Music enters our airspace in mysterious ways. Sometimes it rains down from heaven like your favorite candy. Sometimes it floats into your life like a bad smell of unknown provenance. Sometimes you have to chase after it, and sometimes you have to go dig it up.
In 2017, a new Taylor Swift album arrives like a life sentence, or maybe like a president you didn't vote for. Even if you want nothing to do with this stuff, its ubiquity is a foregone conclusion. These songs are en route to everywhere, and we're about to get quite intimate with one another. So let's take a deep breath, because at this point, Swift's level of hyper-fame has torqued our expectations of what pop is supposed to do: When a song instantly looms so large in our lives, it no longer has the responsibility of reflecting how we live.
Maybe that's why people's brains start to melt whenever Swift keeps mum on the burning social media issue of the hour, or when she fails to publicly disavow all of those white supremacists who think she's neato. From behind the vacuum seal of her personal world, she doesn't have to care about ours. And that's the most crazy-making thing about Swift's sixth album, “Reputation” – it sounds so similar to everything else floating around on the radio right now. Taylor Swift just wants to fit in.
As bleak of a goal as that might be for a pop album of this magnitude, tah-dah, she aces it. “Reputation” contains 15 meticulously constructed ditties about living in the romantic simmer of your late 20s, where the melodies are easy to listen to and the lyrics are even easier to understand. Swift treats ambiguity as if it's an allergen, and few of these songs move in unexpected directions – save for “Look What You Made Me Do,” an atrociously haphazard lead single about her ancient beef with Kanye West during which she declares that “the old Taylor” is “dead.” She's not, though. Here and elsewhere, she's still playing her trademark Who-am-I-singing-about? games, perhaps to compensate for the fact that her music carries no broader mysteries. She's the ne plus ultra of just fine.
If there's any courage in making pop as unoriginal as this, it's that your victories will always belong to someone else while the failures fall square on you. Across “Reputation,” Swift reminds us of this every time she pouts through a refrain like Lana Del Rey, or sasses a random syllable like Shania Twain, or reaches for a punk-soul blue note like Hayley Williams of Paramore – and not so much whenever she tries to rap like Fergie (“Look What You Made Me Do”), or like Drake (“End Game”), or like Travis Scott (“So It Goes ...”). There are hits and there are misses.
As for her lyrics, yes, we all know how deeply Swift cares about words, but this album shows how deeply she cares about them on an individual basis. There's that eyebrow-arching “cool” during “Gorgeous.” And that hiccuping “first” during “Getaway Car.” And the hissing “crush” during the bridge of “King of My Heart.” We could probably do this all day. The point is, if Swift's singing ever makes the inside of your skull feel itchy, this is probably why. Rather than lean into her plain, handsome, highly relatable voice, she continues to toil over every word, dousing many of them with spritzes of unnecessary pizazz. It makes her singing feel fussy, unspontaneous and profoundly uncool.
Which means the best song on “Reputation” is the one that probably required the least amount of effort. It's called “New Year's Day,” and it's a modest ballad about that gust of clarity that always seems to arrive the morning after. And more than anywhere else on this album, Swift sounds as if she's lived every second of it. “I want your midnights,” she sings during the refrain, “but I'll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year's Day.”
You could argue that we've just been visited by the ghost of “old Taylor” – that girl with the guitar who was pronounced dead earlier in the track list. But I hope it's not too optimistic to wonder whether we're hearing the next Taylor. The one who understands the boundaries of her voice and the depth of her gifts. The one who won't try to impress anybody else by trying to sound like everybody else. The one who knows that the most important member in her audience – of millions, millions and more millions – is herself.