Taylor Swift sounds like a pop star who isn't quite sure who she wants to be.
Taylor Swift sounds like a pop star who isn't quite sure who she wants to be.
Photo by Jack Gorman

Will the Real Taylor Swift Please Stand Up?

You will hear from many fans and critics that Taylor Swift’s latest soon-to-be-smash album, Reputation, is, relatively speaking, a failure. This isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, Reputation is probably Swift’s worst album, in that it feels somewhat cobbled together, as if Swift felt the time was right to make a new album but wasn’t entirely sure what exactly that album was to be. Counter this with previous releases like 1989 and Red, albums that knew exactly what they were, and the Taylor backlash is in full effect.

Some of this criticism is certainly fair. Reputation’s lead single, "Look What You Made Me Do," was rightly roasted upon its release. Subsequent singles haven’t gained the traction one might expect from any and all things Taylor Swift. In short, as noted music critic Rob Harvilla recently wrote, Reputation is a B-minus album that’s going to get labeled a D-minus album. Swift is a victim of her own success in this case, in that she’s always proven adept at mastering her musical sensibilities, whether she was rising through the country ranks or morphing into a full-blown pop star.

And therein lies the problem. Not content to just be (alongside Beyoncé) one of the two biggest pop stars in America, Swift, with Reputation, is taking aim at her next career move – that of a soul-laid-bare provocateur. Long gone is the fresh-faced starlet who sang of teardrops on her guitar, as is the goofy-yet-cool singer-songwriter who promised a recent ex they were never (ever) getting back together. Old Taylor is dead (Swift’s words), replaced by a more mature, hardened artist trying her hand at hip-hop and EDM music.

Only problem is, the transformation isn’t exactly going well, because Swift isn’t an artist suited to hip-hop and EDM. The shift feels forced, which considering Swift so effortlessly segued from country to pop, is a problem. It’s time to ask the question – does Taylor Swift have any idea who she wants to be?

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People of Swift’s ilk shouldn’t have to try so hard. She is a 6-foot-tall beauty, one beloved by millions of passionate fans. She is ridiculously talented and somehow underrated as a songwriter and musician; those talents have made her a millionaire in the process. And yet, she’s a try-hard of the highest order.

Swift, publicly at least, seems almost overly eager to please. She feigns surprise at awards show, odd, considering she’s won pretty much every award under the sun. She’s great with fans. Hell, she sent flowers to Cardi B when Cardi usurped her atop the Billboard Hot 100! And she makes music she feels is very much of the day and age in which we live.

To this point, that has worked well. She absolutely exploded onto the country scene by penning and performing personal tunes that resonated with notoriously diehard country fans. Once her career skyrocketed, she made the logical progression to pop star. And now, she’s taking a page out of the Britney Spears playbook and trying on her rebellious hat.

Taylor, however, is not Britney. The former is a wholesome folksy type who takes harmless digs at ex-boyfriends and pens songs that are inherently cheesy but endearing because they were designed to be inherently cheesy. She’s kind of a nerd, inasmuch as a charming multimillionaire can be nerdy. The latter, meanwhile, was a sex symbol who played the part of bad girl better than any pop star since Madonna.

Just as you will hear (inaccurately) that Reputation is a bad album, you will also hear in coming days that Swift’s career is on the decline. We’ve seen her best; time to make way for something new. This, too, is inaccurate. Pop stars have misfires. Britney had them, so did Madonna. Adele has yet to have one, but then again, Adele has mastered her particular pop niche and seems content to stay in that particular lane. And now, Swift is getting her first taste of public backlash. It’s far from irreparable.

Best guess? Swift embarks on a massive worldwide tour (the first leg of which, including a date in Houston next September, has already been announced). She takes a little time away and re-emerges with a more pop-themed sound. She might even go back to her country roots. Either way, this relative dose of humility may end up being a blessing in disguise. As they say, true character is revealed in times of trial.

Until then, simply enjoy Reputation for what it is, the result of an artist who took a chance and didn’t quite get there. There are bright spots in the album, most notably the closing “New Year’s Day.” If anything, perhaps Reputation will get the Sam’s Town treatment and be revisited as some kind of forgotten classic a decade down the line.

Taylor Swift tried to be everything to everyone, a feat of which no one is capable. After all, if you attempt to be everything, are you anything at all?

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