Reputation, Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, is not what you’d expect it to be. It’s not a vendetta album, a caustic cry for scores to be settled. It’s not an acceptance of villainy, in spite of the snake graphics posted on Instagram and sarcastic Easter eggs in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video. It’s not a takedown of Katy Perry; it’s not a rebuke of Kanye West (or at least, most of it’s not). It’s not a signal toward whose squad Swift was on in 2016, #TeamDonald or #TeamHillary, and it’s certainly not an explainer of staying apolitical in politically righteous times. Swift has not read your thinkpieces, or, if she has, she isn’t spilling a drop of acknowledgement.
The Reputation album artwork shows Swift’s face half-covered in headlines, her name tattooing her image ad nauseam. It’s a physical representation of a crappy year: in 2016, when her 1989 era had come to a close, various perceived missteps and minor scandals kept Swift’s name in the news long after her final tour date. “Look What You Made Me Do” starred the side of Swift that collected those headlines and nodded to the fact that they collectively torched the concept of “the old Taylor,” but Reputation’s lead single was a red herring, at least lyrically. Reputation is actually focused on the other half of Swift, the side of her that is untold and has existed outside of the tabloids. The album carries a vibe of “This is what was REALLY going on” amidst the narrative we think we know.
So what story does Reputation want to tell? A love story — and a complicated, grown-up one at that.
Swift uses her public faltering not as the primary subject of her latest album, but as the catalyst of its linear narrative; Reputation begins in a haze of frustration and anger, then ends with a sigh of affection. It is the inverse of Swift’s previous albums, so often full of sweeping romance and cartoonish exes begging to be exposed. For the most part, Reputation is a self-examination of Swift’s strengths and weaknesses — unlike a song like “Blank Space,” there’s little here that’s tongue-in-cheek — as well as a glimpse into the relationship that brought her peace.