Back in November 2017, Billboard celebrated Taylor Swift’s singular pop catalog in the days leading up to the release of her sixth LP, Reputation, by asking five writers to argue for one of her five studio albums as her best. Now, before the release of her seventh album Lover, Billboard‘s Joe Lynch takes on Repuation itself, and how the album was misunderstood upon release but has since revealed itself to be her most mature, accomplished work to date.
You don’t really expect a Taylor Swift album to open with a fuzzy, fat bass line that nearly rumbles the teeth out of the back of your mouth. Which is why when her sixth album Reputation opened with the maximalist industrial pop of “…Ready For It?,” casual listeners were confused, Swifties were challenged, and haters were given a bounty of fresh ammo.
And that was exactly what she wanted.
When Reputation arrived in 2017, the media was neck-deep in an exhausting thinkpiece war about what Taylor Swift meant to pop culture – and Twitter was aflame debating whether she was a saint or a snake. Realizing she could no longer choose to be excluded from these narratives, Swift did the next best thing: She owned them. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, and by the time Reputation arrived, Swift was ready for real risks.
Think she’s a treacherous viper? Taylor’s not arguing with you — in fact, she’s hissing and poised to strike on lead single “Look What You Made Me Do.” Wanna call her a fake? Turn your eyes to album opener “…Ready For It?” for proof, where she slithers into the skin of Goth Taylor, fresh from a trip to Hot Topic. As if to double down on accusations of inauthenticity, she morphs into Trap Taylor on the album’s second track, “End Game.” Not only did Swift rap, but she invited soft-rock torchbearer Ed Sheeran to spit next to one of the genre’s guiding lights, Future. This wasn’t just a creative risk — it was Taylor giving harshest critics a hand-wrapped gift and daring them to come after her.
Of course, if Reputation had been one stylistic detour after another, it would leave you with whiplash. In truth, the album openers are sonic red herrings — the Old Taylor wasn’t quite as dead as she’d tell us on that lead single. Most of Reputation caters in reflective synth-pop that isn’t a far cry from 1989: the lilting “Delicate,” the coyly seductive “Dress” and the playful “Gorgeous” are far more representative of the overall LP. And while the tone is darker, the machine-precise hooks and indelible choruses from 1989 and Red return on Reputation, too. Are the peaks quite as high? If we’re talking karaoke sing-alongs and wedding dancefloors, no — the best cuts on those two K.O. Reputation‘s highlights. But while those albums are fixated on love and loss, Reputation sinks its teeth into something far more interesting: the thrill and purpose of an artist hellbent on freeing their mind from the expectations of others.
Admittedly, part of Reputation‘s genius lies in context — you need to know the public image battle that preceded it to fully appreciate the maturation Swift shows as a lyricist. While some bemoaned the loss of Swift the Poignant Couplet Composer starting with her shift to straight-up pop on 1989, the truth is that Swift’s deft turns of phrase never disappeared — it’s just that we’re preconditioned to privilege lyrics when they’re paired with acoustic guitars vs. synthesizers. Which is a shame, because on Reputation, Swift’s words deliver vivid Polaroid shots directly to your brain: “The ties were black, the lies were white”; “We can’t make any promises now, can we, babe? But you can make me a drink”; “I bury hatchets but I keep maps of where I put ’em”; and “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.”
More important than her pen remaining pointed, however, is the fact that for the first time on an album, Taylor sounds like an honest-to-god human. She’s been brilliant since Speak Now, but there’s a difference between intelligence and emotional intelligence. On Reputation, Swift has finally realized that being right or getting the last word isn’t the most important thing. You might be the messy one, the lost sheep, the sinner, the seducer. A real grownup can acknowledge that sometimes, they are the bad guy (a lesson Billie Eilish was clearly taking notes on throughout). And as long as that isn’t your entire existence, that’s fine.
When she gets deliciously petty on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” you don’t get the sense that she thinks it’s justified – but she’s relishing playing the part of an asshole for a minute (perhaps not coincidentally, that’s a role the song’s presumed target famously toasted back in 2010 when she was still concerned with presenting as Best In Class).
But the real crux of the album is found in “Gorgeous,” which sees a frisky Swift romanticizing her drunken attempt to cheat on her boyfriend because a dangerously attractive stranger has entered her field of vision. A stentorian moralist might lash her for abandoning the mantle of ‘immaculate princess’ in favor of becoming a tipsy twentysomething torn between cheating on her partner or cuddling her cats, but one is a hell of a lot more relatable than the other. She’s acknowledging that stumbling, both physically and morally, is part of life. Her motivations here are muddy and a little embarrassing — and never before had Taylor Swift sketched out such a fully-formed, fallible version of herself in a song.
And that’s what makes Reputation the most mature, fascinating and ultimately satisfying release from Swift so far. Prior to this album, you might describe her songwriting as “romantic,” “longing,” “poetic” — all wonderful things, but adjectives you could readily apply to many celebrated songwriters. Not so with Reputation. Here we have a top-tier talent embracing her contradictions, acknowledging her flaws and refusing to let you judge her. In terms of pop music, moral grey areas are rarely painted in such screaming color.