[19 August 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
In the much-hyped media event revealing Taylor Swift’s big new single, not only did Swift announce that her new album will be called 1989, but also shared with us that this is the “first documented, official pop album” that she’s made.
So, forget all the country purists who called her a sell-out for the Max Martin co-pen “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” or the dubstep-indebted “I Knew You Were Trouble” or MOR pop mainstay “22” (all from her last album, 2012’s Red)—this album here is her real shameless attempt to become a pop star! It’s documented, even! Official! Notarized! With witnesses!
In all seriousness, though, the proclamation of this being a “pop” album is wholly unnecessary, as she’s been playfully skipping over the lines of what’s “pop” and what’s “country” since 2009, as “You Belong With Me”, her breakout pop hit, had enough banjo and acoustic guitars to still be considered country even as her numerous media appearances at the time were flooded with backup dancers, courting two very big audiences at the same time, being “authentic” enough for the heartland while being accessible enough to get on Radio Disney (and, although it sounds easy enough to pull off in retrospect, playing both sides simultaneously like that is a ridiculously tricky balancing act, as Faith Hill crashed her own career by leaning a bit too pop-heavy with her 2002 effort Cry and never managed to fully recover). Using her considerable clout to give groups like the Civil Wars a platform to break out on is admirable (and a great way to rekindle her country bona fides), but especially after the sleek, intensely catchy anthem that was “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and the corresponding pre-release campaign for Red which wound up generating 1.21 million copies sold in its first retail week, it was fairly obvious that there was no going back for Swift now, as “generation-defining pop diva” was very much what she wants to write as “Occupation” on her next tax return.
So as an opening gambit for her next big blockbuster, “Shake It Off” ditches guitars altogether in favor of short horn bursts, a slightly cavernous drum kit, and just her voice—nothing more. It’s a stark, simple, stripped-down kind of opener, and its impact is immediate: while not too far removed from her sound, the lack of six- (or four-) stringed instruments gives it an immediate “take it or leave it” approach for listeners, as she is taking no prisoners in her latest mainstream gamut. The light synth pad on the pre-chorus, the booming handcap percussion, the ascending horn spread on the chorus itself: these are all surprisingly unadorned elements, and yet that very clarity gives the song a bodied, rich sound, the hook going to our brains directly but never hitting you over the head with it: it’s a natural progression and for that reason alone it absolutely works. Yep, it’s an anthem, and yep, you’re gonna hear about it for the rest of the year. With production by her “Never Ever” collaborators Max Martin and Shellback, this is an stunning, unrepentant pop composition, and one that’s hard for just about anyone to deny its power.
Except her haters, of course.
And therein lies the rub. Although masquerading as an empowerment anthem about basically ignoring what others have to say about you, it also plays into what is becoming a surprisingly worn-out theme that has been emerging in her work: her perpetual persecution complex. Just as how she chided a boyfriend in “Never Ever” for listening to “an indie record that’s much much cooler than mine”, she, like that song, also gives a spoken word breakdown here, immediately chastising “you” for “getting down and out” about the “liars and dirty dirty cheats of the world” instead of rocking out to this song’s own “sick beat”. While some may dig into the first verse’s tongue-in-cheek line of “I go on too many dates” as a reference to her constant tabloid headlines about who she’s dating and who she’s dumping at any given moment, it’s elements like that that when coupled with a chorus that talks about how “the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate” and the “fakers gonna fake fake fake fake fake” that actually arc’s the songs overall message directly back to Swift’s own raging id, feeling the need to defend herself or exert her own form of dominance at all times.
It’s an odd pose to strike, what with having won an Album of the Year Grammy and all that, but perhaps that’s what is fueling her fire: having a group of people to prove herself to in order to make her next Alexanderian musical conquest (her peanut gallery’s YouTube comments being validation that she’s actually doing the right thing). While this aspect of her songwriting is undoubtedly unique, it’s also, already, getting quite old. Few can deny that Swift is a talented songwriter, as she’s able to synthesize these imagined demons into anthems that are relatable to everyone, but there are only so many times she can attack her “haters” before that trope feels as worn as a months-old US Weekly still sitting on the top of your toilet.
“Shake It Off” is very good pop single and it will be ravished and praised and parsed by millions. However, even Eminem figured out that he was more interesting wrecking havoc on the fabric of pop culture then spending entire albums afterwards merely dissecting the aftermath. It’s exciting to see where Swift leads her listeners on her new full-length because this song is a pretty delicious piece of ear candy, but for as smart a songwriter as she is, Swift should know better than to keep retreading on a tired premise, as you look pretty silly shaking something off when there was nothing on you to begin with.