On November 10th, 2017, Taylor Swift released an album like nothing the world had heard from her before. A far cry from her clean-cut country days, reputation was enigmatic, glittering, and expansive. On the album’s lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do”, Swift leaves us an unapologetic voicemail: “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now… why? Because she’s dead!” However, with the “death” of the old Taylor, it seems that her dominance over the pop music sphere died, too.
Although reputation was 2017’s top-selling album, its cultural impact paled in the shadow of its predecessors, Fearless (2008), Red (2012), and 1989 (2014). While songs like “You Belong With Me”, “22”, and “Blank Space” have secured their legacy in the pop canon, none of reputation’s tracks have been able to match their level of widespread recognition.
However, 5 years later, it seems that reputation has re-entered today’s cultural conversation. Firstly, fans have growingly drawn comparisons from reputation to Swift’s latest album, Midnights (released 21 October 2022), noting their sonic and lyrical similarities. Secondly, as of 10 November 2022, Swift can now legally re-record reputation to regain ownership of its masters, as she has done with Fearless (Taylor’s Version) (2021) and Red (Taylor’s Version) (2021). In these conversations, there is a rejuvenated enthusiasm for reputation, suggesting that the album has a second chance at gaining the artistic appreciation it has always deserved. This newfound traction presents the perfect opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of (the often misunderstood) reputation and the devices that make it arguably Swift’s best album to date. I argue that reputation is everything fans love about Swift, but stepped up to the maximalist level. In the process, we’re awarded heightened musical contrast, wider thematic range, and more dramatic storytelling.
reputation’s initial reception was polarized, as Billboard’s Joe Lynch writes: “Casual listeners were confused, Swifties were challenged, and haters were given a bounty of fresh ammo.” Consequently, reputation was Swift’s second-lowest selling record to date.
One grievance that many had with reputation was that it “pandered” to hip-hop’s growing popularity. However, the truth is anything but. Swift pushing the musical envelope with a previously unexplored cross-genre landscape is a testament to her ability to embrace and synthesize the evolving sounds of the music industry into her own image. Leading up to reputation’s release, the charts were dominated by the likes of R&B, hip-hop, and trap. Swift and her producers absorbed the rhythmic complexities and distorted timbres of these genres and used them to give reputation a dramatic edge. Despite what critics say, the album’s choice of sonic backdrop isn’t a mere commercial decision to stay relevant; it’s an essential element to Swift’s storytelling as she chronicles her confrontation of the media and her long-overdue coming of age.
To explore darker narratives, you need bolder musical weapons in your arsenal. Swift’s favorite device for this? The massive, warbly “Reese bass”. This synth sound, pioneered by DJ-producer Kevin Saunderson, is often used for basslines. It modulates itself due to its waveform interactions, creating a dynamic texture that constantly changes. Its timbral instability reflects the sense of risk and uncertainty in reputation’s narrative, and we hear the Reese bass both in reputation’s climaxes, such as “I Did Something Bad” and “Don’t Blame Me”, and its most intimate moments, like “Dress” and “Call It What You Want”. Furthermore, on a recent episode of the podcast Switched On Pop, hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding identified the Reese bass’ “subterranean” sound as a mainstay of Swift’s latest record, Midnights. By sonically referencing reputation, Midnights is helping once-alienated listeners to gain a deeper appreciation of reputation’s sound world.
What truly sets reputation apart from the rest of Swift’s discography is its expressive range. No preceding or following album has managed to capture Swift at her most aggressive and vulnerable within the same space. However, the latter aspect seemed to be lost on many first-time listeners, likely due to reputation’s lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do”.
The track is self-indulgent and scathing, denouncing Swift’s high-profile enemies over a rattling trap beat and pizzicato hook that evokes your stereotypical movie villain, as reflected in the line, “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me; I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams”. It represents a definitive coming-of-age in Swift’s discography, slamming the door on the “old Taylor” who was too afraid to get her hands dirty with politics and industry drama. Still, some dismissed the gesture as inauthentic and unrelatable, and the song, although powerful, seemed to lack the musical imagination that Swift had previously demonstrated. Thus, listeners were left somewhat disappointed and, as Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield remarks, “many fans were dreading the idea of a whole album’s worth.”
However, “Look What You Made Me Do” turned out to be a sonic red herring. Its kitschy shock factor generated press and anticipation, but overshadowed reputation’s remarkable sonic and thematic breadth. Indeed, there are tracks with thumping bass-drops like “I Did Something Bad” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” that signify Swift shamelessly embracing her power as an antihero. However, reputation shows that there is just as much power in vulnerability as there is in aggression, which casual listeners miss.
In songs like “Delicate” and “New Year’s Day”, Swift openly shares her insecurities instead of letting the media tell her story. Anxious that her “reputation’s never been worse”, she asks her new lover, “Is it cool that I said all that?”, and begs them to “never become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere”. The music perfectly echoes these sentiments, with “Delicate” slow burning on stripped-back synths and “New Year’s Day” closing the album with a muted acoustic piano ballad. Swift has played different characters throughout her career, but here she brings us into her inner monologue for her most intimate and honest love songs to date.
But there’s more – reputation’s highlight track, “Getaway Car”, deserves its own category. Blurring fiction and real life, it describes a rebound relationship through the metaphor of a getaway car chase, fueled by Atlanta hip-hop hi-hats that race at a breakneck speed towards a futile end. From love to revenge to heartbreak to betrayal, reputation does it all, taking us to more exhilarating highs and soul-crushing lows than ever before.
Although reputation deserved wider recognition in the pop music world, perhaps its half-baked commercial success is its own musical success for fans of the album. Songs like “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” are well-written songs, but have become too overplayed in malls, taxis, or any public space for us to want to listen to them on our own anymore.
As Esquire’s Lauren Kranc elaborates, “[reputation’s] underrated-ness is part of the appeal, too. We still get Swift’s emblematic perfect pop song formula … but these songs are undervalued in the canon of Taylor Swift … a little lustier, a little dirtier than we’re used to.” reputation’s underground glory might not last for much longer, however. In addition to its upcoming re-recording and connections to Midnights, reputation recently resurfaced on TikTok, namely through its gospel-EDM fourth track, “Don’t Blame Me”. After its bridge section went viral, “Don’t Blame Me” was in Swift’s top five most popular songs on Spotify along with the likes of “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off”.
Furthermore, Swift is currently on her sixth headlining concert tour (the highest-grossing female tour in history), “The Eras Tour”, performing music from all her albums thus far. In the perfect storm for reputation’s comeback, we now ask: how will the dust settle? How will reputation’s legacy change in the coming years? While only time can tell, it is important to note that it is a rare privilege for an album to get second chances at recognition in the first place. Moreover, not all artists have the privilege to have an “Eras Tour”, or even let alone have eras at all.
Nonetheless, it remains important to celebrate reputation for everything it is: a glittering juggernaut of songwriting prowess that showcases Swift in the prime of her artistry. To this day, reputation is Swift’s most ambitious project, yet also her best-kept secret – but it won’t stay this way for long. Are you “…Ready For It?”