That’s more like it. After about five consecutive listens of her new song “Call It What You Want,” I can comfortably declare that Old Taylor has, finally, hopped out of the fucking casket.
It’s fun to call Taylor Swift out for her privileged white female problematicness, her hypocrisy, pettiness, arch-villainy, a lack of rhythm bordering on grand social experiment-level trolling. But for those of us objective enough to admit cornballs are also capable of producing great music, Taylor’s 2017 output has been distressing. Taylor Swift is more than capable of pop greatness, but you wouldn’t know it from her first three singles off her upcoming album, Reputation.
Sure, her last album kicked off with the Times Square equivalent of New York anthems, but it’s easy to overlook that when the single rollout was the knockout combination of “Shake It Off,” “Style,” and her reigning crown jewel, “Blank Space.” The latter, and its experience-enhancing video, is such a brazenly calculated move of flipping gossip Swift helped fuel herself into a subversive reclamation of the narrative that it should have annoyed all of us. But, when a song is as undeniable as “Blank Space,” all you can do is give props and let the earworm take hold.
The idea, then, of Taylor loading up her chopper for an album full of “Blank Spaces” aimed at Kanye, Kim, Calvin, Tom, and whoever the hell else attracted her ire, is an appealing one. It’s clear who the snake is in each situation, but if the music itself is that good? Fuck it, break out the popcorn (until it beats a more deserving project for Album of the Year, then the joke’s on us). The new songs, though, have not been that. Scientifically speaking, they have ranged from a scale of Truly Terrible (“Look What You Made Me Do”) to Meh (“...Ready for It”) to, finally, Shrug (“Gorgeous”).
“Call It What You Want” is different. For one, it’s actually good, the first indication that Taylor hasn’t forgotten how to make a great song since this album rollout began. Moreover, it ditches the revenge narrative to great effect. It reveals what we all realized mid-way through watching Tay Regina George glare in front of a David Barton backdrop: When it comes to breaking bad, she’s more Ozark than Heisenberg.
While “Gorgeous” presented a Taylor so jaded she can’t even face the prospect of new love without sneering, “Call” is mercifully stripped of the phony posturing. Jack Antonoff—who oscillates from enabling Taylor’s impulse to do the absolute most and actually playing to her strengths—keeps things restrained, even contemplative. Reputation’s apparent foundational theme of me against them is still there (“all the liars are calling me one”), but Taylor’s new man provides solace for her to trade the seething, inaccurate attacks for a much more successful stance of indifference-colored acknowledgment. Each stanza seems like it’s headed down an angsty melodramatic road, until Joe Alwyn and his dreamy accent reconfigures her priorities. Before your eyes can finish rolling at “My castle crumbled overnight” it’s followed by “They took the crown...but it’s alright.” “Nobody’s heard from me for months.” Dark! But wait: Tay’s “doing better than [she] ever was.”
Taylor’s back on track, but it took a while. That the revelation of this single came for me on November 7th, four days after its release, indicates this return to form might be too little too late. After three songs that inspired everyone on Music Twitter to chime in with increasingly lukewarm opinions, it appears Taylor’s cried wolf too many times. The interest in “Call It What You Want,” on my admittedly non-Swiftie timeline at least, was nil.
The numbers reflect as much. One day after the release of “Look What You Made Me Do,” the streaming numbers Taylor hit were extolled everywhere. Take Spotify, for example: “The song was streamed 10,129,087 times in the first day, giving her not only the biggest day one streams, but also the biggest streaming day for a single track in Spotify history,” according to a press release from the company. “Call It What You Want,” in contrast, is sitting at just above 7 million streams, and is coming up on a full week since its release. (It’s worth mentioning that Swift does not plan on streaming her album on its release date, and her latest song was not included on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist, suggesting some strife between her and the streaming platform.)
Just a few weeks ago, we were parsing reptilian IG videos and the (still terrible) album cover font. Now, after the first run of singles, Taylor Swift is clearly less than appointment listening.
Setting the relative quality of these four songs aside, what they indicate when taken together is that Reputation’s sonic tone will border on incoherence. “Look What You Made Me Do” sounds like the score to a Riverdale sizzle reel; “...Ready For It” is a Yeezus-esque weird alchemy 3-point attempt that sails over the backboard; “Gorgeous” is just Swift and Max Martin on autopilot. “Call It What You Want” is...well, great. Simply put: we’ve now heard approximately a quarter of this album, and it sounds confused as fuck.
After truly painful attempts at rapping, Euro-pop nonsense, and half-hearted mail-ins, a song that finds Swift in a simple pseudo-ballad zone with straightforward chord progressions and decidedly non-shill crescendos is refreshing as fuck. It’s also confusing in its own right—at least before it came out we could all wonder if Taylor has lost her touch for good. Now we know she hasn’t, which makes the missteps all the more bizarre.
iTunes pre-orders of Reputation reveal “Call It What You Want” comes in as the second-to-last track. On one hand, I’m here for an album that arcs Tay’s progression from snotty defense-mechanized brat spiraling away from her center, only to sober up and realize she doesn’t like what she’s on track to become, like a third act Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. But so far, a 1 for 4 average on your singles isn’t inspiring much optimism that the other chapters in this story will be as compelling as “Call.” Can an album that will inevitably net its creator multi-millions in both sales and revenue (whatup, UPS) still be considered a brick-on-arrival? You heard her loud and clear, call it what you want.