“We actually do NOT want our pop music to be generic,” Taylor Swift declared in a fine little essay she contributed to Elle’s Music Issue in February. “I think a lot of music lovers want some biographical glimpse into the world of our narrator, a hole in the emotional walls people put up around themselves to survive.”
Now, that’s way too skinny a definition of all that this ill-defined we might want from pop. We could also want surreal through-the-looking-glass escapism, or incoherent outbursts of alienation, or something about being too sexy for your shirt. But it certainly evokes the brew of intimacy and over-the-topness that Swift herself (whose royal we prerogative I’ll happily concede) can concoct at her best. As she also wrote in Elle, “I want to remember the colour of the sweater, the temperature of the air, the creak of the floorboards, the time on the clock when your heart was stolen or shattered or healed or claimed forever. The fun challenge of writing a pop song is squeezing those evocative details into the catchiest melodic cadence you can possibly think of.”
If only somebody had read that paragraph back to Swift when she and producer Joel Little (best known for his work with Lorde) were crafting her new single, “ME!”, a duet with Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco—a song that dallies with evocative details (which could have been outtakes from “Blank Space”) for about a verse, then quotes Sesame Street (“one of these things is not like the others”) and confines itself to that reading level till the bitter end. In the bridge, she calls out, “Hey kids! Spelling is fun!” before she and Urie go on to inform us repeatedly that the letters M and E can be found in such words as team and awesome.
It’s not that it’s a bad song, quite. Rather, it is a song so fluffy and immaterial that such a heavy label would just fall straight through it and clatter to the ground. Which is, I suspect, its point. This song represents Swift jumping off the roundabout of self-declarations and outside judgments and defensive reactions that for years made her and everybody else so dizzy—saying “whatever” to all that, at last without making the mistake of putting the “whatever” literally in the song. Instead, she and Urie just traipse through a kiss-and-make-up number out of a teen musical.
If anybody feels let down, try first to forget that this caramel-coated serving was preceded by a two-week social media countdown, a frenzy of fan detective work (much of it on the theory that Swift was about to come out as gay or bi for today’s Lesbian Visibility Day, a little-known occasion even to lesbians), a sky-high mural painted on a wall in Nashville, Tennessee, and a teaser interview in the middle of the NFL draft picks, leading to a video that drew a half-million views within a couple of hours of its midnight debut.
Then remember that ever since “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” announced Red in 2012, the mission of the first single released ahead of any Taylor Swift album has been to disrupt and mislead: to disrupt whatever Swift doesn’t like about what’s been said about her since the previous album and to mislead the press and public that the album to come is a more radical departure than it will turn out to be. Of course Swift’s albums do differ from each other, as she develops as a writer and performer and adapts to changing styles. But ultimately they turn out to be collections of Taylor Swift songs, aka evocative details squeezed into catchy melodic cadences. The job of the lead single is to thrill or scare or outrage us by hinting that this time it’ll be something else.
Last time, with “Look What You Made Me Do,” she effectively spooked me that Reputation would be an album fixated on the social media celebrity battles she’d been through (mostly with the Kardashian-Wests). That turned out to be a lesser subtopic on an album mostly about the complexities of love, especially for a staggeringly famous teen star who’d become an adult. The disruption now, in advance of the as-yet-unannounced album fans call TS7, is to shake off Reputation’s negative overtones—and with them, that album’s mediocre-for–Taylor Swift sales and conspicuous dearth of Grammys. The “old Taylor” whom she pronounced dead on “LWYMMD” is at least partway back, the romantic and girly Tay Tay, first of her name, mother of kittens and rainbows. The “ME!” video begins with the snake that symbolized Swift’s Reputation “era” exploding into hundreds of pastel butterflies.
It then transitions to Swift and Urie having a hysterical lovers’ quarrel out of a French New Wave film—en français, no less—and then into a sequence of cotton-candy kaleidoscopic scenarios out of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg or Amélie: people falling through the air on umbrellas, rooftop proposals, drum majorettes (there’s a marching-band underlay to the music in general that suggests a light borrowing from Beyoncé via “Formation” and Beychella), and 1960s teen-dance-party TV shows. You should bask in it a handful of times and then challenge yourself to remember much about it 24 hours later (except probably the French shouting part).
As for the mislead, I assume it’s that the balance of the album will not be nearly so much of a regression from the great, grown-up songs of eros, loss, and recovery on Reputation, such as “Delicate,” “Getaway Car,” “Dress,” and “New Year’s Day.” It won’t actually be a never-ending fountain of creamy affirmations—and if there is more of that, perhaps it will incline more toward her country-pop successor Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour (which features a song titled “Butterflies” and another called “Rainbow”) than, as here, to Glee, or to Swift’s upcoming way-too-on-brand role in Cats. Though if the style of “ME!” does tell us anything, it’s that her perpetually predicted pivot back to country is likely still far away.
Meanwhile, though, there is a country crossover song that was released simultaneously with “ME!” last night. Bruce Springsteen’s new “Hello Sunshine,” the first single from his upcoming Western Stars album, sounds like a gently rolling tribute to the ‘60s and ‘70s country sound of Glen Campbell on Jimmy Webb numbers like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” or “Wichita Lineman.” It’s pretty much nothing but the creaking of floorboards, the temperature of air, and hours on the clock. I bet Swift’s already given it an admiring hearing.