Why 'Reputation' Is a Make Or Break Album For Taylor Swift -- And the Age of the 2010s Pop Star
By Alex Ungerman
Big Machine Records/ Getty Images (Art by Michael Escanuelas)
Let’s take a moment to recall the 2008 MTV VMA Best New Artist nominees.
That year, Tokio Hotel (what?!) upset Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Jordin Sparks for the annual honor, in a sort of curse of fate that befalls many Best New Artists, as Tokio Hotel went on to not make much of an impact stateside (they’ve fared much better in their homeland of Germany), while Sparks grabbed a couple of chart-climbing hits, and Swift, Perry and Cyrus became… well, you know… megastars.
Perry’s 2010 Teenage Dream album is matched only by Michael Jackson’s Bad in the number of No. 1 singles it produced, Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” of an album frenzy was arguably the most culturally relevant (and arguably, appropriative) phenomenon of 2013, and Swift -- a self-image virtuoso and omnipresent millennial icon -- transformed from the “Teardrops on My Guitar” country darling, to the victim of the most infamous mic-grabbing in recorded history, to the undeniable pop force behind 2015’s juggernaut 1989 album. To date, no artist has more top 10 debuts on the Billboard Hot 100 than Swift, who’s notched 14.
So far though, 2017 has not been great to the 2008 MTV VMA Best New Artist nominees.
For Perry, though Witness did earn her third consecutive number one debut, the political-until-it-wasn’t record, her second in a row to receive relatively tepid reviews, quickly fell down the charts, and so far, has not kept up with the astounding pace, or hit-power of her previous efforts. Cyrus’ back-to-roots grown-up pivot Younger Now has suffered an even worse fate, opening to only around 33,000 records sold and -- with less Banger and more zzzzzz -- pacing to be her most disappointing proper album (depending on whether you count her prior effort, a free record, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz).
With the 2017 musical calendar winding down, Reputation could be the last generation of pop’s final stand to establish relevance in a music era increasingly defined by quality, novelty and staying power over name recognition.
To be clear, Swift is already in a much better position than her 2008 co-nominees.
Unlike Perry, she’s not in the position of righting the ship from an album that just wasn’t that well received. And although, like Cyrus, Swift -- with “Look What You Made Me Do” in particular -- explores a starkly different sound from her previous record, the 27-year-old singer favors the fantastical over the familiar, and chooses to embrace the “narratives” that dog her head-on, rather than wash them clean and start anew (in Ma-aa-a-libu).
Also, say what you will, but Swift is an honest-to-god songwriter -- full stop.
1989’s staying power was downright impressive, with three singles, “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” hitting No. 1, on an album where little if anything felt like filler. And while Cyrus’ personality was larger than life, the bravado cultivated only two true lasting pop standards (“Wrecking Ball” and “We Can’t Stop). Furthermore, even Swift’s curiously received tracks so far this cycle have earwomed their way into people’s headphones -- “Look What You Made Me Do” jumped from No. 77 to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, after its initial release had people feeling… all types of ways about the New Taylor.
The most cynical take of this move, is of course, the “too big to fail” pop artist scared of the increasingly democratized Spotify/Apple Music/Tidal streaming music industry, where they may no longer get to dominate charts for weeks and weeks in a row, instead being topped by new and up-and-coming voices (like Cardi B!) if that artist has a better song.
Swift is fair from the only pop monolith still testing these waters. Both Beyoncé and Jay Z have bucked standard streaming expectations for both exclusive, and/or corporate sponsored rollouts. But while theirs’ and some others’ feel innovative in some way (i.e. surprise, and visual albums) the moves of Swift, and even arresting British songstress Adele, seem reactionary at best.
While it no doubt will help her bottom line, Swift withholding Reputation from streaming at first leverages her diehard Swiftie’s support (over 400,000 of which have already pre-ordered the album) at the expense of millions of music listeners, to seemingly just Yurtle the Turtle the top of the music food chain, padding the bottom line regardless of how the record is received.
The defense of physical-first, of course, is that labels need a couple big earners that can sell actual physical copies of albums to help supplement the costs to sign and develop new artists. Even so, it’s a jarringly “safe” move from an artist who, since the jump of this album rollout, seemed to be pushing herself in such daring new directions. What’s even more frustrating, is that Swift doesn’t seem to even need it. The four tracks and two videos her pre-album rollout has yielded, have proven at each turn able to put her work as an artist at the forefront of the pop music conversation, leaving her without the need to fall back into the “Last Custard” playbook of album promotion.
Additionally, it’s not like to fully dive in would be without precedent. Some of the most relevant artists of our time, have bucked norms, and navigated this new paradigm well.
For instance, Drake is a bonafide streaming-era savant, with more Hot 100 entries than Elvis (second only to freaking Glee), and having maintained his place on that chart for an astounding (and record-shattering) 431 consecutive weeks.
And Kendrick Lamar, perhaps the most recent artist to be anointed into the upper echelon of pop culture performers, managed to top the album that crowned him as such, To Pimp a Butterfly (which itself topped his breakout album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City) with 2017’s double platinum album, DAMN.
Meanwhile, in April, Kanye West (Swift’s old foe!) became the first artist ever with a streaming only album to go platinum, with his latest -- The Life of Pablo (feat. “Famous,” which is in all likelihood, the precursor to “Look What You Made Me Do.”)
And to be fair, this year has not been absent of music that demonstrated critical value while not fully translating into chart success.
Take Kesha’s Rainbow and Demi Lovato’s Tell Me You Love Me, for instance. Both artists show their ability to tackle difficult topics, coupled with powerhouse vocals can inspire people on a social level, but it remains to be seen if they have the sale/streaming numbers to remain lasting figures in the pop culture landscape.
The Spotification of the music industry has changed not just how we listen to music, but which artists we listen to as well. And that’s not to say to 2010-era pop stars have no chance, or even that they don’t have a considerable leg up in pushing their sound to more people. And it’s not to say that every endearing up-and-coming artist will overcome, David and Goliath-style, their elite, label-backed counterparts. But arguably, the chance is better than ever.
Though Swift is fully capable, as is almost any modern era artist, to leverage her considerable pedigree into surefire success, as the sounds of our culture decentralize even further, you have to wonder -- how much longer will that be the case?
Alex Ungerman writes music and entertainment news for ET. He and and fellow ET writer Desiree Murphy teamed up for an obsessive deep dive breakdown Taylor Swift’s 'Reputation' album, with producer Michael Escanuelas, which you can watch below.