Reputation, Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, is a jarring combination of disparate sounds, petty disses, and her trademark candor. It’s also a sublime document — a weird, cacophonous album that feels like a product of the internet. It’s so packed with borrowed sounds and aggressive statements about the nature of modern celebrity that it becomes, on a grander level, the paragon of pop music’s twin dominating trends: it’s never been more omnivorous, it’s never been more dependent on personality.
Last year, writing about the back-to-back releases of Rihanna’s Anti and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Jamieson Cox pointed out that neither of these albums had any credible claim to genre beyond the one-woman cultural force behind them. “They throw genre to the wind and rely on their creators’ force of personality to hold everything together,” he wrote. “When you try to describe the sound of Lemonade or ANTI, you’re destined to end up referencing the artists who made them: ‘It sounds like Beyoncé. It sounds like Rihanna.’ Giving up and calling them ‘pop’ means acknowledging their ability to bend the mainstream to their will.”
This is Taylor Swift as the final panel of an expanding brain meme
Reputation is another collage in service of a personal brand. Swift’s album — coming a year later than her usual release schedule — is the final piece in a triptych of ultra-modern pop queen personal screeds. Ironically, she’s the only one who’s not doing anything country this time around, but she’s doing just about everything else. Reputation sounds less like Taylor Swift than it does a hybrid of popular music from the last 10 years, marrying dubstep with inadvisable dancehall mimicry, top 40 trap and top 40 pop-rock, Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” (an out-of-left-field sample you can imagine Swift thought might play well after watching her pal Selena Gomez pull a Talking Heads bass line and win critical adoration) and, particularly on the opening line of “Gorgeous,” the sardonic snarl that has done wonders for Lorde. Still, Swift is the one talking, and so it sounds like Swift.
Her trademark has always been the twin faces of confessional writing — the cynical, furious wronged and the woozy love-drunk optimist, and both are present on Reputation with even more aplomb than before.
She’s actually drunk for the first time on an album, bragging about the wine and old-fashioneds that made her do all kinds of racy or unsavory things. She’s flying “playboys” all around the world and not regretting it. She’s encouraging a band of the witch-hunters to literally light her on fire. “They say I did something bad,” she screeches, “then why’s it feel so good?”
This is Taylor Swift as filtered through the aesthetic of Suicide Squad; Taylor Swift as the final panel of an expanding brain meme. Seconds after slamming down what The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz aptly dubbed an Imagine Dragons rip-off, she gasps out “Delicate,” a synth-y swoon over a tropical beat, which in its most high-stakes moment demands nothing more dramatic than “You can make me a drink.” Somehow, that moment of — as Swift calls it — “chill,” is almost as jarring as her sudden interest in cyborgs. It’s impossible to say what the hell is going on.
What do you need liner notes for when you have the whole internet annotating your work?
On top of that, nothing on Reputation is as sly or as catchy an embrace of her media-concocted persona as 1989’s “Blank Space,” but at least half of the album is dedicated to the same type of “Is this what you want? Okay, I’ll give it to you,” attitude. Most of the album reads as a direct address to the blogosphere. “Call it what you want,” she says, sweetly, and “don’t blame me,” she warns, caustically. Even the love songs are almost exclusively about how to be in love when you’re also a famous person, hunted by the media and by “big enemies.” Ruthlessly unrelatable and fixated on concerns almost no other person on Earth has ever shared, Reputation is an album about celebrity by an indestructible pop culture pillar. It exists to sustain itself, persona and subject matter entirely indistinguishable.
Nevertheless, four days in, this is the best-selling album of 2017, and every song on the album has gotten radio play. It’s not available to stream yet, which means Swift nabbed these accomplishments the old-fashioned way. This, even though lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” was almost irreconcilably terrible and dropped down the Billboard charts faster than any single she’s released in years. Taylor Swift could have released a bucket of rusty nails and called it an album, and it would have done numbers. She is just that famous, and Reputation is both her worst album and the purest expression of her id.
It is an internet-inspired album, both in the way that it uses internet phrases like “this is why we can’t have nice things” and in the way that it land-grabs all available resources, messes them up, and stitches them into an exquisite corpse. It’s also internet-y in the sole formal way that it moves on from habit: this is the first Swift album without a widely distributed album insert.
Even her 2014 album 1989 was paired with a digital album booklet when you downloaded it in the iTunes store, carrying on Swift’s tradition of packing liner notes with riddles and flowery, confessional prose. Notes on Reputation from Swift herself are only available if you purchase a Target-exclusive hard copy with an accompanying magazine (which also comes with two of the most revoltingly smarmy poems ever committed to paper). But what do you need liner notes for when you have the whole internet annotating your work on Genius and Twitter and Tumblr and hundreds of blogs?
Swift is so famous that she can do whatever she wants and get exactly the same amount of attention as she would by following any other path. That doesn’t mean she’s doing things without reason. Reputation’s second track brings Swift together with two of entertainment blogging’s favorite bad guys: Ed Sheeran and Future. They’re controversial for vastly different reasons, sure, but for Swift’s purposes, all she needed was two dudes about whom she could say “Ooh, you and me we got big reputations,” and have it hold true.
I hesitate to ask anyone to listen to Ed Sheeran rapping, but I’m also struggling to think of a pop music moment more stupid-fun than Swift tripping over some ungainly percussion with her old fake Southern drawl — “we’d be a big conversation AHHHHH” — hamming it up like an utter spaz. She’s eons away from ever cultivating the curatorial eye that made her nemesis’ most recent album the boldest group effort of 2016, but it’s clear she’s paying attention to how and why people love an unexpected feature. She’s constantly online, even when she’s out of sight.
Reputation is both her worst album and the purest expression of her id
It’s clear too that she still hates Kanye West (she brings up the “receipts” he and Kim shared on Snapchat more than once), which is funny because he’s an appropriately corny, try-hard foe, perhaps her only equal when it comes to embodying both undeniable genius and unfathomable self-sabotage at the same time. Swift came out of the last round with West looking like the villain, and Reputation’s high points are when she takes that in stride instead of contorting around it.
She’s hammy — a ridiculous, over-the-top, drama nerd with an Elizabeth Taylor fascination — and she’s always been at her most fun when she’s in a vindictive mood. This was, after all, what made Taylor Swift a household name in the first place: “Tim McGraw,” her debut single, is sticky-sweet and cooed throughout, but the basic gist of it is “You better remember me until you die,” and if you boiled her self-titled 2006 debut down to one thesis statement it would be “I can’t make you love me, but I can make people ask if you still know me until it drives you insane.”
Anyone can write an okay love song. Anyone can lash out in spite. It takes a real weirdo to write a song like “Look What You Made Me Do,” a real compelling anti-heroine to make spite the driving force of her entire life, and one of the most duplicitous celebrity personas in living memory to put “I Did Something Bad” on the same album as the intimate domestic ballad “New Year’s Day.” We set a lot of stock in perceived authenticity these days, when deciding which celebrities to love and support. Personally, I find it kind of fun to have one last liar, but I’d understand how we got here even if I weren’t enjoying it so much. Online, everyone is always the best ever or the very worst, and Reputation is an album about existing at poles.
We twisted her around on the internet; we made her too famous to fail. We bought her album over 1 million times in its first weekend, even while mocking her Saturday Night Live performance, and we groaned at her horrible choreography even while smashing that pre-order button and adding a Reputation UPS truck to our Instagram stories. Taylor Swift is the modern celebrity we created and she’s the modern celebrity we deserve.