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Culture Cow: Finally… Taylor Swift releases her latest album

Happy Weekend! The whole world stopped turning, the lights went out, and the sirens rang out into the night… Taylor Swift finally dropped her new album, Reputation.  This album is her best to date and despite the frequent changes in style and producers, carries a singular narrative through every song.

Taylor shows her mastery of album structure and changes the listeners mood with a swift transition every song.  The unsung heroes of this album are undoubtedly the producers and co-writers.

Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff made as much of this album as Queen T and I’ll commend them for their work track by track.  This album is ripe with double-entendres, hidden meanings, meta 4h  wall breaks, and so much more.  To help you navigate the subtle genius of Reputation, below there is a track by track breakdown of how Taylor Swift reasserted herself as the greatest pop artist on the planet.

Ready for it?

When this song was released as a single a few weeks ago, I thought it was a sign Taylor Swift was about to fall off. It had a good beat and some textbook vocals from the Queen, but other than that, it sounded like a forced move into the EDM-fringe-pop that’s forever increasing in popularity.  That was before I saw it in the context of this album however.

Ready for it? is not only the opening track for T Swizzle herself, but also Max Martin and Shellback, the co-writers and producers.  The beat behind this song is pure EDM and even follows the popular “build to pre-chorus, break from original build, then drop the bass hard” blueprint of EDM songs.

Speaking of the pre-chorus, when Taylor breaks from the beat with stripped down vocals to sing “In the middle of the night,” it’s a clean break from the previous tempo, which provides not only a break from the increasing speed, but an opportunity for Martin and Shellback to drop the base even harder.

This is a method they use throughout the album and is best shown later in the album in This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.  The title itself is the first instance of Taylor breaking the fourth wall and speaking to her fans directly.  Before this album comes to a close, she’ll curse them, ask their permission to change, then scream that change into their faces whether they’re ready or not.  She’s honestly asking if we, the fans, are ready for her to go in this direction.  This song works better as the start of an album than a stand-alone single and kicks off Reputation on the right note.

End Game feat. Future and Ed Sheeran

Are rappers in T Swift songs a thing now?  As pop music moves closer and closer to EDM music, rappers will move closer and closer to EDM.  Rapping over up-tempo beats works better with the flow of the song than traditional ballads.  This could explain why there were more rappers than any other type of singer on Calvin Harris’s Beach Waves Vol. 1 and his various other singles.

That being said, it makes sense why T Swizzle would bring in Future and Ed Sheeran.  They’re non-traditional rappers and in this song…Taylor Swift raps too! It comes after the Ed Sheeran verse, which is the best part of the song, and further proves she’s trying to branch out to different styles of music while still keeping her recognizable love-song format.

This song comes off at first like it’s out of place, but this is the first instance of Taylor’s masterful control of the mood for this album and the continuity from one song to the next.  This song is the furthest away from her old style and comes right after she asks if we’re ready for it.  No coincidences…

I Did Something Bad

First things first… Taylor Swift said a cuss word!  All the mothers worried their children’s virgin ears will be tainted by the formerly “good girl Taylor” recoiled in horror.  Although it’s the third song in the album, it’s the first look at what the message of this album will be: change and her relationship to her fans and the media.

This song asserts her transformation and sheds the victim persona so many have criticized her for.  In the song, she brags about how she strings boys along and they beg her to stay in her life and enjoy the lavish lifestyle that comes with it.  She openly mocks the idea that the breakups the press cares so much about have any effect on her.  Taylor is no longer complaining that boys should “belong with me” and moved on to tell them if they spent her money “they had it coming.”

This is also Martin and Shellback’s first stand-alone collaboration with Taylor on the album and what an introduction they make.  This beat goes hard from the first note and keeps the tempo racing for the whole song.  They synthesize Taylor’s voice and transform it into the defining feature of the beat that will be stuck in your head long after the song ends.

The tempo of the beat and intensity of the drop pick the listener’s mood back up after a slow ending in Endgame once again showing Taylor’s knowledge of album mechanics and how mood changes from song to song.

Don’t Blame Me

The previous song ended with the line “I did something bad, but it felt so good” and the first lyric of the following track is “don’t blame, love made me crazy, if it don’t then you ain’t doing it right.”  Since there are no coincidences in life or Taylor Swift albums, this is yet another chance to marvel at her cleverness when composing this album.  In pop albums, it’s so easy to string together a series of singles that the artist hopes will make it on the charts, regardless of how they fit together in a larger setting like an album.

Taylor refutes that by creating a series of songs that are clearly distinct from each other, yet still carry the same narrative throughout the entirety of the project.  This narrative is like a long-form dialogue to her fans about why she wants to change her image and shed the bad “reputation” she’s gotten from her time as a kid’s star.  Don’t Blame Me is a direct response to the song that preceded it (which was a response to the song before that… catch the pattern?) and responds not only in words, but in yet another mood shift.

These shifts are important because they keep the listener engaged and on his/her toes, but because Taylor knows the more she differentiates her songs, the more chance she can re-release them as singles in the future, but more on that later.

Delicate

On the first listen, Delicate sounds like a light and easy Swift love song to some boy we can speculate on.  But, like so many songs on this album, it has a true meaning just below the surface.  Instead of some boy, imagine she’s singing to a stadium full of her young fans that are upset she’s growing up.  Of course there are lines that defy that metaphor like “you can pour me a drink” and the description of the mystery boy’s clothing, but the rest of the song could be poem to her young fanbase.

In this song she tries to reason with her fans with lines like “Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you’re in my head? ‘Cause I know that it’s delicate.” She’s literally asking her fans if they’re okay with her change and tells them she understands it’s a delicate subject, but it’s what’s really in her head and she must move on with her career.  She even plays an elongated “because I waaaaaaant you” in the background to really drive the point home.

Delicate also sounds the most like the old Taylor Swift, which is very much on purpose.  Taylor Swift knows how her music will be distributed and manipulates her tone and message to play to different audiences at different times.  This is evident with her tendency to drop singles of  albums over a year after she releases them and in who she’s targeting with this song.  Taylor knows parents will keep their kids from listening to the entire album, which is decidedly more provocative, so she uses a subdued, seemingly light, song to address her youngest fan base. Pop artists should take notes about how to trick their audiences from Queen T.

Look What You Made Me Do

Six weeks later and this song still goes.  Even though it’s definitely a single and direct shot at Kanye West, it still fits within the mood flow of the album.  For a longer review, check out CultureCow’s previous analysis.

So it Goes…

After 6 songs directed at the listener, So it Goes… is a breath of fresh air.  This is vintage Taylor with a new twist.  It’s a simple love song, except instead of the innocence-drenched ballads from before, she spices it up with plenty of sexual innuendoes and a banging beat.  This song doesn’t sound like it’s a breakout hit, but therein lies the marketing genius of Taylor Swift.

T Swizzy hides these hidden gems in her album so she can drop a music video over a year later and the song will go platinum (anyone remember Bad Blood?).  So while it might not sound like a number 1 hit, just remember this in two years when it’s the top of the charts.

Gorgeous

This song is dripping with satire and sarcasm.  Swift takes aim at artists like Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and Hailey Steinfeld that make whiney, pre-teen pop-love songs to boys that are either taken or not interested.  We’ve all heard these stupid songs that either thirst over a boy the singer can’t have or a single boy she’s too scared to approach.

The songs are really just vehicles for producers to drop a catchy hit and make some money off it.  Taylor directly calls out those artists with lines like “If you’ve got a girlfriend, I’m jealous of her. But if you’re single that’s honestly worse” and utterly ridiculous line “you make me so happy it turns back to sad.”  In the song, Swizzle plays childish games like talking to everyone in the room but him and touching his hand in the “darkened room.”

Blatant contradictions in the writing and childish games like these are how you know Taylor is being sarcastic.  Taylor uses this song to critique the pop music genre, especially the niche she dominates.  But just because it’s a satire, doesn’t mean Taylor doesn’t absolutely kill it.  She takes the meaningless poppy love song and turns it into one of the catchiest songs on the project.  This just shows Tay Tay is the best, even when she’s imitating the worst.

Getaway Car by Jack Antonoff feat. Taylor Swift

Getaway Car is as much Jack Antonoff’s song as it is Taylor Swifts.  Up until this point on the album, Antonoff was just a producer for Look What You Made Me Do, but he makes his presence known here and for the rest of the album.  Taylor’s voice seems far away at points and interacts with the beat in a more personal way than when she works with Martin and Shellback.

Rather than heavy builds to crazy drops, Antonoff prefers to subtly increase the tempo to create a congruent song structure and a smooth, yet invigorating, flow.  Besides what he does with the beat, Antonoff shows off his writing skills.  Getaway Car’s lyrics are clever, but not for their content, but actually the way the sound.  Each word was deliberately chosen because of the way the word will accentuate the beat behind it.  Take the second half of the first verse for example:

“X marks the spot, where we fell apart
He poisoned the well, I was lyin’ to myself
I knew it from the first old fashion, we were cursed
We never had a shotgun shot in the dark”

The first two lines end with an uptick in rhythm with a prominent constant (“p” in the former, “f” in the latter) to mimic the build in an EDM song.  The final line is the perfect premise to the drop because it picks up quickly in tempo and the alliteration in “shotgun shot in the dark” makes the words seem even faster than they are.  John Antonoff chose a hell of a song to introduce his style to the album.

King of My Heart

This is the last song with triumphant trifecta of Martin, Shellback, and Swift on Reputation and it perfectly summarizes what they accomplished throughout the project thus far.  While Taylor’s meta metaphors and intelligent song-writing shine throughout, this album is just as much a competition between producers.  King of My Heart is the last example of the EDM-influenced Martin/Shellback style in juxtaposition to Antonoff’s symphonic approach to music.

This “conversation” between the styles is one Taylor allows to happen.  I phrase it like that, because the first half of the song is devoted to the beat and Martin/Shellback’s contribution, but the tail end of the song is all Taylor.  She takes over and reasserts that even though these writers/producers have a heavy hand, this is still decidedly her album.  She does this throughout the album.

She lets the beats reign supreme early in the songs, only to hit the listener with a dope verse after what should’ve been the last chorus.  I would also be remiss not to mention the pre-chorus.  It outright states the Motown influence throughout the album and is probably the best pre-chorus in an album that’s relies on them heavily.

Dancing With Our Hands Tied

Welcome to the Jack Antonoff/Taylor Swift/Lorde part of the album.  At this point, it’s impossible to ignore the influence Lorde has had on the pop genre.  Scaled back vocals that place more emphasis on how the words interact with the beat rather than what they explicitly say is a hallmark for Lorde and makes for enchanting music.  This Lorde influence should come as no surprise when you find out Jack Antonoff co-wrote every song on her Melodrama album, released early this summer.

Melodrama was Lorde’s coming of age album, so Taylor made a wise move bringing Antonoff in on this project.  Along with a change in style, Taylor shifts back to her meta-infused addresses to her fans.  This song is a requiem of her career as an icon to the younger crowd.  She makes references to childlike lyrics with lines like “I could’ve spent forever with your hands in my pockets.  Picture of your face in an invisible locket.” But she laments at the same time that she knew it would never last and this change was inevitable.

This is evident by the second line of the song “25 years old, how were you to know,” a sarcastic dig at her critics that think she should never grow up.  “Dancing with our hands tied” is an oxymoron and a metaphor about Taylor’s inner confliction when she made songs for kids even if it wasn’t what she truly felt.  She misses “dancing” with her former audience, but acknowledges that she always knew this change was coming and her fans need to accept it.  It’s a great song to pair with Delicate earlier in the album.  Except unlike Delicate, this song is less of a question and more of a declaration.

Dress

“Say my name and everything just stops

I don’t want you like a best friend

Only bought this dress so you could take it off, take it off (ha, ha, ha)

Carve your name into my bedpost

Cause I don’t want you like a best friend

Only bought this dress so you could take it off, take it off (ha, ha, ha)”

The chorus to this song asserts Taylor is a grown woman and enjoys herself some sexy-time.  After everything the album has built up to, with baby steps along the way (cuss words, double-entendres), Taylor presents herself as a woman with grown-woman desires.

The high pitch vocals perfectly accompany the high chimes and underlying bells of the beat.  Dress and Lorde’s song Lourve could be played over each other and it’d be hard to tell the difference.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Taylor’s previous songs to her fans could also be a message to the media and all the bad press that spurned this album.  This song on the other hand, is a direct shot at the media and it’s incendiary.  It’s also one of her better stories on the album.  She begins the song by describing a crazy party that wrecks her whole house.  This is a reference to the fun she and her fans had early in her career when everyone loved her.

Then, much like the press she was getting, everything changed abruptly and things were ruined.  The entire song blasts the media for being hyporcritical.  They loved her when it made the kids happy and she stayed in her lane, but now she’s changing the party and the media is lashing out at her.  The title and chorus of this song place Taylor as the authoritative figure, scolding her child (the media) for breaking the bond she formed with her fans (a very nice thing indeed).

Remember all the way back at the beginning of the album (and this article) to the hidden secret these producers are using to make stark changes in tempo without changing the way Taylor sings that much.  They’re using a quick tapping noise behind the vocals at every point in the song except right before the drop.

The rapid tapping makes the slower parts of the song seem faster and the breaks between verse, build, and drop that much more effective.  The listener can’t place it, but they seem to know the pattern the chorus will take before it even finishes.  Tricks like these are what makes Martin, Shellback, and Antonoff the secret stars of this album.

Call it What You Want

Another great mood shift.  Keeping with the media bashing, Call it What You Want is T’s last big middle finger to the press.  Taylor really complains about the press she gets so much in this album, you could almost call it Presidential.  This time, she describes a fictional romance, but doesn’t name any defining feature of her lover.  His identity isn’t what’s important to the song, it’s that she has a romance and she doesn’t care what the media will call it.

If there’s one thing about Taylor Swift the press loves to blow out of proportion, it’s her failed relationships.  Every artist has a series of breakups that they draw inspiration from, the only difference with Swift is that she almost exclusively dates megastars and makes great songs after the eventual breakup.  This song is her call to the media to leave her love life alone and she’ll let them know the details when it’s all said and done.

New Years Day

This. Is. It.  This is the song the entire album has been leading up to.  Immediately it stands out as a completely different animal.  It’s an acoustic piece, featuring the guitar, piano, and stripped vocals.  It isn’t meta, it doesn’t call anyone out, it’s exactly what Taylor Swift thrives at: a love song.  It’s also decidedly more grown up than her previous work, however, without the bite of her other songs in the project.

This song tells the story of waking up after the party (the previous 14 songs) and picking up the pieces (her fans and the media’s broken spirits/hearts) and starting her life as adult artist.  Cleaning up after the party is the part that gets left out of the party song-mystique that comes with EDM music.

It becomes clear in this song that Taylor used this entire album as a preparation for her new style.  Her new style isn’t some baddy-Queen dressed in leather (although she can whip out that persona at any time as seen in her latest music videos).

Her new style is focused around her amazing voice and maturing attitude.  New Years Day is the slowest, best composed, heartfelt song on the album and it acts as a preview for what’s to come in the prime of Queen T’s career.  Reputation will be dropping singles for another year and a half and is one of the best “coming of age” albums of all time.  If the final track is any indicator of what’s to come, we might be looking at the most critically successful pop musician’s since Michael Jackson.

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