One year ago, Taylor Swift’s somewhat infamous LP Reputation hit the shelves and digital libraries of 700,000 listeners. It would go on to sell 1.26 million copies in that first week, making it a member of an elite club of albums to have broken a million copies (at all, let alone that first week) in the last decade… a club that is mostly comprised of Swift’s other records. It was an auspicious achievement in the pop star’s increasingly controversial career – every album she’s released since 2008’s Fearless has broken a million records sold in its first week.
Swift has become a polarizing figure in the pop culture sphere. Between the ongoing Kimye saga, 100% valid conversation and critiques about the downfalls of white feminism, her own personal #MeToo moment and the usual, misogyny-fueled obsession with her love life that’s been prominent since that first record broke a million all those years ago. (She has arguably used that obsession to her advantage in the years since, but… wouldn’t you?) The stage was certainly set for Reputation to be as polarizing as the woman herself – it was the first Swift record that broke her every-other-year-pattern ever, and followed a nearly year-long (and highly advisable) social media hiatus/blackout on Swift’s part. It’s safe to say, nobody knew what to expect; uncommonly for an artist whose unflinchingly loyal following was built on the closeness she shares with her fanbase, “nobody” included the vast majority of her fans.
When “Sign of the Times” dropped last spring, the internet seemed to lose its collective mind. Was it because the highly anticipated previous solo offering from former One Directioner Zayn met with such a lukewarm critical reception last year? Was it because we were, in fact, living in the first days of our descent into an outdated political hellscape, not unlike the dystopian fiction that’s dominated the pop culture cycles for the past several years? Was it simply because Harry Styles is an undeniable force? Was it because it was just a great song? That answer to the “why” depends on whom one asks, but one thing is undeniable: the album that followed has peppered EOTY lists in a way other former Directioner offerings have not. Despite this, fellow former-Directioner Niall Horan quietly released an album in 2017, a largely acoustic, unexpected effort titled Flicker. And so followed the inevitable question – which was the better album?
It would be very easy to say the Styles record was superior and call it a day – after all, it’s flashy. It’s interesting. It was well written, well performed, and well produced – and it is inescapable. That makes it the easy answer. But as with so many things in life, I’m not convinced that the easy answer is necessarily the right one.
Over the past 12 months, as one of its primary proponents, I have spent a lot of time thinking about call-out culture. Or, as some industry heavyweights have phrased it, the trend of “witch hunts” that has been plaguing our scene as of late. I have spent a lot of time frustrated by the perpetuation of the idea that says the call-outs are the problem, instead of the abuses that said call-outs address. I’ve been upset because we know that statistically when an accusation is finally made, they are are overwhelmingly true; however, the opposite manages to live on in the minds of so many. It’s a problem, because as long as the focus is on whether or not call-out culture ought to exist, the real problems and abuses plaguing our scene fail to get properly addressed. As such, it’s a problem I want to solve.