Friday, November 10, 2017

Taylor Strays From Her "Reputation": Bland, Listless Record Ensues

Image result for taylor swift reputation album 
It's insufferable to quote one's self, but watch me as I do it anyway. After my first listen of Taylor Swift's newest album Reputation I went back and re-read my review of 1989, where I worried that she "sold off a bit of her Taylor-ness." I wrote that some of the tracks suffered from a "touch of anonymity" and hoped that "Swift hasn't settled for being Queen of the Pop Princesses."

Dammit so much.

Most of Reputation can be described as "aggressively mediocre." It's full of synth beats, drum loops, and auto-tune. Even the finger snaps are electronic precision. Swift left banjos behind after Red; now she's chosen to forgo actual musical instruments altogether.

As the album's title suggests, Swift seems preoccupied with how she's perceived. On the otherwise unmemorable "Delicate," she sings, "My reputation's never been worse/so you must like me for me." I want to give her a hug like Robin Williams did to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and assure her that we DO like her for her. She's one of her generation's greatest songwriters. She doesn't need to mold herself into something she's not.

Take, for instance, the album's second track, "End Game." It features rappers Future and Ed Sheeran. What's that? You didn't know Ed Sheeran was a rapper? Well, he gets his pasty ginger flow on, and it goes about how you'd expect. The song might as well be called "Generic 2017 Hip-Hop Chart-Topper." That's followed by the similarly awful "I Did Something Bad," and sometimes, folks, the jokes just write themselves, amiright?

Most of the songs aren't bad, but they're just sort of...there. I listened to the record three times through before sitting down to write this, and I still can't tell you anything about "So It Goes," "Don't Blame Me," "King of My Heart," or "Dancing With Our Hands Tied."  There are 15 songs on the album, and I'd characterize at least 1/3 as unequivocal filler.

Then there are a few tunes that qualify as "Fine, I guess?" I'd put "Call it What You Want," "Gorgeous," and "Dress" in this category. They'd all be among the worst songs on Taylor's better albums, but here they stand out from the colorless flotsam that makes up most of Reputation.

Thankfully, there are some highlights. The "Hard Knock Life" homage "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" makes for a certified banger. In addition to a Great Gatsby shout-out, it features a cackling Taylor breaking up in the midst of a faux apology that she "can't even say with a straight face." The Jack Antonoff influence is strong on what is probably the album's best song, "Getaway Car." It sounds like a really good Bleachers song sung by Swift, which is sort of ideal.

I've even leaned into "Look What You Made Me Do," even though I was horrified by it when it was released. It's a total disaster of a song, but at least it's a fun, campy disaster with a chorus that's delightful to chant when you've just done something naughty. And it's definitely on-brand Taylor- petty and directed at her haters.

You know what's off-brand and artificial? All the boozy references on Reputation. Does anyone really believe Swift enjoys "whiskey on ice," as she claims on "Gorgeous"? Or that she swills "beer out of plastic cups" ("King of My Heart") and frequents a "dive bar on the East Side" ("Delicate")? Plus, she drops her first recorded curse word, accusing some ex of "talking shit." I have to be careful about playing Taylor Frigging Swift in the car with my kids now? That's some fracking bullspit.

I dunno. Maybe this is who she is now. Perhaps it's an honest representation. But it sure feels like she's straining to prove that the old Taylor, as she claims on "LWYMMD," is dead.

Not until the album's final track does the wistful, winsome Swift appear with a spare piano ballad about helping a friend clean up empty bottles on "New Year's Day." It would be a pretty unremarkable tune on the rest of her catalogue, but here it stands out. It's like the old Taylor broke through for one song at the end, forcing her way through the over-produced electronic sheen of the rest of the album.

Taylor, we know you're still in there. If you can hear us, harken to the words of a legendary songwriter:

Come here.

Nolanometer Final Grade: C-

1989: B
Red: A
Speak Now: A-
Fearless: B+
Taylor Swift: IDK. I don't like country, never listened to it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Merchants of Death (Cigarettes, not Guns)

When I was growing up, you could smoke on airplanes.

How could it have possibly been permissible to allow passengers to exhale carcinogens inside an enclosed metal tube at 30,000 feet? Well, there were smoking and non-smoking sections. Duh.

My favorite childhood restaurant was El Charro in Lafayette, California: an affluent, mostly liberal suburb of the Bay Area. Whenever we'd go to dinner, I'd pull the levers of a machine in the lobby that looked like this:

When I attended high school in the '90s, there was controversy about a group of students known as the "backlotters." These were the misfits who met in an unoccupied lot behind the gym to smoke cigarettes. Smoking on campus was technically against the rules, but that location had tradition of lax enforcement. There was pretty significant support for the backlotters as oppressed victims in a civil rights struggle.
For almost the entirety of American history, cigarettes were inextricably woven into the fabric of this country's culture and economy. Since 1612, when the Jamestown colonists dropped the first tobacco seeds into the ground, firearms have been ever-present.

Wait, what? Did I just type "firearms" there? I meant cigarettes. This blog is about cigarettes.

Anyway, there were always people along the way decrying cigarettes as being, you know, a terrible pox on public health. "But who cares if I do it to myself?" the nicotine lovers bleated. Opponents pointed out that it wasn't just a matter of keeping it to oneself, since secondhand smoke led to roughly 11,000 homicide deaths by firearm each year.

Whoops! That makes no sense. Secondhand smoke isn't a gun! And that analogy doesn't even match up, because then people who kill themselves by smoking would be like the 21,000 who commit suicide by firearm every year. You can't kill yourself by smoking! Not instantly, anyway. It takes a while.

Also, smoking looks cool! You're gonna tell Americans they can't do something that looks this badass?
Wrong pic! Sorry about that. Got it mixed up with the other Heathers photo above.

The point is, Americans loved their cigarettes. Would never give up their cigarettes. Would die before they let the government take their guns cigarettes.

Then, about three decades ago, the (smoke-filled) winds of change began to blow. Smoking on airplanes was prohibited in 1990. Many states, including California, banned smoking in bars and restaurants. My high school students occasionally smell like weed; they almost never reek of cigarette smoke. I smelled it on one girl this year and asked her about it. She replied with a curled lip and an eye roll: "Ugh, I know. It's disgusting. My stepdad smokes. It's so gross."

What had formally been a badge of high school cool is now so gross.

In other words, this:
Has become this:

It's not like cigarettes are illegal. You can still buy them pretty much anywhere. So what happened? Basically, we, as a society, decided that guns were a public health nuisance, and we'd all be better off if people smoked a lot less of them. Dammit. I did it again. CIGARETTES. Not guns.

The most important shift was actually telling the truth about what cigarettes do. For years, tobacco companies claimed that not only were cigarettes not bad for you, but that they were actually healthy. I mean, look at this shit:

 You know what's a good way to lose weight? Acquire lung cancer!

 Which brand of cigs does YOUR dentist recommend?

Now, of course, this is the message we associate with cigarettes:
Even people who smoke admit it's no good for them. They just like smoking. They have fewer places to do so, it costs more, and they've largely become social pariahs in many areas. They know it's a vice; many of them try to quit, but ultimately it's their right to smoke as Americans. But none of them say stuff like, "The more cigarettes around, the safer everyone is." 

Much credit tor this generational change goes to good ol' fashioned American lawsuits. Consumers and former consumers sued the pants off Big Tobacco so badly that the companies had to pay for anti-smoking commercials themselves. The brand became so tarnished that America's largest tobacco manufacturer (Philip Morris) changed its name to distance itself from its own product.
Wouldn't it be crazy if that happened in some other industry? Just to pick one TOTALLY at random, what if, for example, after every mass shooting, all the victims and their families got together and sued Sig Sauer/Bushmaster/Intratec, etc? That can't work, though. Because cigarettes and guns are completely different.

You know how I know that's true?

Because if this adorable little girl were holding a lit cigarette, you'd be shocked and appalled. Because cigarettes are not toys. Because they're deadly. Because you shouldn't use them around kids, and you sure as hell shouldn't teach your kids that smoking is cool or for God's sake show them how to smoke as children.
At least today you wouldn't. When I was growing up, people smoked on airplanes, and that was totally normal. Things change.

Some things do.