We are in a new phase of Taylor Swift’s career. It is, apparently, one in which she feels comfortable using the term “sick beat.”
Taylor Swift is now a pop star. Ugh.
In the midst of some big, heavily promoted, live-stream event, Swift dropped several glittery bombs on the industry and her fans. One was the release date and title of her next album, 1989, which will drop October 27. Another was the news that this will, in her words, be her first “documented, official pop album.”
The third was the release of her first single and corresponding music video, “Shake It Off,” a song that certainly confirms that “official pop” billing—and which hints that this new direction of her career is woefully depressing. Depressing enough to write a country song about, even. Though apparently Swift will no longer be willing to write it.
You see, love her or loathe her—apparently the only two opinions one can have about her—Taylor Swift has always been musically interesting. Traversing a musical point of view that was at once wide-eyed and cynical, Swift managed to be naively sweet and gratifyingly bitter, all the while straddling the country and pop realms with a dexterity none of her Nashville compatriots have been able to pull off.
“Shake It Off” is a great pop song, the kind that you’re doomed to have stuck in your head after a mere 30 seconds of hearing it for the first time, that you’ll no doubt find yourself bobbing your head to with a smile on your face as it plays on the radio once every 17 minutes for the next four months. But it also may be the least musically interesting song that Swift has done, which is what we should be mad about.
Swift’s career began, you remember, with “Teardrops on My Guitar.” It told a story. She played a guitar while singing it. Swift, though never the best singer or most talented musician, has reigned over music all these years because she was music’s best storyteller. The story that she’s telling with “Shake It Off,” she said while debuting the song, is that, “People can say whatever they want about us, at any time and we can’t control that. The only thing we can control is our reaction to that.”
That’s a sweet sentiment. But one listen to “Shake It Off,” and it’s clear the story she’s really telling is, “I’m a pop star now, bitches!” And our reaction is, “Booooo!”
There’s an odd hypocrisy to the song and video as a package. The music video and the song’s lyrics are all about breaking the rules unapologetically, if that’s what you have to do to be your best self. They echo what Swift’s music has pretty much always preached: who cares what’s normal or what other people think—you can only truly be fabulous if you embrace your individuality. Anyone who thinks otherwise, to employ the emotional sophistication of “Shake It Off,” can suck it.
The dance-heavy music video echoes those themes. A tutu clad Swift refuses to pirouette with her fellow ballerinas, preferring to pelvic thrust like a rebel instead. Beautiful contemporary dancers are making elegant shapes with ribbons; Swift tosses hers in the air and doesn’t even bother to catch it. March to the beat of your own drummer, she’s saying, but don’t even bother to dance on the beat.
How confusing, then, that “Shake It Off” musically represents, after years of inching towards it, Taylor Swift’s arrival as a run-of-the-mill, straight-and-narrow pop artist. The reason Swift’s music always felt a little bit special was because it was a little bit country, a little bit folksy, a little bit barebones and lyrical and young and meaningful and all those things that those industry-manufactured singing (or at least lip-synching) sexbombs weren’t. Swift’s music was never conventionally radio friendly in today’s over-produced, techno-bombastic era, which is in part what made Swift such a radio hit. She was a breath of fresh air, raw and genuine and sometimes even a little bit off key.
“Shake It Off,” even by Swift’s own admission, is a marked departure from all of that in pursuit of a pure pop sound. Her most recent album, the critically heralded and seriously great RED, certainly had its fair share of pop influence, particularly on tracks like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” but the record as a whole was always built as—and felt like—a blending of Swift’s signature country-pop sound with the modern-pop influences that a girl her age would naturally be enjoying and, you know, influenced by. But having your sound influenced by a genre and abandoning your sound completely are two different things.
With the “Mickey”-reminiscent clap driving its beat and syth-heavy earworm of a chorus, “Shake It Off” is both catchy and non-descript. If Swift didn’t announce the single herself, there’d be no indication that it’s her voice on the track, or that she had anything to do with its development. While mass-appealing for sure, it’s not personal, at least not in the ways we expect from a Taylor Swift song.
Sure, the lyrics and freak flag-raising video are right in line with the Swift we know and love. But paired with the pop-y production, the message is conflated: “Here is my conforming, totally mainstream new song, just like the ones the cool kids make. But I still want you to dance like an oddball weirdo to it, just like always!”
The whole thing sort of crumbles the delicate ivory tower that Swift has made for herself, from which she’s been strumming her guitar on. Tall, thin, and gorgeous, she’s consistently the best-dressed at any event she attends. She’s famously dated a revolving door of Hollywood’s hottest men. She’s mind-blowlingly successful and supremely popular in the industry, charming a nation of cynics by dancing adorably in the front row of awards shows, being goofy and gawky on talk shows, and inoffensively making a foray into acting with a small role in The Giver.
Yet despite all of this, Swift’s still managed to make fans feel like she’s one of us. That she’s the outsider. That despite all of the success, accolades, and apparent perfection, she’s embarrassing herself in front of the cool kids and is the interesting unpopular and introspective one who is being passed over for the conventionally pretty, boring girl.
But with the blandly perfect pop-ness of “Shake It Off,” she sort of becomes that pretty, boring girl—musically speaking—doesn’t she? And there’s no fun in that, “sick beat,” or not.