With "Shake It Off," music's most dependable superstar dives into the unknown… and sticks the landing.
Confession: I love Taylor Swift's country side. She's an incredible songwriter that has built an empire on evocative storytelling and polished guitar arrangements. So when I first heard her new single, "Shake It Off," I didn't know what to do.
Swift has done straight-up pop music before, working with "Shake It Off's" producers, Max Martin and Shellback, on multiple singles from her last album, 2012's Red. But this was something entirely different. Gone was even the pretense of her country influences, the invigorating guitar lick from "22" swapped out for a low-punching saxophone riff, the conversational details in the lyrics of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" replaced by universal mantras that could belong to anyone. It was a jarring first listen, and when it was over, I started counting backwards to the release of "Mine," the intricately crafted lead single to her 2010 album Speak Now. Was that story only spun four years, and two albums, ago? Was that Taylor Swift gone, replaced by an artist whose most unique features had been sanded off?
But then I listened to "Shake It Off" again, and started noticing the immaculate design -- the way she connects the lines of her verses with "mm-mm's," the handclaps that she conjures when she's about to drop that "sick beat" in the bridge, the descending notes in the chorus ("Players gonna play, play, play, play play") that make her declarations about the state of the world sound all the more inevitable. Again, Swift has done this before: "22," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "I Knew You Were Trouble" were lynchpin moments on Red, one of the most fully formed mainstream albums of the decade. But she's never barreled through hooks so efficiently, or presented her melodies so euphorically.
"Shake It Off" is not, in fact, the sound of Swift losing her most defining features, or becoming a generic pop artist. Taylor is still being Taylor, the type of writer any musician would dream of becoming, but she's shedding her damaged skin like a snake and morphing into a more carefree, confident narrator. The lonesomeness of a line like "Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?/The girl in the dress cried the whole way home," from her stunning 2010 ballad "Dear John," is now a nonchalant shoulder-shrug; Swift is now older, more world-weary, and less prone to crumbling when she gets pricked.
"I go on too many dates! But I can't make them stay!" she jubilantly cries in the first verse of "Shake It Off," sounding like she doesn't give a damn about how that line is construed in relation to her well-documented dating history, because, as she concludes, haters gonna hate anyway. On "Shake It Off" and its accompanying music video, Swift is demonstrating a complete lack of vulnerability -- speculate about her love life! Watch her mess up her dance moves! See if she cares! -- and has selected the medium of pop music to make her sloganeering all the more crystal-clear. Haters can, indeed, keep hating. Meanwhile, Swift will keep serving up choruses that every college party sings along to come autumn.
Everyone hates change, especially when the old way of doing things feels so reliable. However, why would anyone want the world's most celebrated artists to do the same thing over and over? The best musical minds change and evolve, moving beyond their well-proven formula to try and crack another code. Kanye West did it last year, momentarily leaving the warmth of his soulful hip-hop to create a pissed-off rock opus. Gwen Stefani left her rock band No Doubt to make a solo pop album -- imagine if that had happened in the Twitter era! Swift more or less made a stylistic sea change on Red, moving into a more diverse array of bubblegum, folk and arena-rock after perfecting her country-pop aesthetic on Speak Now. She could have kept straddling the line between genres on 1989, but isn't this -- a full-on pop spectacle, as Swift has announced -- more exciting? It might be great and it might be terrible, but Swift's first post-Red project will be a bold foray into the unknown, rather than a predictable hit that she can toss upon a mountain of other accomplishments.
Taylor Swift may not be a pop artist forever, or even for very long; perhaps later in her career, she'll return to country music with open arms. I wouldn't be shocked if she made an acoustic album someday. However, this is where she is right now -- holding oversized boom boxes in gaudy music videos, jiving with Max Martin in the studio, flipping off the naysayers who don't think she can make spectacular pop music. She can, and she will. The rest of us will just have to get used to it.