Taylor Swift’s Desire to Be Known in a Throwaway Culture: A Review of “Reputation”
Unfold the insert to Taylor Swift’s new album Reputation and you’ll see a black and white mugshot of Ms. Swift, as if she had been arrested and booked for a crime. Swift is 27, which is a bad year for musicians—Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse all died in their 27th year. Swift turns 28 on December 13th, so her chances of joining the 27 Club are slim, and so are her chances of getting arrested for that matter. But I am worried about Swift, at least if the 15 songs on Reputation are autobiographical. I’m not worried about Swift’s financial security, her pop star status, her ability to sell out football stadiums, or her business savvy, and no one should be. At those things she is an absolute master. But I am concerned about her, because if the songs she has written for this album are any indication, Swift is caught in the web of a throwaway culture, and she has the potential to pull a lot of other (young) people into it with her.
Pope Francis coined the term ‘throwaway culture’ in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si'. According to the Holy Father, the way we’ve been treating our environment is indicative of a deeper problem with humanity today. Rather than seeing the world and all of creation as a gift, we tend to use things, and once we are done using them, we turn them into rubbish; we throw them away. Francis writes, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are covered with rubbish” (LS, 21). This throwaway attitude is not limited to things like paper and aluminum cans, but it extends to the way that we treat our bodies, human relationships, and people in general. This throwaway condition that manifests itself in the material world is indicative of a deeper spiritual reality. And it’s within this context that Taylor Swift has given us Reputation.
Swift writes a prolegomena to the lyric booklet of her new album, which is artistically presented as a series of newspaper articles with the song titles as headlines. In the opening line of this introduction she writes, “We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them that they have chosen to show us.” Of course, Swift is right. She’s also right that “human beings are intrinsically impossible to simplify” and that different people know us in different ways. Swift mentions the kinds of relationships we might have with a friend, a lover, a roommate, a colleague, or a stranger as examples. She also offers a beautiful account of our universal desire for love (i.e., God) when explaining that we all hope for “Someone who will still choose us even when they see all the sides of the story, all the angles of the kaleidoscope that is you.” But in a throwaway culture, such people are hard to find, and so rather than living in harmony with God and creation, including our brothers and sisters, life becomes a game with winners and losers—everything becomes a competition, including human relationships. This is the context, then, within which I’ve been listening to Reputation.
Let’s just say from the start that Reputation is sonically rich. The production is pretty much flawless and the beats are intense, catchy, loopy, and full. This record will shake framed pictures off your wall and rattle any loose items in your car if you turn up the volume even slightly. Swift teased about her little rap on 1989’s “Shake It Off,” but her new record is more hip-hop than pop and her raps are pretty serious this time around. On “End Game” Swift sings/raps along with Future and Ed Sheeran about what I would describe as the antithesis of the throwaway culture: “I wanna be your end game/ I wanna be your first string/ I wanna be your A team/ I wanna be your end game/ End game.” The desire to be someone’s “end game” is the desire for a love that lasts, a love that endures, a love that does not fade away and will not be thrown away or “turned into rubbish,” in the words of Pope Francis.
In a throwaway culture, there is a real possibility that you might get thrown away too, so love becomes a game, a competition, which is the phenomenon on display throughout much of Reputation, but especially on “I Did Something Bad.” Swift sings, “So I play ‘em like a violin/ And I make it look so easy,” and “This is how the world works/ You gotta leave before you get left.” If Swift is describing the fallen world, she’s spot on, but the reality is that the world has been redeemed. God is not in competition with us and we don’t have to be in competition with God, the world, or each other. But that’s a hard thing to believe if you haven’t experienced it in your own life, which may be the case for Swift.
Another interesting thing about a throwaway culture is that it encourages us not to expect much of life and it teaches us to treat people as objects for our own use. On “Don’t Blame Me” Swift sings, “Lord Save me, my drug is my baby/ I’ll be using for the rest of my life” and a few lines later, “And toying with them older guys/ Just playthings for me to use.” (Italics mine.) If true love (unconditional love) isn’t real, then the best thing to do is to pretend, and there’s a lot of that on this album. On “So It Goes…” Swift describes her lover as a ‘magician’ and herself as his ‘illusionist.’ It’s as if Swift knows that the real, committed, lasting love that she her heart desires ought to be true, but she doesn’t believe that it actually it is true.
A good metaphor for the throwaway culture is a digital screen. The screen of your phone, tablet or laptop will show you an image for as long as you’d like to see it, then you can get rid of it with a swipe or click. Digital images have no permanence; they don’t last; they don’t endure. Yet we human beings all long for things that do last, that do endure, that do stand the test of time. We desire relationships that will last, beauty that won’t fade, love that stays committed, and friends that won’t leave us. Swift sings as much on “King of My Heart”: “You are the one I have been waiting for/ King of my heart, body and soul/ And all at once you’re all I want/ I’ll never let you go.” (It sounds like the hook of a praise & worship song.) But our culture has been formed by porn, where images of people are used for pleasure and then discarded. Millennials and members of iGen have been formed by SnapChat and Instagram stories that last for a few seconds or maybe a day and then disappear.
We live in a culture where children are thrown away before they are born, where the poor and marginalized are tossed aside like litter, and where sick and suffering people are legally put to sleep. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Swift has picked up on this ethos and that it has made its way into her music. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that the throwaway culture has influenced her understanding of sex, which has no connection to the possibility of life and is primarily focused on pleasure. There are subtle references to the film Fifty Shades of Grey on “Getaway Car” as well as the double entendre in the line “Knew it from the first/ Old fashioned we were cursed,” co-written by Jack Antonoff. (It’s worth noting that all the co-writers on Reputation are men.) Antonoff also co-wrote “Dress,” on which Swift sings, “Only bought this dress/ So you could take it off/ Carve your name into my bedpost/ ‘Cause I don’t want you like a best friend.” Interestingly, although she throws the dress off, she still desires something that lasts, hence, the carving of his name into her bedpost. But romantic encounters like the one described in “Dress” don’t last, even if a lover’s name were scratched into a bedpost.
So is there any hope on this record? Is there any redemption? Is it worth listening to? The answers to these questions are yes, no, and maybe.
The hope on Reputation is found in Swift’s inability to shake off her desire for real, lasting, unconditional love. In biblical terms, Swift wants to be ‘known’ (loved) and she wants to ‘know’ (love). She writes about her desire to have someone really know her in her prolegomena and she comes back with this theme over and over again on the record. On “New Year’s Day,” the last track on the album, Swift sings, “Please don’t ever become a stranger” and in the very last line concludes, “…you and me, forevermore.” So there is hope. And although Swift does long for redemption as we all do, whether we know it or not, it’s nowhere to be found on Reputation. I’m afraid that Swift believes that the throwaway culture is all there is, rather than understanding the throwaway culture to be a distortion God’s original plan for us to love and be loved. The best you’ll find on this record are coping methods for a throwaway culture, but there’s no real redemption here. (But Swift is only 27 and I’m sure she’ll be making music for a long time. So again, there is hope.) And as for whether or not it’s worth listening to, it’s doesn’t matter if you buy the album or not; you’ll be hearing songs off Reputation for the next two years. The beats are catchy, the hooks are big, and unless you live in a monastery, they’ll be hard to avoid.
Finally, I should mention that a priest friend—who is not hip at all when it comes to pop-culture—heard me listening to “Look What You Made Me Do” as I was prepping to write this review and said, “D, That sounds like that ‘I’m Too Sexy’ song from the 90s.” He’s right. And maybe you should listen just to hear the comparison for yourself. (Look what I made you do.)