Although the release of a new Taylor Swift lead single would be a cause for immediate celebration, I needed to give myself a few days before immersing myself in “ME!” featuring Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco. There were several reasons for this:
“Taylor Swift” is about as polarizing a phrase as I can utter these days. Some people get her, and the others can’t even let me finish my sentence without rudely cutting me off.
I knew there’d be a ton of annoying critiques of the song that would make me angry.
I figured Switched On Pop would cover it in some detail. Didn’t want to be a broken record.
I admit, I was getting a little nervous with all the pastel colors that were slowly beginning to seep into my social media. Maybe this was going to be horrible.
Now, before we get on to the song/video, I’d like to remind the reader of the controversy regarding the lead single from Swift’s previous album, Reputation: “Look What You Made Me Do.” Critics were polarized and seemed intrigued about her new direction. Most of the focus went to the music video. Everyone rushed to compare it to that of “Formation,” the lead single from Beyonce’s equally brilliant Lemonade based on a meme. It was a meme of both artists with dancers in a line. It was dubbed “skim milk” and cultural appropriation, and the video’s director, who has also worked with Beyonce, subsequently denied the allegation that she copied Queen Bey’s work. I’m not saying this isn’t an important topic to discuss. But I do think Swift is a Rorschach blot. If you want to see cultural appropriation because of the back and forth between Swift and Kanye West / Kim Kardashian West, you’ll squint hard enough to see it. But doing so ignores Swift’s pop genius and takes the focus off the actual music. One hasn’t even taken the time to listen to the whole album and have the discussion before picking sides.
Reputation was the dark album. Songs like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “I Did Something Bad” acknowledge imperfections, but we’ve all been there: “I did something bad / then why’d it feel so good … I did something bad / and I’d do it over and over over again if I could". The album cover is black and white. Constantly in the public eye, Swift knows everything she does will be scrutinized and turned black and white. You love her, or you hate her.
At the beginning of the video, a snake crawls and bursts into butterflies. The camera focuses on a butterfly that flies up into the open window of an apartment. Swift and Urie are arguing in French in front of their young “daughters” - an adorable pair of kittens. As she slams the door, she gives the “Delicate”-esque, vocoder-infused, one-line intro “I promise that you’ll never find another like me.” Indeed, every time this mantra is repeated at the end of the chorus, the chords and the rest of the music drop out. I’m already hooked, but I’m also concerned that the French may get angry for some reason.
As we go through Swift’s verse, we eventually end up on the street with her surrounded by a crowd of people as the chorus hits. We’ve got a trumpet line and tambourine vigorously going in the background. Totally jubilant, self-aware bubblegum. Urie then does his verse, flying in with an umbrella a la Mary Poppins. He’s trying to win her back with flowers, a ring, and then… a kitten! This is, in fact the kitten Benjamin Button who stars in the prelude to the song. Swift tweeted a video of him preferring to be held like a human baby and later released the story of how she met him on set and decided to adopt him. So, obviously her heart is won, and mine, and we literally go inside Urie’s heart, in a scene full of red hues as the two dance and celebrate their love.
The bridge is fun. All sorts of wordplay about “awesome,” “team,” “me,” and “spelling is fun” without actual spelling, and the self-aware cleverness was undeniable even in The Atlantic article I described above. I’m getting a (not-so-?)subtle nod to The Jackson 5’s “ABC, 123” with the rhythmic blend of Swift’s high vocal and Urie’s an octave down, in unison on the off-beats. Yes, it’s silly and playground, Switched On Pop. Kids falling in love playing hop scotch. Easy as Do Re Mi. We end with an outro that is a mash-up of the bridge and chorus.
Other reasons why this song is so catchy? Well, there’s the ‘50s progression, ending in an authentic cadence. The whole thing is very confetti-cake: vanilla C Am F G with bursts of color. And there are a lot of throwbacks to her older work mixed in with her newer influences. It should come as no surprise that I love the song. Yet it’s so inoffensive and happy that it somehow offends people. This is the Rorschach Blot I was talking about. The eternal Taylor Swift paradox. Haters gonna hate hate hate. But it’s gonna be a fun song to hear this spring, and everyone will be singing along even if they “hate it”. Cannot wait for the rest of the album to be released.