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Taylor Swift Pushes Further Into Electro-Pop With 'Reputation'

Nov 13, 2017
Originally published on November 16, 2017 10:58 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Taylor Swift's new album, her sixth. It's called "Reputation." It's her first album since her 2014 album which was called "1989." "1989" represented Swift's move away from the country music genre where she started her career, and Ken says "Reputation" pushes her even further into pop music territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GETAWAY CAR")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) No, nothing good starts in a getaway car.

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) It was the best of times, the worst of crimes struck. I struck a match and blew your mind. But I didn't mean it, and you didn't see it. The ties were black. The lies were white and shades of gray in candlelight. I wanted to leave him. I needed a reason. X marks the spot where we fell apart.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The pulsing drumbeats, the surging keyboards, the distorted or multitracked vocals - Taylor Swift has relocated herself far from country music on her new album, "Reputation." Three years ago, she called "1989" her first official pop album. This one is her move into electronic dance music, and the EDM instrumentation and rhythms seem a comfortable framework for her songwriting. I like the way she makes synthesizers do the work of church organs on the gospel pop of "Don't Blame Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T BLAME ME")

SWIFT: (Singing) Don't blame me. Love made me crazy. If it doesn't, you ain't doing it right. Lord save me. My drug is my baby. I'll be using for the rest of my life. I been breaking hearts a long time and toying with all them older guys, just playthings for me to use. Something happened for the first time in the darkest little paradise, shaking, pacing. I just need you. For you, I would cross the line. I would waste my time. I would lose my mind. They say she's gone too far this time.

TUCKER: Swift remains a master at creating the sound of yearning, the push and pull of romantic attraction versus emotional conflict. She's working once again with some of the biggest pop hit maker producers - Jack Antonoff, Max Martin and Shellback. But listening to the music, you never think for a second that she has ceded control to them. There's a reason she's billed as executive producer above them. Listen to the way she makes her breathy vocal sound sure and strong as it surges around the melody of the gorgeous song called "Delicate."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELICATE")

SWIFT: (Singing) Dive bar on the East Side, where you at? Phone lights up my nightstand in the black. Come here. You can meet me in the back. Dark jeans and your Nikes - look at you. Oh, damn - never seen that color blue. Just think of the fun things we could do 'cause I like you. This ain't for the best. My reputation's never been worse. So you must like me for me. Yeah, I want you. We can't make any promises now, can we, babe? But you can make me a drink. Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you're in my head 'cause I know that it's delicate. Is it cool that I said all that?

TUCKER: Swift has a new song called "Gorgeous." The lyric presents her as a woman flirting with a guy while her boyfriend isn't looking, enjoying the kind of social privilege usually reserved in pop songs for men. "Gorgeous" finds swift half singing, half talking the verses only to break into a lovely falsetto croon on the chorus which has an irresistible bubblegum pop hook.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GORGEOUS")

SWIFT: (Singing) You should take it as a compliment that I got drunk and made fun of the way you talk. You should think about the consequence of your magnetic field being a little too strong. And I got a boyfriend. He's older than us. He's in the club doing I don't know what. You're so cool. It makes me hate you so much. I hate you so much. Whiskey on ice, sunset and vine - you've ruined my life by not being mine. You're so gorgeous. I can't say anything to your face.

TUCKER: One reason why Swift felt it necessary to move on from country music is that she found its myth of authenticity constraining for the size of her pop stardom. For a previous generation of confessional singer songwriters, this dilemma used to represent a crisis point, but Swift need not worry.

For her audience, the lyrics of a new song such as "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" may sound like a thinly veiled reference to her public arguments with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. It operates as a joke on the glory of success, and the song also works on a more straightforward level. I hear it as, sometimes friends betray you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS")

SWIFT: (Singing) It was so nice being friends again. There I was, giving you a second chance. But you stabbed me in the back while shaking my hand. And therein lies the issue. Friends don't try to trick you, get you on the phone and mind twist you. And so I took an axe to a mended fence. But I'm not the only friend you've lost lately. If only you weren't so shady. This is why we can't have nice things, darling.

TUCKER: The usual rap against the kind of electro-pop Swift is deploying here is that it can too easily sound chilly and distancing, robotic. This is the exact opposite of how Taylor Swift sounds on "Reputation." She comes across as eager with an enjoyable theatricality. She's found a way to echo the teen vulnerability that first brought her success while demonstrating how an adult can process those emotions with a control that does not negate passion.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Taylor Swift's new album "Reputation." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Dee Rees. She directed the new movie "Mudbound" about two families - one black, one white, both poor - in rural Mississippi just before, during and after World War II. Rees also wrote and directed the film "Pariah," which she says is based on what her life might have been like had she come out when she was 17 instead of in her 20s. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRESS")

SWIFT: (Singing) Our secret moments in a crowded room - they've got no idea about me and you. There is an indentation in the shape of you, made your mark on me, a golden tattoo. All of this silence and patience, pining in anticipation - my hands are shaking from holding back from you. All of this silence and patience, pining and desperately waiting - my hands are shaking from all this.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRESS")

SWIFT: (Singing) Take it off. Carve your name into my bedpost because I don't want you like a best friend. Only bought this dress so you could take it, take it off. Inescapable - I'm not even going to try. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.