Taylor Swift has changed for the worse on Reputation

On Look What You Made Me Do, the first single from her new album, Taylor Swift declares the “old Taylor” dead. So who is Taylor Swift now? Based on Reputation, she’s mean, entitled, obsessive and certainly jaded. If the old Taylor was the cute nerdy girl with blonde ringlets and oversized plastic glasses in You Belong With Me, the new Taylor is the popular girl she used to sing about: “She wears high heels / I wear sneakers / She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.”

On her sixth album, the country-turned-pop-star dives deeper into the synthesized, industrial pop sounds she established on her last album, 1989. But whereas those songs had a more upbeat and commercial feel, the 15 tracks on Reputation feel like a final and complete rejection of her pop-country roots, incorporating dubstep, R&B and harder-edged styles of EDM into the mix.

Of course Swift ditched country music long ago, but fans grew with her. It started on 2012’s Red and followed on the fully pop 1989, where she traded her acoustic guitar and banjo for synthesizers, and started to straighten her hair and befriend supermodels. It wasn’t just an image makeover – you could hear the change in her music. Now, her newest batch of songs feel overly done up and superficial, with squeaky synths and drum machine beats fabricated for the club. Her once-dulcet vocals have degenerated into a toneless speak-sing that doesn’t quite qualify as rap.

Opening track …Ready For It? begins dramatically with three pulsating tones in a style that recalls Kanye West’s Black Skinhead. Considering how she lost a social media showdown with him and his wife, Kim Kardashian West, last year, it feels like more than a coincidence. While it’s not exactly a Yeezy dis track, Swift is certainly standing her ground with lines like “I see nothing better, I keep him forever / Like a vendetta-ta,” followed later by “Baby, let the games begin.” She over-enunciates her words and half-raps unconvincingly. An air of confidence comes through more strongly than on previous outings, but she also sounds entitled and spiteful. 

The songs that follow don’t sway from this path. In fact, Swift’s convictions get even more intense. On power-pop anthem End Game (featuring rapper Future and Ed Sheeran), Swift fixates on her “big reputation” and what’s at stake when drama inevitably finds her. I Did Something Bad opens with the line “I never trust a narcissist but they love me,” before admitting that she’s always one step ahead of everyone trying to bring her down. If this is Swift’s new world view, it’s a destructive, unsympathetic and ugly one.

Preserving her reputation comes up again on electro-pop banger Look What You Made Me Do, one of six songs produced by Jack Antonoff. Swedish super-producer Max Martin, who’s produced a number of Swift’s poppiest hits (Shake It Off, Bad Blood), co-wrote and produced the remaining songs, including Delicate, a throwback to the 80s-inspired synth sounds of 1989 and one of the few times Swift reveals any vulnerability, which used to be her strength.

There’s nothing wrong with pop artists growing and evolving, changing their sound, their image and what they stand for. Rihanna, for example, has gone from carefree island girl to bold, gives-zero-fucks boss bitch. She’s traded reggae for the same EDM sounds that Swift favours here (in fact Swift co-wrote Rihanna’s 2016 smash Calvin Harris collaboration, This Is What You Came For) and yet never had to kill the “old Rihanna” for fans to embrace her. 

Throughout Reputation, Swift’s desire to sound self-assured comes across as vindictive. She’s still worried about what the guy thinks of her, what people are saying about her and, clearly, her reputation. Swift might have transformed into the popular girl, but by all accounts, she’s still stuck in high school. Unfortunately for her, many fans are over it.

Top track: Delicate 

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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