Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The problem with Taylor Swift's new pop song: it's perfect

Taylor Swift performs live in April, 2013 Ethan Miller/Getty

Taylor Swift released the first single from her new album, 1989, on August 18, 2014. The song debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard charts.  During a highly anticipated Yahoo! live stream, Swift played her new single, clumsily danced with her fans, and unveiled the album she has been working on for two years. The album, she announced,  was inspired by the "late '80s" pop she was listening to. Swift went on to describe the '80s as "a time of limitless potential," a time of bright colors, bold chances,  and rebellion. Perhaps not coincidentally, Swift was born in 1989.

In other words, Taylor Swift has made a pop album, and "Shake It Off" is the first single. With it she drew a clear line: country is the old Taylor. This is the new, short-haired, pop-superstar Taylor.

"Shake It Off" is a perfect pop song "I never miss a beat," Swift sings in the second verse, and it's an appropriate way to describe the song. Her voice sounds better than it ever has, and with Max Martin and Shellback's production skills behind her, Swift has made a song that's unrelentingly catchy and upbeat. That doesn't make "Shake It Off" bad, but it certainly makes it vapid.

When Swift announced the new album during the live-stream, she called it her "first documented, official pop album." Swift's last album, 2012's Red, was criticized for having too much pop influence, thanks to the anthemic "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and very poppy "22." By announcing 1989 as her first pop album, Swift seemed to be doing some pre-emptive damage control.

Unlike previous Swift albums, which have focused on heartbreak, relationships, and other feelings, Swift was very clear that she was headed in a new direction with 1989. "I woke up every single day not wanting, but needing to make a new style of music than I'd ever made before," Swift told the live-stream's studio audience.

"Shake It Off" does sound different from the songs on Red. There's a more pronounced beat, and the acoustic guitar sounds of Swift's early years are completely eradicated. But "Shake It Off" mostly sounds like a cleaner version of the work Max Martin did on Red. The catchy, pop beat of "Shake It Off" isn't really all that different from the one used on "I Knew You Were Trouble." The difference, and the problem for long-time Swift fans, is that the personal anecdotes and stories are gone.

Swift told the world that the song was about "the idea that.. people can say whatever they want about us at any time, and we cannot control that. The only thing we can control is our reaction." She then gave two options for how a person could respond to those people talking: let it make you bitter, or shake it off.

Since we know the title of the single, we know Swift chose the second, but that's part of the problem. Revenge-laden, angry country ballads like "All Too Well" and "Better Than Revenge" and "Mean" and "You're Not Sorry" and even "Picture to Burn" would have picked the first option, because early country Taylor Swift believed in bitterness, and emotions, and everything not being perfect all the time.

"I make the moves up as I go," Swift sings in "Shake It Off." Nothing has ever more clearly been a lie. From the beginning of the live-stream last night, Swift was calculated. She was dressed perfectly in a matching white crop-top and skirt embellished with eyelet holes. Her hair was freshly cut in a bob and straightened until it barely had any movement. Every word she said was obviously a line that she had written, memorized, and delivered. "Welcome to New York," Taylor told us from the top of the Empire State Building before beckoning us—on the other side of a live-stream—to follow her inside. Her embarrassed look, her shocked face, and even her breathlessness after dancing around the room were rehearsed.  The whole live-stream "for the fans" had, in fact, been purchased by Yahoo!.

Swift promised that this was the most "sonically cohesive" album she's ever made. But Swift's fan-base has never loved her for how cohesive her albums were. In fact, it has always loved her for being messy. "Shake It Off" isn't messy. It's the cleanest thing Swift has ever produced. It's great for her as an artist, because her sound is undoubtedly evolving. Taylor Swift won't lose her fan-base, or her fortune. She'll probably conquer the charts. But she might have lost her heart.

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