It’s been a little over a month since Taylor Swift’s Reputation was released to be purchased online or as a CD in tandem with a magazine at Target. Initially, I was asked by multiple people what I thought of the album, and I could never really give a cut-and-dry response, because my opinion was as varied as Taylor’s album itself.
Now, however, after listening to Reputation all the way through multiple times (probably more than 20 or so), I feel I can more accurately describe my opinion of it without hemming and hawing.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Taylor’s music, and when 1989 came out a few years back, it solidified my admiration and respect for an artist who simply knows what she’s doing when it comes to releasing an incredible collection of songs that are able to move another human being on multiple levels. She showed bravery, heart, spirit, and maturity in her songwriting, coupled with catchiness that hooked me for years. I absolutely loved it.
And even though the catchy hooks still exist on her newest record, I cannot say the same for Reputation. But hear me out on this, because it may not be for the reasons you might guess.
With her 2017 album release, Taylor has matured in multiple ways: as a creative lyricist, as a musician, as someone who is able to cleverly encapsulate her experiences and emotions, and as a marketing genius. She’s grown in nearly every way as an artist, with the exception of one key category that I believe to be the most important—the area of character.
There is one lyric on Reputation that pretty much sums up what I believe to be the theme of this album. It’s from the song This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things where she’s (probably?) talking about her strained on-again off-again friendship with Kanye West when she sings,
And here’s to you
‘Cause forgiveness is a nice thing to do—
[the music drops sharply, and Taylor laughs loudly]
I can’t even say it with a straight face.
Now, I’m not going to claim that I know anything about the details of this obviously spoiled relationship between her and Kanye (or maybe someone else?), but putting something like that in a song is an obvious statement to the millions of people who admire and listen to Swift’s music—including the young kids who are weaving their way through adolescence and struggling to figure out what friendships and relationships really are and how they should be handled when friction pops up. The message is this: if somebody wrongs you, vengeance is sweet and satisfying…don’t forgive, strike back.
Again, I don’t know how Taylor has been hurt, and I can certainly empathize with her plight because I am someone who has been lied to and hurt over many years by someone who was supposed to be close to me too. However, when you choose to literally laugh at the idea of forgiveness in a song on your album, it communicates something in a profound way: glory in your distain for people who have wronged you. And therein lies my assessment of Reputation’s lack of character. It seems like this album was written by an angry child.
It’s ironic. Musically and talent-wise, the album is a huge leap forward, yet in subject matter, it’s fifteen steps backward. The character and emotional maturity of an adolescent was written into an album made by a twenty-eight year-old woman who now has access to the liquor cabinet and any boy she wants to be with (alcohol use and sex now on full display in Reputation). And it trickles into nearly every song on the album. She even gloats in I Did Something Bad, “This is how the world works. You gotta leave before you get left.” I literally remember that mentality when I was in middle school—hurt before you get hurt, and that’ll protect you. Taylor says she does this (something bad), but it feels so good in the process…is this approach to life a way to showcase mature discernment for her listeners? Certainly not.
Instead of progressing onward into a more mature woman who is an obvious example of strength, femininity, courage, kindness, and warmth to so many, this album acts like the exact opposite of who she seems to be in real life. And that line of thought brings me to an inevitable theory: Is Reputation the real Taylor Swift?
Perhaps she would respond with, “Yes, it is the real me—a part of me that I’m representing through my music in the best way I know how.” Okay, I certainly understand her artistic expression. I mean, Taylor loves to live in the meta and make fun of herself before anyone can write or say anything about her that might represent her past choices. The ending of the Look What You Made Me Do music video does that nicely and with great humor, but it starts to make me think that in a year from now, she’ll be rolling her eyes at how she came off in this album and brushing it aside as, “Well, that’s just where I was in my life at the time.”
But was it really? And if so, at what cost?
Taylor is certainly allowed to feel hurt, angry, confused, conflicted, and vengeful, but she cannot forget that she is also an icon. What she does will inspire people whether she likes that about fame or not, and with that truth comes a significant amount of responsibility to be discerning on what she celebrates in her music.
There is a distinct difference between wrestling with a difficult issue in life, and praising that struggle in the context of your creative work for millions of people to hear. The average person won’t do a truckload of research to find out the backstory of every Taylor Swift song, but they will remember her sarcastic laugh at the end of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, the lyric “so I play them like a violin and make it look oh so easy” at the beginning of I Did Something Bad, and the boast of “all I think about is karma…I got mine, but you’ll all get yours” in Look What You Made Me Do.
They’ll hear it, and like a seed planted deep in the soil, the idea of vengeance and disgust for those who have wronged you will sprout up in the hearts of many young people, shaping them into cynical young men and women who laugh at the idea of forgiveness and revel in the jolt of electricity that comes with intentionally hurting an ex. It will breed hate instead of love. It will celebrate vengeance instead of forgiveness.
Thank God for the counter-cultural example we have in the steadfastness of a man who was betrayed by his friends, mocked by his enemies, and murdered publicly by a corrupt government, yet with his dying breath said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Praise God for Jesus Christ.
Let’s celebrate his example instead of the continued resounding clang of anger, resentment, spite, and mockery in our culture. Let’s celebrate and sing about character and integrity and depth in relationships.
I’ve seen the viral videos of all the kind and wonderful things Taylor Swift does for her fans, family, and friends. I know she’s an amazing person with deep character. I simply wish that would’ve come out in this year’s Reputation instead of the lyrical bitterness I’m hearing on the album. It’s another catchy collection of tunes that says something powerful. Unfortunately, that powerful message is one of cynicism at relationships and the world instead of something more bright and wholesome. Consequently, culture is taking a step backwards with this record instead of forward towards maturity.
I think it’s important to demand character out of our heroes, and Taylor is certainly a hero for many (myself included). I like the sound of Reputation, but what I’m hearing makes me grieve.