It wasn’t supposed to go this way. These were supposed to be blockbuster albums, one more in a succession of successes. reputation was supposed to solidify Taylor Swift’s status as a full-on pop music superstar after 1989 . Man of the Woods was supposed to be another bid for Justin Timberlake to have shed his boy-band image after 20/20 Experience laid the foundation for a grown-up, mature JT. This should have been easy.
It would be hard to claim that neither reputation nor Man of the Woods has been successful. Swift’s new album is already 3 times platinum, and it spent several weeks at No. 1 on the charts. Timberlake’s debuted at No. 1, and it’s no shame that the Kendrick-curated Black Panther soundtrack unseated it, given the fact that Black Panther is a bona fide phenomenon. If sales or streams are your measuring stick, then you can pack up and go home, because these two albums are slam dunks, home runs, etc.
But if you care about quality, narrative, and legacy, the verdict is a little murkier. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad albums, but in the pop culture world we live in now, “not bad” isn’t really good enough. Before these albums were released, Swift and Timberlake were among the unquestioned elite in pop music, on equal footing reputation-wise with Beyoncé, Adele, or Kanye. Is that still the case now?
You could argue both are still in that upper echelon. After all, the quality, narrative, and legacy of a record are critics’ concerns, not a general audience’s. That’s largely true. Today, in the here and now, the, well, reputations of reputation and of Man of the Woods do not depend on a media consensus. But how a record is remembered is a matter of history, and the writers of history are writers. The fact that these albums are generally disliked by music writers matters. Will Swift’s and Timberlake’s places in the pop music elite survive long-term despite their album’s poor reception?
Critics didn’t actually hate reputation. Spin, Rolling Stone, and NME all gave the album positive reviews, after all. But most critics were mixed if not ambivalent about reputation, and some prominent outlets were outright negative, like Pitchfork, AllMusic, and Consequence of Sound. The preponderance of reviews were simply underwhelmed.
A lot of this can be chalked up to expectations. The four albums preceding reputation (Fearless, Speak Now, Red, and 1989) found themselves all over critics’ year-end lists. Her songwriting was endlessly praised, as well as her ability to master multiple genres and sounds as she transitioned away from country music and toward pop. If people grew tired of her tendency to depend on her dating life for lyrical material, she made up for it with hooks impeccably crafted to paint themselves onto your psyche. After 1989 made her biggest shift into pop music yet, it was reasonable for people to expect Swift to continue her run of greatness.
The first few singles tempered expectations a little. The first, “Look What You Made Me Do,” while boasting some of Swift’s most pointed satire, has a nearly atonal chorus that almost begs you not to like it. (Who is she talking to, anyway? What did I make her do?) This was a huge left-turn for the Taylor Swift that had leaned hard into sweeping synth melodies on 1989. “Ready for It?” was a more typical Swift hook, but not quite up to her standards. As in, it didn’t take over the world like any of the singles from 1989 did.
And there was bad press leading up to reputation’s release as well. A segment of the alt-right movement began to use her lyrics as a rallying cry while claiming that she is a closeted neo-Nazi. To be clear, these are claims with no basis in any sort of evidence whatsoever. But Swift never adequately addressed these claims, and so a blogger at PopFront claimed there were white supremacist dog-whistles in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video, while condemning her “political silence” during the volatile 2016 presidential election. Instead of simply denying these claims, Swift threatened the writer with a cease and desist letter.
The blog post is a pretty poorly reasoned argument. A simpler and more generous reading of Swift’s “political silence” (Swift did eventually endorse Clinton) would come to the conclusion that when she’s not supporting an album with a tour and interviews, she values her privacy over the attention that advocacy of any kind brings. This fits with what we know about Swift: her life is meticulously controlled, outsiders not allowed in without invitation, rumors leaked by her camp when she chooses.
But Swift could have solved all of this by simply condemning the alt-right movement. By remaining silent, she left the door open for enough people to question her motives that she lost control over her career’s narrative, control she held so preciously before.
And honestly, the themes of reputation don’t help her case much. A lot of the songs (“Look What You Made Me Do,” “End Game,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”) deal with Swift embracing her dark side. A lot of the “bad girl” stuff on reputation is on the nose and overdone; I mean, there’s a song called “I Did Something Bad,” for goodness’ sake. It also comes across as cynical, which is the wrong tone to strike after accusations of bullying and associations with racism.
Despite the bad narrative surrounding the lead-up to the album, I love reputation. I’m turned off by a lot of the cynicism inherent in Swift’s attempts at a bad-girl image, but I think that’s less present in the music itself than in how she chose to promote it. Much of this album is Swift grappling with what romance looks like as a 28-year-old, and much of it is actually the opposite of cynical. “Dress,” “Gorgeous,” “King of My Heart,” and “Call It What You Want” are celebrations of committed love. Even “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which is a Kanye kiss-off, is overflowing with good humor and the joy of finally getting to speak her mind.
reputation is also chock full of Swift’s trademark vulnerability. She made her name on appealing to the insecurities she shared with all young people, and this continues on reputation. “Delicate” is a pitch-perfect examination of turning to short-term romance to fill the holes in your soul. And “New Year’s Day,” the album’s best song and closer, details the fleeting nature of your efforts to make memories in any relationship.
I enjoy reputation, even though it’s unfocused and messy, jumping from theme to theme without the level of cohesion I’m used to from a Taylor Swift album. It seems to be a reflection of Swift’s own current messiness, adding to a discography that perfectly mirrors the trajectory of a white, middle-class girl growing up. I don’t expect many other people to share that opinion, given all the bad faith surrounding the album’s release narrative, some of it contrived and some of it legitimate. Maybe ten years from now, there will be a flurry of blog posts that revisit reputation and call it an underrated classic, but I doubt it. It’s not as good from front to back as 1989, and I’m sure it will leave a bad taste in most people’s mouths.
Speaking of bad taste: Man of the Woods. Even though Justin Timberlake has had an invincible career up to this point, and even though he had the lay-up opportunity that is the Super Bowl halftime show, no one took Man of the Woods seriously from the start. The album’s trailer could be an SNL digital short, with its misplaced attempts at sincerity paired with unnecessary amounts of flannel. The cognitive dissonance of watching Timberlake run around a pasture with horses while the R&B single “Supplies” plays in the background? That’s the whole album in a nutshell. Timberlake wanted to make music that reflected the place he’s from, and he ended up making…the same kind of music he’s always made.
Like reputation, bad narratives preceded Man of the Woods. To be fair to Timberlake, it was pretty poor timing for #MeToo to explode right before his album cycle began. While JT has never had a sexual harassment scandal, his career trajectory is inextricably linked to the career bombing of two former pop superstars who happened to be female.
Other people have pointed this out in more detail in recent weeks. In fact, as Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show drew closer, a lot of outlets began publishing reconsiderations of Timberlake’s success, given his (literal) hand in setting back Janet Jackson’s career during his last Super Bowl appearance. He’s always felt more like an unwitting product of a dick culture rather than an actual dick(in-the-box) himself. But even if he wasn’t directly responsible for ruining the careers of the women around him, he never was able to fully articulate a properly repentant or apologetic defense, and that’s been enough to cloud the hype of this album release.
Being reminded of his (surely unintentional) participation in the downfall of both Britney Spears and Janet Jackson did nothing to help my opinion of Man of the Woods. But neither did the album. If Timberlake wants to get serious about his love for his wife, his son, and his home, that’s great. I’d even go as far as to say that’s what his fans expect. After all, he did that really well on The 20/20 Experience, which has held up well in the last 5 years thanks to “Mirrors,” “Suit & Tie,” and an awesome concert tour, which I was lucky enough to see with my wife.
Man of the Woods takes its concept too seriously, shoehorning it in as often as possible, as evidenced by songs titled “Supplies,” “Flannel,” and “Livin’ off the Land,” all of which would be far better songs without being tied to a faux-rugged existence that is so clearly not Timberlake’s reality. In “Flannel,” Timberlake literally utters the words, “Here’s my flannel / The character’s in the way you wear it / It takes your shape while you keep it on,” which is something no one who actually wears flannel has ever thought. In “Supplies,” which is about how the apocalypse is sexy(?), Timberlake somehow thought it was a good idea to make the chorus “I got supplie-ie-ies,” and…yep, that’s it. That’s the whole chorus.
I might have been okay with the ridiculous lyrics and thematic gambles. I mean, this guy made an album called FutureSex/LoveSounds, and it worked. But the music isn’t really up to his standards. Having come off the biggest hit of his career, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which is one of the earworms of the decade, Timberlake thought it made sense to release “Filthy,” which barely has a repeatable melody.
Even the best songs on the album are dependent on contributions from other artists. “Morning Light” features Alicia Keys in one of the few times on the album where a song sounds effortlessly sexy. “Say Something,” if you can get past its vague message, benefits from the presence of Chris Stapleton, who makes the case with his harmonies that maybe Timberlake should have given the whole record to him. And “Breeze off the Pond” is the only instance where the back-to-his-roots idea works for JT, because it leans heavily on a killer guitar riff from Pharrell, and Timberlake keeps the heavy-handed metaphors to a minimum.
In case my snark isn’t coming through enough, I just want to go on the record: I really don’t like Man of the Woods. But Justin Timberlake still means a lot to me. “Mirrors” came out a few months before my wife and I tied the knot, and it shaped my hopes for our future together. I listened and danced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” as an effort to bond with one of my patients, and it ended up being the main way we connected. “Cry Me a River” and “My Love” are still two of my favorite songs from my adolescence.
However, when it comes to deciding who will maintain the goodwill that comes with being a superstar, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Taylor and not Justin. More people like reputation, and Swift has built up enough goodwill over the course of her career as a champion of the bullied (“Mean,” “Fifteen”), that I believe she’s poised to survive her recent bad press. Also, she’s done a good job of cultivating the image of a songwriter over any other label. Swift’s success will always be perceived to be hers, rather than attributable to anyone else.
Every week I sit down with one of my patients and watch old Taylor Swift videos. This patient only likes older Taylor Swift, not the new stuff. We watch “Mean” and “Our Song” and “You Belong with Me,” and the patient lights up. It’s been hard to find anything else she likes as much as old-school Taylor Swift. But every time she asks for it on her eye-gaze device, and I pull “Love Story” up on an iPad, she begins smiling and laughing, without fail.
There’s enough on reputation that makes me light up for me to still hold Swift in high esteem. There are precious few moments on Man of the Woods that have a similar effect. They’ll both probably bounce back just fine, but it’s a little more plausible to imagine Swift coming out of this on top while Timberlake transitions into other roles, such as producing, or maybe just perpetually making funny videos with Jimmy Fallon. That wouldn’t be the worst thing. Jimmy Fallon is pretty funny.