Taylor Swift's 'ME!': A Wholesome Simplification, And an Unexpected New Path

And just like that, the snake has exploded into a bunch of butterflies. That’s the literal metamorphosis that occurs at the top of Taylor Swift’s video for new single “ME!,” in case the song wasn’t a crystal-clear indication that the venom from the superstar’s Reputation era had been drained, the fangs upturned into a goofy smile.   

In the past, Swift’s lead singles have served as drastic departures in aesthetic: “Shake It Off” surprised by ditching the country constant in her country-pop equation ahead of her 2014 album 1989, while the chilly, sneering “Look What You Made Me Do” from 2017’s Reputation proclaimed that one of the world’s biggest pop artists was simply “the old Taylor,” and that the old Taylor was dead. “ME!,” the lead single to Swift’s upcoming seventh album, had been teased with pastel-colored Instagram shots and a butterfly mural — if you had been paying attention ahead of its release, you knew that this would be a much lighter affair.  

Yet as the song, which features Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie, veers back toward the bubblegum presentation of 1989, its ultra-clean positivity is fairly shocking when compared to where Swift was at on Reputation barely a year-and-a-half ago. This song was naturally going to be sunnier than “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me,” but few could have seen “Spelling is fun!” coming.

That’s because “ME!” does not really represent a return to 1989, which was a loving ode to radio pop colored by Swift’s pinpoint storytelling. Her new single is similarly shiny, and the tongue-in-cheek self-assessment of “Blank Space” shows up in the verses, but it’s also much more broad, way more cheerful and delivered without an ounce of sarcasm or snark. “I think that with a pop song, we have the ability to get a melody stuck in people’s heads, and I want it to be one that makes them feel better about themselves,” Swift told Robin Roberts about “ME!” prior to its unveiling on Thursday night. With its overstated drums, horn flourishes and gooey sing-along chorus, the Joel Little-produced single is founded upon wholesome fun — with, as Swift wanted, a hook that immediately gets stuck in your head to encourage the repetition of her message.

Reference points for “ME!” include Justin Timberlake’s kiddie-soundtrack smash “Can’t Stop The Feeling!,” Carly Rae Jepsen and Owl City’s happy-go-lucky duet “Good Time” and “Firework,” the acceptance anthem from Swift’s former rival Katy Perry. There’s also a pretty strong Greatest Showman vibe, from the generous portions of bombast to the heralding of individuality.

However, the intent of “ME!” most resembles that of Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes,” a testament to dream-seeking that has become one of the biggest hits of the past year. “ME!” is Swift’s first lead single with a featured artist, and while Urie brings his expected theatricality -- the way he yelps “You can’t spell awesome without me!” is particularly inspired -- his presence on the song underscores its inherent earnestness, since that's the mode that Urie has been operating in for over a decade. “High Hopes” brought Panic!’s technicolor, heart-on-sleeve sloganeering back to pop radio after a slow but steady rise back to the mainstream, and Swift was surely paying attention to that comeback when she tapped Urie for this collaboration.

The song’s lack of irony, and the frolic of its music video, are going to earn a fair share of eye-rolls and Twitter scorn. Swift is too calculating to not see this coming. Yet it’s clear that “ME!” was not designed for that audience, but as an all-ages crowd-pleaser, an anthem of self-love perhaps aimed at the youngest members of Swift’s stadium crowds. Some of the lyrics are downright Sesame Street-worthy: “One of these things is not like the other/Like a rainbow with all of the colors”; “Girl, there ain’t no I in ‘team’/But you know there is a ‘me’”. Meanwhile, the “ME!” music video, with its exploding colors, cat jokes and wholesome choreography, more than overcorrects for the dark undertones of Reputation.

Ultimately, that may be where Swift is headed on her seventh full-length: a marriage between the virtuous lyricism of her first three albums -- when she was a teenager spinning romantic yarns with righteousness and encouragement -- and the modern pop explorations of the three that followed. “ME!” is both a simplification of Swift’s sound, and another unexpected new path in an unbelievable career. The snake was a tricky image to pull off for Swift. It will be fascinating to see how the world embraces her butterflies.