Taylor Swift

Single review: Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’

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Gone are the days when critics had the power to pronounce artists “dead”. Now, it seems, they have taken matters into their own hands.

By now, you’ve probably heard the news: “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now….she’s dead!” Together with the sudden erasure of her social media accounts, and a move away from the Victoria’s Secret aesthetic, it is very clear that we are at the beginning of what Swifties lovingly refer to as an “era”.

At least, that’s what Swift is desperate for us to think. But why, if she is seeking to obliterate her past, has Swift called her upcoming album Reputation, a word that by its very definition requires a past?

And why so keen to kill off the old Swift? What did she ever do to deserve an early demise? Done in such a contrived manner, it reeks of fear. Fear of the PR effects of supposedly bitchy falling-outs so publicised by the media. Fear of remaining the same. And, perhaps most of all, fear of never again reaching the height at which 1989 set the bar.

Valid fears, one and all.  But this violent casting-off of the old would be far less offensive and far more effective, if the single around which this hype was generated was something more than…okay. Ish.

I won’t lie: the opening is spine-tingling. Strings? Sparkling synth? Hello. And then those booming beats, with Taylor right on the mic, her breath in our ears, spitting words that have the syntactic mastery of Blank Space. “I don’t like your little games/ Don’t like your tilted stage/ The role you made me play/ Of the fool, no I don’t like you”.

At the 45th second we have our pre-chorus, where, with rapid-fire piano chords and even quicker lyrics, things are starting to escalate (“But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time”) and that volume knob is going up, up, up.

The anticipation of a theatrical burst of anthemic, savvy pop is high. Very high. Until that amazingly, deafeningly, anticlimactic chorus.

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It’s as though the bottom just drops out of this song. The harmonic underpinnings vanish, the momentum evaporates, and we are left with a sparse, repeated refrain that sounds more like yesterday’s Meghan Trainor than today’s born-again Taylor Swift.  I’ll say it again: THERE IS NO CHORUS TO SING HERE. Move along folks. Have a nice day.

To top it all off, there’s something a little offensive about having this accusatory single flung in our faces. What have we done? It’s hard to know. Probably nothing, it’s probably all Kayne’s fault, but even so it feels a little…aggressive.

Revenge has always been her shtick, but as Swift sings “the world moves on, another day another drama/ But not for me, all I think about is karma” it all starts to sound a little petty.  1989 was not only a significant new musical direction, it was a welcome move away from the cryptic mud-slinging. Ironically, Reputation seems to be a return to the insecurity we thought she’d shed.

No, the old Taylor is not dead. She is just in hiding, behind the increasingly impersonal facade of the Swift™ machine.

Images: Variety & Giphy
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On Lorde’s “Green Light” and its brave ugliness.

The first time I listened to Lorde’s Green Light, I wasn’t sure if she’d got away with it.

Growling right at the lowest end of her register, battling with an almost disastrous chord change in the chorus, the Kiwi kid of Royals acclaim had me crying “What the hell are you doing?!” sooner than she had me singing along.

No surprises that Jack Antonoff was involved – the sparse, pop-savvy verse will conjure references to Taylor Swift’s 1989 with little effort. And, like 1989, the experimentation ultimately paid off.

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Because by some devilry, that chorus works. While the initial shock might have cooled our enthusiasm for a second, Lorde brings it all flooding back with a dance refrain that will be flailed to on many a drunken night – and let’s be honest, some sober ones too.

I may have been bamboozled for a moment or two, but those seconds of shock and uncertainty were some of the most exciting of my day (I know, I live a wild life). Who dares to let these rough edges show, on radio of all places? Who dares to create something so uncomfortable, in the name of art? Not many artists who get airplay, that’s who.

And this, time and again, is why Lorde stands out. Because she refuses to shy away from a little ugliness, that little ugliness that is an inescapable and very real part of life, and which gives her art all the more credibility and daring.

Confessions of a (happy) hypocrite.

While the rest of the world is consumed with the creation and perusing of ‘Best Of 2015’ lists (and, okay, I may even do my own before NYE. Maybe.), I am a little preoccupied at how my musical year has, ahem, played out.

Because no matter how you look at it, there is no denying that the music that attracted my ears in 2015 has forced me to eat large helpings of my own words, with a generous side of Humble Pie. Let’s take a look at those wonderfully self-assured and longstanding opinions that fell by the wayside this year, shall we?

“Like, she can write lyrics and stuff, but I will never, ever, ever, EVER be a Taylor Swift fan.”

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Yes, you, Taylor. I will never, ever, ever-..oh, what the hell.

Okay, in no universe do I start sentences with ‘like’, but the general sentiment still stands. And yes, even in a stadium of 76,000 bellowing Swifties, in the presence of the songstress herself, I could only halfheartedly join in towards the end of Love Story (because, key change you guys…I’m a musician, not a robot).

But in no universe can I deny that T-Swizzle got me good with 1989. And then Red. And finally, towards the end of term 4, when sanity is a scarce but valuable commodity, best fuelled by soothing simplicity and unabashed singalongs, even some of Fearless and Speak Now. All I need now is a flower crown…

“I am not a pop fan. I am NOT a pop fan!”

TayTay aside, there has been a steady flow of pop in my album rotation this year. 2015 hasn’t been a particularly exciting year for music releases, but there have been some pretty sweet pop tunes floating around…and, much to my surprise, I found myself relishing the structural security and devilishly catchy choruses of the genre I have often dismissed, nay, disowned, in a misguided attempt at street-cred (which you can thank 14yo Jessie for).

It wasn’t until I’d worn the Chet Faker and Marcus Marr collab ragged in a mere afternoon that I realised I’d better just own up: I AM a pop fan. Good pop, mind…but more on that another day.

“Streaming? Pah! I’ll always prefer my real-life CD collection.”

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‘Nuff said.

I clung valiantly to my ideals…until The Beatles started streaming. Done dealio. THE WORLD IS IN MY HEADPHONES RIGHT NOW.

Who’d have thought being a hypocrite openminded could be so profitable?!  Wonders never cease…

Image sources: Stereogum That Eric Alper

On repeat lately (#1)

The Trouble With Us – Marcus Marr & Chet Faker

Marcus Marr + Chet Faker = beautiful, crazy-cool pop. I’m a sucker for a groove and this is a good ‘un.

 

Skeleton – Gabrielle Aplin

Punchy pop-rock with a slick vibe, finds a ballsy mid-ground somewhere between venom and broken-hearted indignation.

 

Style – Taylor Swift

Send help, I’ve been possessed by the (darn good) mainstream.

 

All Night – Slum Sociable

Sensuous, dance-influenced indie-pop that was probably written at 2am. Listen when in languid mood (perhaps after a glass or two of red).

 

I’m Growing A Beard Downstairs For Christmas – Kate Miller-Heike ft. The Beards

Amongst the piles of mass-produced, soulless Christmas cheese (*coughsKylieMinoguecoughs*), this gem flips the bird to all the fakery of modern society. And it’s catchy as all get-out.

Confessions of a ‘1989’ listener

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Generally speaking, pop music makes me uncomfortable. It’s too loud, it’s too catchy, too mundane, too…easy.

So I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought a copy of Taylor Swift’s 1989.

I’d heard Shake It Off, I’d watched the Blank Space video (which, incidentally, makes for a terrific reaction from all car-lovers… girly screams galore, and that was just my dad). But you know, I didn’t think this was my thing. What did interest me, was how a musician could leap from one genre to the other and bring their fans with them. So I handed over $22 to satisfy my curiosity and listened to the whole damn thing in one sitting. Call it research.

Oddly enough, I can recall my first encounter with Taylor Swift rather vividly – especially given that was a figurative sentence, not a reference to a face-to-face encounter. It was my 17th birthday, I was cruising down the freeway, and one of my best friends (and enthusiastic Swifty) couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard Swift’s eponymous debut album. ‘Play’ was pressed accordingly and I found myself privy to someone else’s love-life in a matter of seconds. I was fascinated; not just by these uncensored matters of the heart, but by the neatness of the meter and rhyme (Edward Lear’s poetry was always my jam).

Seventeen-year-old me may have investigated further, but Love Story had invaded the airwaves several times too often and I made it my full-time job to avoid this soppy, angsty, trash – much less ever seek it out. I turned up The Beatles and directed the full force of my adolescent disdain toward Swift’s crowd-pleasing love songs. Oh yes, my music snobbery started at an early age.

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But how time changes the heart. Last week, I finished my 1989 listening spree feeling subdued and emotionally spent. Swift has always been an earnest scholar of the laws of attraction – and her thorough research has given her reams of relatable material – but 1989 deals more sagely with that vulnerable place between teenage romance and adult affairs. The passions are stronger, the recoveries slower, the scars are deeper, and our narrator changed forever. If ever there was a time to apply the “coming of age” label, this is it.

And let’s talk music. In keeping with the magnitude of the emotions dealt with here, 1989 is created mainly from an expansive palette of 1980’s-inspired synths and booming beats. The banjo has been banished, gone is the girl-next-door twang, and the whole album is begging to be heard loud and live. Even I know this is not typical Swift. That was, in fact, part of the attraction. If I liked this album, I figured, it wouldn’t make me a T-Swizzle fan…right? I’m safe. So I can sing along as loudly as I like… *ahem*

1989 is a pop record, plain and simple. Swift’s knack for narrative and rhyme means she handles the catchy chorus better than most, and her snappy songwriting fits sleekly into her new choice of genre. The euphoric Welcome To New York is surely a concert-opener, Style had me at “James Dean”, but it is Out Of The Woods (which I invariably call “Into The Woods” because I am actually a forgetful, Sondheim-loving grandma) that forms the standout moment of the album for this reviewer. It’s a powerful combination of adult realisation and innocent hope, delivered with hard-hitting repetition and a plethora of backing vocals. Shake It Off pales into insignificance beside this kind of thing.

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So here’s my shocking (at least to me) confession: I’ve had 1989 on repeat ever since I bought it. I can’t say I like all the tracks (Bad Blood, for all its hype, is a little too whiney for my taste), but the bigger numbers keep me coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the inevitable relevance it carries for me as a twentysomething, perhaps it’s the fact that Swift’s songwriting transfers effortlessly to a pop sensibility, perhaps it’s just that sometimes you need to stop thinking and dance. But I actually dig this album.

One more confession: less than a week after purchasing 1989, I added Red to my collection. And though I will never, ever, ever, ever, like THAT song, I rather enjoyed the others. Which begs the question: after all these years, am I actually a Swifty??

Well, they do say denial is the first stage…