Kanye West’s a heck of a guy. To blame the downward-spiral of the very talented Taylor Swift’s career and her degeneration to whatever one calls Reputation (‘selling out’ makes you wonder who she’s really selling out to and change-of-direction implies individual taste and preference that went into this which is just ugh) on Kanye West’s now hilarious and rather adorable interruption of her VMA acceptance speech and the chain reaction that that event triggered is to perhaps give West as much credit as he wants (which, as a rule of thumb, is always much more than necessary). But it makes me deeply uncomfortable to blame anyone other than Swift herself for this. Even Kanye West.
But, old Kanye-new Kanye. Old Taylor-new Taylor. Kanye’s new epoch is a nebulous thing. Post Pablo? Post Yeezus? Who knows. Who’s supposed to know. But with Taylor, this is where her discography shall now be cleft into two. The bisection starts here. The Old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Because she’s dead.
She seemed like such a fascinating artist, though. I was just listening to Speak Now. What a great album. Happier times, for sure. Until you realize they sorta weren’t. This was 2010.
2010. The year of Ke$ha’s Tik Tok. The Black Eyed Peas were a thing. Pitbull was a thing. Jason Derulo was a thing. Owl City’s Fire ‘The Whitest Song on Earth’ Flies was a thing. The DJ got us falling in love again, that year. This was not a year of quality music all around the board. If you look at what most publications considered the best albums of the year, the only properly big, commercial record on that list would be, ironically enough, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which was apparently his attempt to get to grips with the bad PR the VMA incident generated. Which is not to say that BDTF isn’t a great album. It is. But we didn’t really have Kendrick Lamar and 2017 Beyonce back then. We had The Black Eyed Peas and Owl City on one side and Vampire Weekend, Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom and LCD Soundsystem (who?) on the other.
In this commercially bleak, mostly indie world, Taylor Swift made a mostly excellent record everyone seems to have overlooked.
I shall also remind you that if you were a kid, this was the general era of Disney Channel. You listened to Hannah Montana and early Justin Beiber. Ooh, and the Jonas Brothers. All of them grudgingly or otherwise. Taylor Swift wanted to leave the club around then, I think. But she did her break in a far more subtle, graceful fashion than her contemporaries. At least, up till Reputation. Speak Now in some ways reflects the start of that break. It’s delightfully unsure of itself. Is it piano-pop? Is it pop-rock? Is it guitar pop? How much country should it be? Can she ditch the country altogether? The answer to everything is yes.
The countryest song is probably that powerful liberation anthem Mean which is so clever because it’s about how she’ll eventually outgrow the ‘limitations of her roots’ and be ‘livin’ in a big ‘ole city’. And the bumpkin who wanted to hold her back is none other than Kanye West. Dressing this song about Kanye West (who probably embodies big city better than anyone else could) not letting a poor little country-girl enjoy her big break as a country banjo-rollicker about some uncouth alcoholic degenerate holding her back from the big city is deliberate genius.
There’s a lot of strings which is interesting because the other big album that experimented with orchestral instrumentation that year was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Sometimes the strings are a bit much, like in Back To December where the pared down acoustic version is much better than the official recording.
But sometimes she’s very subtle with the strings like in Enchanted. This is a great song for several reasons (please don’t be in love with someone else) but I will point out a specifically great part. If you listen to the song, at around 1:55, when she’s launching into the first chorus and she sings ‘meet’, you can hear what is either a slide along a single string on a distorted electric guitar or a synthesizer with the pitch bent forwards on that single note in the background. Whatever it is, that is the sound of Disney Channel pop, distilled. Later, around 5:08, the same sound is played, but this time along with a violin. Nothing could represent a transition from kiddy-pop to grown up music better than that.
Dear John is interesting, given who the target of her ire is. The ethics of addressing these songs to specific people by almost spelling out who they are so as to essentially drop fuel into the fires of the press aside, if you’re going to write a breakup song about John Mayer, this is how you do it. I have never appreciated production in a pop-album more than Dear John. Just listen to Slow Dancing in a Burning Room . Dear John mimics sappy John Mayer better than he can mimic himself while being a perfectly credible Taylor Swift song at the same time. That little slide-bottle guitar between the verses. The electric guitar riffs that threaten to choke out the words, the way Mayer…er…yeah. The conclusion to the song is gorgeously anthemic.
She wrote all these songs herself. Which is amazing. No Ed Sheeran. No features from Future. Nathan Chapman, who produced all her previous albums, doesn’t return on Reputation and his loss is felt. There was a folk-beauty to every one of those albums, however pop they became.
I think that had something to do with the writing. The little things nobody else would even think to include in a song meant a lot in a Taylor Swift song. There’s that ‘you wish it was me, don’t you?’ in the eponymous Speak Now which reveals so much about how tongue-in-cheek the whole song is. Red isn’t nearly as good as Speak Now, but even there, you have moments like ‘indie-record that’s much cooler than mine’ from We Are Never Getting Back Together.Then there’s 1989′s ‘I’ve been there too a few times’.
I hope Old Taylor really isn’t dead. New Kanye’s weird but he’s still interesting. New Taylor isn’t. I wanted to do a solid comparison with Reputation but that would involve listening to it more than once and I don’t think I can. Its music is grating and without any of the grace that seemed to come so easy to Swift in the past. Other than hardcore fans, who is this record for? Disney Channel kids don’t exits anymore. Fourteen year-olds are weaned on Khalid and Halsey and other indie-pop/neo-R&B artists or at the very least, Sheeran. Those people from 2010 aren’t things anymore. So why did she make an album that seems to belong to 2010 better than Speak Now ever did? Is Reputation some sick, dark way of getting back at the world for some sort of artistic neglect? Is this payback for caring more about whose bed Swift shared than the quality of her music?
If it is, I truly am very sorry. I think the world could use some ‘hey Stephen I can give you fifty reasons why I should be the one you choose. Well, those other girls, they’re beautiful. But would they write a song for you?