featuring Future and Ed Sheeran—recognizes and plays cads at their own game, preferring the chase to the being used and discarded, “I Did Something Bad” spikes the exhilaration of standing up. Mess with Taylor, charming Lotharios, and endure the consequences! Testing limits, figuring the score, acting as you see fit instead of bowing to the expectations of how good girls act; these songs embody the realities of ownership. Again, at 27, Swift sees no other way. Nor should she.

But it’s also more complicated. On the gentle “Delicate,” Swift balances between unspoken desire and expression, knowing things that move too fast often falter, yet wanting to know. If not taking charge, she’s actively present, not passively riding momentum and fretting. To engage, it seems, is just the beginning.


“Dress” recalls Parade-era Prince. Swift admits the dress is for the guy to take off. Again addressing desire, she creates a small-scale frisson of deeper connection versus the produced romance fantasies.

Even on “Gorgeous”—where conflicted emotions sets the stage—she’s seen showing up and being honest about attraction. How hard that can be, and yet, how often do most of us deny? Here, it is laid out and lures us in. And then with “Dancing With Our Hands Tied”—where she confesses, “darling, you had turned my bed into a sacred oasis”—she follows suit, acknowledging the path is seldom clear; you can want and act, but it’s not always simple. Gossip, fear and bad days must be navigated; only then can one arrive at real intimacy.

Acknowledging this complication is part of the maturation of Taylor Swift. As is the unadorned candor of her writing. Musically, too, there’s a ripeness to the tracks. Though, again enlisting Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff, she presses them to relinquish their signature tricks to create something cohesive from track to track—also to give the songs more room for the emotion to exist between the notes.

Yes, of course, there is the big-production Taylor. “That’s Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” bookends “Look What You Made Me Do” as its silkier cousin, but still considers the beefs, the tantrums, the tabloid moments as impediments to the life she wishes for beyond social media.

These are not easy things: the glamour and slickness of production is its own narcotic, but as a girl raised on country songwriting, she recognizes “songs” can be devices for production tricks. This feels like an attempt to deliver songs that work stripped down as well as tarted up with loops, triggers, samples and whatever else dazzles.

That starkness leaves the vividly detailed “New Year’s Day” as a hushed coda after the entire cycle’s played out. With a tumble of piano notes, Swift emerges from the aftermath of a party, settled and seeking solace with “the one.” It’s not grand declarations, nor surging arrangements, that hold the song to terre firme; instead, it is the idea of staying (“When it’s hard, or wrong, or we’re making mistakes, I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day”) that anchors the future.

Subtler than much of her canon, reputation is polished without being glossy. Restraint may be too strong a word, but a definite sense, even with the turbo/techno challenge of “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Ready For It,” emerges that intimacy (between the subjects, but also for the listeners) was the goal. In a career of girl power anthems, sweeping ballads and mid-tempos that rush up and whirl you, sinking into these songs is where the rewards exist. Listen, drift and feel—and for some of us, remember—what owning your worth, your life, your destiny is made of.

It’s not simple stuff. But by stripping things down instead of yielding to the temptation for steroid overload, and by embracing the silvery, feather-light part of her voice, what is complicated has room to unfurl. Coming to those intricacies without fighting through bombast, accelerated rhythms and myriad layers, the listener sees their own truth, moments of self-determination and lust, possibly even yielding new realizations.

Can a pop record do all that? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a way to surrender to the places young people explore, and the rest of us too easily forget. If not destined for spin class, reputation is destined for red wine and a time to unwind all the knots and clots of expectation.

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