Kitty Em­pire on Tay­lor Swift’s new al­bum and Fa­ther John Misty live

Tay­lor Swift’s love life and squab­bles take cen­tre stage on a riv­et­ing R&B set that car­ries her even fur­ther from her coun­try roots

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By now, any self-styled grownup who still be­lieves pop mu­sic is “just” pop mu­sic will be thor­oughly dis­abused of the no­tion. Tay­lor Swift’s sixth stu­dio al­bum, Rep­u­ta­tion , is a riv­et­ing record, whose re­lease is hard to ex­tri­cate from the con­text into which it drops.

Fif­teen tracks long, and with songs that range from for­get­table to ex­quis­ite, it is con­cerned with lust, loss and re­venge. Tan­gen­tially, it takes in gen­der and power. As much as Rep­u­ta­tion seeks to duck the con­ver­sa­tion, it is an al­bum in which vic­tim­hood, white priv­i­lege and free­dom of speech loom large.

The con­text sings es­pe­cially loudly, be­cause on the eve of this re­lease, Swift has been un­der fire for is­su­ing a writ against a mi­nor mu­sic blog­ger who crit­i­cised her for not dis­own­ing the far-rightwingers in her fan­base. (From the Swift per­spec­tive, the blog­ger did com­pare her to Hitler.) It is the lat­est twist in a wider con­tro­versy about her clout – Swift, net worth es­ti­mated at $280m, stands ac­cused of bul­ly­ing the blog­ger, who has called in the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union – and the na­ture of si­lence. In choos­ing not to en­gage with pol­i­tics Swift has been ac­cused of every­thing from col­lu­sion to lux­u­ri­at­ing in white priv­i­lege.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Rep­u­ta­tion doesn’t in­tro­duce a new, woke Tay­lor. If you sub­tract the zeit­geist, Swift’s core busi­ness re­mains cop­per-plated. Pas­sion is Swift’s life’s work – re­sult­ing in mas­ter­classes such as Dress, where she con­fesses she “only bought this dress so you can take it off ”. Like its most re­cent pre­de­ces­sors, Rep­u­ta­tion is a ro­man à clef that begs the lis­tener to de­code which kiss-and-tell re­lates to which A-list for­mer beau. With its ravey EDM cho­rus, Danc­ing With Our Hands Tied hints mu­si­cally at Swift’s re­la­tion­ship with Calvin Har­ris.

Gos­sips will seize on Get­away Car, a two-for-one bo­nanza that ap­pears to re­lay how Swift’s re­la­tion­ship with Har­ris ended when she danced with Tom Hid­dle­ston. “I wanted to leave him, I needed a rea­son,” Swift con­fides. Less ob­vi­ous is the song’s nu­anced med­i­ta­tion on how no one comes out of this well – in­clud­ing Swift. “Us traitors never win,” she muses.

A hand­ful of songs ad­dress the head­lines. The ex­cel­lent Call It What You Want tack­les Swift’s rep­u­ta­tional woes head-on and her dis­may at a nar­ra­tive that ran away with her. “My cas­tle crum­bled overnight,” she sings, “I brought a knife to a gun­fight.” The defin­ing story of her last few years has not been her ro­mances, but Swift’s bat­tle with Kanye West, one too lengthy to re­hearse here.

Re­leased as a sin­gle in Au­gust, Look What You Made Me Do sought to take the long-run­ning fight back to West by declar­ing the old Tay­lor dead and a new, venge­ful pop/R&B Valkyrie in her place.

An­other track, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, also ap­pears ad­dressed to West. “You stabbed me in the back while shak­ing my hand,” Swift snarls; fur­ther lyrics point once again to some­one who “got her on the phone” and “mind-twisted” her.

On the one hand, West’s treat­ment of Swift has been sex­ist and bul­ly­ing. On the other, West had an orig­i­nal point about how the awards cer­e­monies tend to re­ward white per­form­ers dis­pro­por­tion­ately. The saga has ended up in a re­gret­table bind, in which hi­er­ar­chies of vic­tim­hood are be­ing fought out in a big­ger bat­tle­ground where race touches every­thing.

More­over, …Nice Things is a great Swif­tian chant-along, whose one-note play­ground taunt style has moved to­wards a more ur­ban pal­ette. Af­ter swap­ping coun­try for main­stream pop, Swift’s more re­cent em­brace of elec­tronic and R&B tropes is now de­fin­i­tive. Nicey-nicey pop Tay­lor is dead, Rep­u­ta­tion de­clares; in her place is a colder pop-R&B player. It’s not just Kanye in her sights – the steely (and ex­cel­lent) I Did Some­thing Bad sets Swift up as a gla­cial ma­nip­u­la­tor of men. It also fea­tures what could be her first-ever swear: “If a man talks shit/ Then I owe him noth­ing.”

This tonal shift is not easy to un­pack. In nod­ding to R&B ca­dences, is Swift guilty of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, as Mi­ley Cyrus was circa 2013’s Bangerz ? Does this make Swift more, or less, of a hate fig­ure to ob­servers who are fu­ri­ous about Swift’s re­luc­tance to de­nounce racists? Should Swift have stepped out of her sig­na­ture sound to sound like ev­ery­one else? The ar­gu­ment is com­pli­cated by the fact that the song that fea­tures Fu­ture as a guest rap­per – End Game – isn’t very good, and cer­tainly not a patch on the remix of Bad Blood on which Ken­drick La­mar guested (2015).

If times were sim­pler, pas­sion could re­ally be Swift’s life’s work. Our times are not that sim­ple, how­ever. Roll on an al­bum of duets with Bey­oncé.

Kitty Em­pire re­views Fa­ther John Misty live, page 28

The great Call It What You Want tack­les her woes head-on and her dis­may at a nar­ra­tive that ran away with her

Mert & Mar­cus

Tay­lor Swift: ‘nicey-nicey pop Tay­lor is dead’.

Tay­lor Swift Rep­u­ta­tion (BIG MA­CHINE)

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