It’s never been her primary narrative, but one of the fascinating subthemes of Taylor Swift’s decade-plus as a songwriter has been her gradual embrace of sensuality.
It’s been a slow evolution, to be sure; understandable, considering she was just 16 when her self-titled debut introduced her to the masses. Besides, as critic Ann Powers points out in her excellent NPR review of new album Reputation — released today (Nov. 10) — Swift was likely long influenced by “the reasonable fear that once a woman starts talking about sex, many people can’t hear her say anything else.”
Nonetheless, lust has long lingered under the surface of her albums, swelling cautiously from “Give me something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around” on 2010’s Speak Now to “I’ll do anything you say if you say it with your hands” on 2012’s Red to “Tangled up with you all night, burning it down” on 2014’s 1989. And now that her sixth album has been released, it’s hard not to feel like it wasn’t all leading up to “Dress” — Reputation‘s second-side landmine, and a blood-rushing slow jam that easily marks her sexiest song to date.
Of course, five years ago it would have been a lot more jarring to hear the phrases “slow jam” and “Taylor Swift” in the same sentence, back when it seemed Taylor only really dropped the tempo for lavender-scented power ballads like “Enchanted” or aching forget-me-nots like “Last Kiss.” But if you think Swift’s recent submerging in pop and even hip-hop has you prepped for this one, you’re mistaken. Because “Dress” is a slow jam. As in spilled wine and hands that can’t stop shaking. As in booming bass and spectral synths. As in Prince, D’Angelo, Rihanna.
That last artist is probably the most obvious point of reference for the song’s skittering beat and syncopated phrasing; the way Swift lets each syllable casually bleed into the next on the pre-chorus (“All of this silence and patience, pining and desperately waiting”) is pure Bad Gal. But the true precedent here is don’t-call-her-alt-R&B magician FKA Twigs. The song’s rising breathiness is a clear callback to Twigs’ biggest hit “Two Weeks,” including the way that hiccuped breathing serves as a long fuse leading up to the detonation of the chorus’ synth drop. It’s a fairly blatant lift, but considering “Two Weeks” is on the short list of the sultriest songs of the 21st century, Swift and producer Jack Antonoff can’t be faulted for borrowing one of its signature moves.
It’s hardly the only weapon “Dress” has in its arsenal, either. Once it arrives, the chorus is an absolute knockout, an octaves-up Swift declaring “Say my name and everything just stops/ I don’t want you like a best friend.” The latter phrase is a longtime specialty of Taylor’s, a sentence that skips over words in the name of meter and economy, and ends up ten times stickier as a result (a la “You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me”). “I don’t want you like a best friend” brilliantly lays the song’s intentions bare in a way that almost seems like a repudiation of Swift love songs past — her finally playing the Bad Taylor from the “You Belong With Me” video, with zero interest in helping the boy across the street with his studying.
And then, of course, the climax: “I only bought this dress so you could take it off.” On an album with no shortage of talking-point lyrics, this one is still likely to be the most discussed, or at least the best-remembered. As also pointed out by Powers in her NPR essay, Taylor has historically been uncomfortable with suggesting nudity to the public: “When you talk about virginity and sex publicly, people just picture you naked, and as much as I can prevent people picturing me naked, I’m going to,” she told a reporter in 2009.
But on “Dress,” disrobing is the entire point. Taylor even repeatedly stresses the “take it off” part, on the one in a million chance you didn’t catch it the first time. A removed dress as the song’s central image comes with its own significance for Swift: She’s used her dresses as a metonymic stand-in for her entire image since debut single “Tim McGraw” (“When you think happiness/ I hope you think that little black dress”), right up to 1989‘s “Wildest Dreams” (“Say you’ll remember me/ Standing in a nice dress”). “I only bought this dress so you could take it off” isn’t as obvious a sledgehammer to her former self as “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone,” but it still feels more like skin-shedding than clothes-shedding.
In the end, though, “Dress” stuns not for what it says about Swift’s evolution or narrative, but just for how goddamn good a song it is. The finest moment comes on the final chorus, where Taylor again repeats “Say my name and everything just stops,” and this time, the song stops with her, taking an entire beat of silence before catching its breath and resuming. It’s an old pop trick, dating back to James Taylor and Elvis Costello, if not far older. But rather than using it throughout, Swift saves it for that third chorus — when we’ve already been trained not to expect it, and when after three minutes of continuous humming synths, the silence hits infinitely harder than any further drop ever could. That’s the difference between a good pop songwriter and a great pop songwriter, and the latter is what Taylor Swift has always been, first and foremost.
Both within her catalogue and coming up the back end of Reputation — the song is track 12 out of 15 — “Dress” was undoubtedly worth waiting for. It’s a long way from when romance for Swift mostly consisted of slamming screen doors and teardrop-soaked guitars, but it’s handled with the same mastery of craft and assuredness of delivery that’s defined her throughout every stage of her career. As surprising as it is, “Dress” really shouldn’t be surprising at all.