Monday, November 13th, 2017

Taylor Swift: A Mid-Career Retrospective



Taylor Swift is one of the biggest pop stars of her generation, and an artist that we at The Singles Jukebox have already spilled thousands of words this year alone dissecting. Over the past few years, we have covered dozens of Taylor Swift singles and saw her transition from country singer to Grammy winner to massive pop star. Along the way, her relationship with The Culture has grown increasingly more complex over as the seams at the persona have started to show the machine that has grown around her – sometimes in a terrifying way.

To coincide with her sixth studio album, we have put together a retrospective. Some songs have aged better than others, some have been bangers from day one, some songs were crystal balls for the pop culture landscape to come, and some songs have helped us grow into the people we are today.

Take a listen.

Ryo Miyauchi  on “Fearless[7.45]

“In this moment, now, capture and remember it,” she goes, and “Fearless” documents the most electric memory out of Taylor Swift’s entire catalog: her first kiss. Like many of the songs in her eponymous album, the experience unfolds both suburban and fantastical. While the country music gives way to fairy-tale theater, she walks a parking lot as she gets in her prince’s carriage – most likely a sedan borrowed from his parents. She shrouds her date in fantasy to the point it seems too good to be true, but don’t we wish it actually unfolded this magical? Not only do her songs preserve memories, it glamorizes and even alters its narrative; she had the power to change the fate of Romeo and Juliet in the same album after all. Though she was wrapped up in fiction, she knew exactly how it worked. “Fearless” is the way she would like to remember it, if it happened at all: flawless and really something.

Will Rivitz on “Our Song[7.05]

I heard “Our Song” for the first time in elementary school, when a girl in my music class performed it during show and tell. I don’t think any of us in that classroom, her included, really understood the feelings Taylor Swift was trying to evoke with her lyrics – obviously, none of us had ever been in relationships at that point, nor had many of us likely even ridden shotgun – the minimum age for riding in the front seat in Massachusetts is twelve, solidly middle-school territory. That’s the thing about Swift, though: I think she almost uniquely among her cadre of pop-chart oligarchs understands how to spin a song in a way that’s relatable to as many people as possible. Even as an eleven-year-old who wouldn’t enter any form of romantic relationship until more than half a decade later, I could still feel the joy emanating from Swift’s delivery, sense the dizzying euphoria of being able to have “a song” with a partner, and I think the rest of that classroom responded to the performance in much the same way. There’s something about the way Swift sings (or at least sang in those days) which captures the sweetness and bittersweetness of young love that resonates with those too young to experience it as well as those too old to ever feel it again. Maybe it’s the bounciness and tenderness of the instrumental backing – the leaps and bounds of the fiddle in “Our Song” mirror Swift’s excitement perfectly – and maybe it’s the unassuming twang with which she affected her voice, but I think it goes beyond just those surface-level things. Taylor Swift innately understands what makes people tick – it’s one of the reasons she’s kept such a consistent stranglehold on pop-culture discourse for the past decade-plus – and when she’s channeling that energy into a more positive vessel, everything around it glows. I didn’t know it then, but I needed a proper introduction to Swift’s immense power and electromagnetic pull – and I think “Our Song” was the perfect choice. Thanks for singing it, Sarah.

Alex Clifton on “State of Grace” [7.27]

In 2012, I was a casual Swifty; I had a summer-long love affair with Speak Now the year before, but I’d traded that in for sad folk music. I was also brutally sad, having had my heart ripped from me by a boy who didn’t deserve it. The only consistent feeling I had was a blank nothingness. That’s why my first listen of Red shocked me. For the first time in over a year, I had words for my feelings other than just “_____”. I can’t tell you how many times I cried to “All Too Well” or danced like I would lose my life to “Holy Ground.” I karaoke’d “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” in a lesbian bar with a few frustrated adlibs; I still mark that night, surrounded by whooping women, as the moment where everything changed. Somehow, Taylor Swift gave me the power to feel again. But while other songs from Red were cathartic, my favourite remained the opener, “State of Grace.” It’s bombastic and anthemic, the best song U2 never wrote, while also surprisingly delicate with a simple chorus: “I never saw you coming / and I’ll never be the same”. Not only did the song knock me off my own feet, but it reminded me that life was full of other feelings—not just dark grey hopelessness or blue loneliness. “State of Grace” is a brave reminder, vulnerable and full-throated, that while life is exhausting, happiness is worth chasing until your feet bleed. Since Red, I’ve never been the same, and I’ve been much better for it.

Lauren Gilbert on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together[7.43]

“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is the sound of texting screenshots of bad Tinder profiles to your friends, of getting sloppy drunk, of eyerolls and your mid-20s. It’s the sound of the satisfaction you get deleting a pathetic voicemail from your ex, of knowing that he may still want you, but you’ve got so much better things to do with your time. Red was Taylor’s first and most successful reinvention, the teenager dreaming of ~True Love~ replaced by the twenty-something who has been on one too many bad date and through one too many screaming match with her terrible boyfriend.  It’s cynical in a way few pop songs manage; not just platitudes about how ~you’re better off without him~ but laughing at the absurdity of ever being in love with him in the first place. And love is absurd, especially in your twenties; most guys (and girls) are terrible, and hindsight is always 20/20.  It is never worth it (until it is). “WANEGBT” is a celebration of this fact: that when you think back on your exes, you won’t be thinking of your “Last Kiss”, but of that time you were thousands of miles away from him and he still claimed you were too clingy, or that those times he told you that you would be cooler and ~more intellectual~ if you didn’t listen to such trashy pop music, or how he could not fucking do the dishes. It’s made for being wine drunk in a hipster restaurant with your friends, definitely ignoring his increasingly desperate texts – or at least, pretending that that’s how well you’re dealing with the breakup. “WANEGBT” isn’t quite the bravado of “Sorry Not Sorry”, but the distinct and deeply freeing feeling of just not giving a fuck anymore – to quote Ríoghnach Robinson’s “CA”, it’s the feeling that “if life’s a love story, sure as hell ain’t yours and mine”.

Elisabeth Sanders on “All Too Well[8.61]

“All Too Well” is technically a Taylor Swift deep cut, but a legendary one, probably the best example of Taylor Swift doing what Taylor Swift is genuinely good at. It’s dramatic, it’s visceral, it’s mundane, it’s a little vindictive; it is, at times, inelegant, and better for it. Above all, it is incredibly specific, and in that specificity, somehow, universal. All Too Well is molecular in a way that is upsetting in its relatability—if you haven’t been there, you discover that imagining being there is easy. “Refrigerator light, the air was cold, almost ran the red” – this isn’t a scene you were in, this isn’t about your broken heart, but suddenly you find yourself weeping when she gets to “you call me up again just to break me like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest.” And this is the kind of self-reference Taylor has always excelled at—it is self-reflective, but interior, not a dialogue with image. It’s her looking at herself from inside her own rib cage, and telling everybody all about it. The feel of knit wool on the skin, a shard of someone laughing long ago, a feeling you can only describe in the fragmented memories through which you understand it, and all throughout, a direct address: I was always watching. I was there the whole time. So were you.

Stephen Eisermann on “Begin Again[7.95]

The best Taylor Swift songs have always been laced with sadness, in large part, I think, because these songs appear to be Taylor at her most honest. “Begin Again” finds Taylor reminiscing on a time where she felt a connection with someone when she was still busy picking up the pieces of her heart from a previous relationship. Taylor struggles to understand her charm or her attractive qualities because her previous relationship left her questioning her self-worth. It’s a feeling all too familiar and having Taylor, a gorgeous, rich, successful, acclaimed artist blatantly explain her insecurities is refreshing. I have always argued that for all the acclaim Taylor received for being the “people’s writer,” one who just told her story honestly, her stories sometimes felt a tad contrived and I never believed that she lived all the experiences as she claimed to in her songs. But with “Begin Again,” it finally felt like the layers of Taylor were being peeled back and everyone was getting the chance to see Taylor for who she was: a girl who loved too hard, too quick, too much, and who was constantly burned, often by her own passion.

 Olivia Rafferty on “Mine[7.60]

I was about 9 when the Season of Divorces descended upon my year group at school. Having parents that had split was a new badge to wear, and I was pretty quick to get mine. All of us were happy to sit in the canteen and talk about the scandals and tragedies of each other’s families, but I don’t think anyone really felt that sinking stone in their stomach until they had their first, real love. Falling into a relationship when all you’ve ever known is two houses, single parents and faded wedding photographs is terrifying. We’re all our parents’ children, right? We’re bound to make the same mistakes, and end up with the same, cold heartache. Taylor sums up that struggle of identity perfectly in ‘Mine,’ which is addressed head-on with the lyric, “You say we’ll never make our parent’s mistakes.” I only really listened to this song at 25, but that lump-in-the-throat line will get you at any age — “you made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” It’s the one that has you listening along, thinking, that’s me, that’s me. The song elevates higher and higher, and at first listen the wide-eyed abandon might come across as naivety, but really, its all about the freeing moment you realise you’re not destined to be your mother or father. The word “mine” starts to resonate on a different level: it’s about taking ownership of yourself, too.

Jonathan Bradley on “Ours[6.61]

“Ours” is a cheerful song — twee even — but the chorus contains a pensive moment, winsome and wistful and threatening to sweep away the good cheer on which the tune is built. “Life makes love look hard,” Taylor Swift sings, five weighted syllables delivered gently enough that their epigrammatic force is not given a chance to build, and we are not required to resolve the question of whether there is a comparative disjuncture between the two concepts or if it is the mere difficulty of existing that puts such strain on relationships. Swift has other lullabies — “Never Grow Up,” “Stay, Stay, Stay” — but none with that kind of undertow, even if it is for the most part almost imperceptible. The daintiness of “Ours” is deliberate; it cottons the relationship shared by two people into a refuge from disapproving fathers and superficial onlookers — the kind with “lipgloss smiles” who “throw rocks at things that shine.” The arrangement is delicate, with the easy intimacy of two people whose company is comfort, but that ephemerality belies this song’s resilience.

Eleanor Graham on “Style[8.17]

After Styles, the world looked to Swift to cast herself as the girl who was betrayed or brokenhearted or, at the very least, in love. What she produced instead was a song about the absolute glittering deathlessness of being two beautiful, hungry, terrible people colliding like atoms in some dark room. With lines about red lips and good girl faith, slicked-back hair and a white T-shirt, she leaned into the Lana Del Rey/Tennessee Williams “disaster of straightness” model, in which the meeting of hyper-femininity and -masculinity is necessarily destructive. But with the thundering “we” of the chorus and the admission that she’s “been there too, a few times” comes the realisation that gender and power are peripheral. There is no victim or victor, none of the moralising that characterised “All Too Well” or even “boys only want love if it’s torture”. At the core of the song is a truth more fundamental and American than any James Dean bad-boy narrative: that the universe is indifferent. The riff is a loop. The beat rolls and rolls, the road disappears under the car. Streetlight after streetlight. The highway stretches on forever. “So it goes,” she sings at the beginning of the second verse. They go crashing down, they come back every time; she knows exactly where it leads. It’s a story that goes hand-in-hand with high-pop structure. The relentless drive of the verse, the breathy cliff-edge of the pre-chorus, the primal thrill of a hook that feels like the destination – until it dies, and it was just fleeting catharsis. The beat rolls on, so it goes, like you always knew it would. “Style” is the best song on 1989 because it understands the palette of modern synthpop, not just the searing pinks and streetlight oranges and midnight blues, but the deep black against which those colours are set. The bridge exposes the song for what it is: an ecstatic cry of anger, desire, resignation into a night that isn’t listening, out of the window of a car that won’t stop moving.

John Seroff on “Fifteen[7.45]

I “got” Taylor for the first time with “Fifteen”. It wasn’t a huge leap of empathy; the song recounts her and her friend growing up at a Tennessee high school only thirty minutes south and ten years removed from my own self-mythologized puberty. Much of Taylor’s work from the Fearless era holds up to me as universally accessible, simply affecting and, while maybe manipulative, deftly so. “Fifteen” is a fairy tale about growing up privileged that hints at something more complex underneath the surface, a formula that’s been working for Taylor at least ever since then. Listening today I still hear plenty to recommend: the clarity of voice, that bright and easily-played guitar line, the sigh at the end of “next four years in this… town” inverted immediately with the hopefulness of “I haven’t seen you around… before,” the joy inside of “he’s got a car and you feel like flyyyyying” paired against the too-soon lament for Abigail. If it sounds obvious, perhaps that was the point? Anyways, in an era where predators shuffle toward the Senate (and the White House) instead of to prison, a pointed reminder that “when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them” is sadly more vital than ever.

Anthony Easton on “Tim McGraw[6.61]

This song, as early as anything, and just out of high school students, as early as possible for a performer, suggests an ambition for Swift, and careful ears. The critic, Maura Johnson talked about late Swift, or at least Swift’s pop turn, was a heel turn. But, Swift has always been a heel–smart, calculated, ambitious, and self-conscious enough to know that she was at least the villain. This paean to erotic longing, written as an act of nostalgia for someone who was too young for actual nostalgia is not only the debutante’s coming out, but an act of professional chutzpah.  It argues that this tiny, blonde, girl will eventually become as big as Tim McGraw. She saying his name over and over again, is an act of fronting, of stating claim. A claim that she passed about five years later, eventually becoming bigger than any country artist, and almost pop artists—with the possible exception of Dolly. But, Dolly’s ambition has always been softer. Taylor is harder and angular, recognizing and refusing to hide high femme’s weaponized blondness.

Claire Biddles on “Love Story[6.84]

Romanticism is an embarrassing byproduct of narcissism. We don’t want Leonardo DiCaprio as a knight in shining armour as much as we want to be Claire Danes’ angel, waiting patiently on her balcony. We need to be reassured that we’re desired, the prize at the end of it all. “Love Story” might be the most on-the-nose example, but half of Taylor Swift’s discography is this perpetual fanfiction, inhabited by parasitic romantics who need the constant hit of a happy ending every three minutes. The only difference is that Taylor has a conveyor belt of handsome famous men to play out her fantasies with; some of us have nothing.

Rachel Bowles on “White Horse[7.11]

It’s impossible to discuss “White Horse” without first considering “Love Story,” a song that showcases teenage Swift’s exceptional storytelling talent and uncanny ability to work with myth and the unconscious, here focalised from a performative feminine POV, that of a young bookish girl with a rich inner life, susceptible to romanticising. “Love Story” is an expertly weaved tapestry of cultural signifiers of romantic myth- 16th century literature, fairytales, and all the semiotic drift that comes with centuries of retelling- the sanitisation of Perrault by Disney and Hollywood, the commodification of romance and its resulting prescriptive gender roles. (As often with Swift, love is mediated through culture- she sees herself in cinematic flashbacks in “Love Story,” creating her own romantic myth even as she lives it.) Whilst “Love Story” is the ecstatic high of Swift’s romantic reverie, “White Horse” is its reality checking reprisal. Where “Love Story” has a rich, full sound, “White Horse” is musically sparse, acoustic guitar, with a little piano and cello and scant percussion in a strong and simple verse-bridge-chorus format, laying bare the vulnerability of Swift’s lyrics. “White Horse’s” cultural references are similarly stripped back in comparison, Taylor is in frank, confessional mode, reframing “Love Story” as a cautionary tale, (the self-referential nature of this song also foreshadows the postmodern, self-referencing monster Swift is to become in her contemporary reputation iteration.) Swift intimates the painful gap between reverie and reality, the danger of women brought up on Romance- wide-eyed dreamers left vulnerable to heartbreak, if not gendered abuse, particularly as many abusive behaviours and traits are romanticised in popular culture, from Rochester to Edward Cullen. Painfully, Swift admonishes herself, “Stupid girl, I should have known,” before tentatively returning to cultural performativity- she casts herself as the movie heroine speeding away, leaving her failed romance behind “in my rear view mirror disappearing now.” We’re back in the realm of myth, but Swift is wiser- myths are to be queered, one can perform romantic femininity with a knowingness, a complimentary feminism that she deserves to be “treat[ed] well,” that she is more than a love interest, more than this- she proudly goads her ex lover into trying to “catch me now,” knowing it to be impossible.

Edward Okulicz on “The Way I Loved You” [7.09]

Even when a Swift song is about a former relationship, there’s usually a third person somewhere in there. “The Way I Loved You” entwines the stories of two relationships and Taylor acts them out in a complete masterclass. I’m still so struck by the way she sounds so satisfied with her new beau in the verses as she extols his virtues before the song turns on the line “and that would be perfectly fine.” It’s like she’s unleashed the world’s biggest sigh and rendered the lines preceding it not as the bliss of a wonderful relationship and more a straitjacket of boredom. The chorus explodes with cliches — screams, fights, dances in the rain — of the kind Taylor rooted her lyrics in to give them familiarity, but she arranges them for maximum drama and impact, and at the last second she kisses the ex off just as quickly: “That’s the way I loved you.” Back then, she knew that some highs weren’t worth it, but you could still relive them in your head any time you like. It’s a masterful lyric, getting two stories in four minutes with all the trimmings, and it’s great fun to sing along to. It’s hard to believe she had the wisdom to write this at such a young age and then still went on to date John Mayer. Whatever; it’s a Fearless deep cut that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Will Adams on “New Romantics” [8.07]

“New Romantics” was too explosive and rebellious to be confined to 1989’s standard edition, and at times it sounds like it’s too much for itself. The second half of the chorus nearly trips over its sixteenths, like it might have been originally written at a slower tempo. That three note melody works its way into what little blank space is left, from its filtered mystery at the outset to a playground chant to the bridge’s plaintive giving-in to the love story that hurt you. The galloping, “Running Up That Hill” drums froth up the already frothy electropop. It is immaculately constructed, and yet it could break into a million splinters at any point. But such is the energy of these new romantics, disaffected as they may seem; they plunge headfirst into the future, they build castles out of thrown bricks and they destroy them. The scrutiny of Taylor Swift’s authenticity or whether she’s disingenuous or what she thinks about our president is ceaseless; “New Romantics” is the perfect rejoinder. Its boundless energy lets Swift vault above the petty criticism to reach that place, simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, of liberation.

Alfred Soto on “Blank Space[8.18]

It begins with soul sonic force synths out of Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad”—a lapse into self-pity? What follows is a finger-wagging gallop, an admission of caprice and recklessness. Her contemporaries envisage “maturity” as the accumulation of compromises and mistakes out of which something called “adulthood” emerges; Taylor Swift assumes that holding fast to a natural ebullience with the expectation that she’ll fuck up is worth it so long as she’s teaching bad boys how to be good. Adults act like kids all the time. Especially in a move to the big city. Especially in their twenties. Shellback’s production is the equivalent of surrounding the star with the most polished surfaces, in front of which, no less than Bryan Ferry or Madonna did, she will preen and construct a sexier version of herself.

Josh Love on “Speak Now[6.69]

Stories don’t come more shopworn, but Swift brings “Speak Now” to life with humor, detail, and, perhaps most crucially, expert pacing. Notice how the first verse takes place before the ceremony, the second gives us the procession and build-up to the vows, and then only in the third verse do we reach the moment of truth. Hence actual suspense is lent to a tale that hasn’t been fresh since Simon and Garfunkel were hip. Swift even uses her diction to lengthen the drama, her chorus stringing together elongated “ow” sounds in a way that’s not only mellifluous but also seems to slow down time itself. Swift’s early albums are where she sketched and fleshed out the hugely compelling persona of a sharp-eyed wallflower, a romantic misfit, a relatable Everygirl, “Speak Now” showed she was capable of inserting that character into any story and making it sound true to life.

Sonia Yang on “Holy Ground” [8.00]

Rarely do songs marry a joyful, danceable beat with such inexorable sentimentality – the kind that makes you want to shout from the rooftops as if doing so would release you from the sheer loneliness of being alive –  and do it so well. From the basic accented 3rd beats to the deliberate crisp guitars to the gently burnished synths, the arrangement is a driving force to be reckoned with, yet falls back into sparse arpeggios when appropriate – Jeff Bhasker’s production brings Swift’s vision to life like no other. Perhaps the most gutting of lyrics is the simple chorus – “Tonight I’m gonna dance for all that we’ve been through / but I don’t want to dance if I’m not dancing with you / Tonight I’m gonna dance like you were in this room / but I don’t want to dance if I’m not dancing with you” – the conflict is palpable and hurts, we’ve all been there, we’ve all had people in our lives that we can’t ever quite leave behind. In some ways “Holy Ground” is the more muted cousin to “All Too Well” – it’s the aftermath, months, years down the line when the pain is less raw, a scar instead of an open wound. It’s pure nostalgia, the gentle realization as you grow up that certain people will come into your lives, change you for better or worse, and leave forever, but the lessons they imparted will remain. It’s dancing to celebrate the good and to spite the bad.

Crystal Leww on “I Knew You Were Trouble.[6.45]

Do you guys remember 2013 when we debated whether or not this was dubstep for like three months? In retrospect, who cares – that electronic flourish ended up being a sign of things to come for Taylor Swift A Popstar and a reassertion that yes, this EDM-pop thing was here to stay, even after it had passed its initial first peak. “I Knew You Were Trouble.” is a paint-by-the-numbers track for the sub-genre of Extremely Sad, Extremely Banger within EDM-pop, but it’s a good one. This is needlessly dramatic and incredibly big. It is the sound of spotting that handsome guy in the leather jacket you’ve always had a crush on at the bar after one too many whiskey sodas and somehow ending up furiously making out in the back of a cab with him at the end of the night. Is he going to dump you over text message with the phrase ‘just not feeling it’ in about a month? Yeah, definitely. But are you going to have fun sneaking over to his house in the meantime? Yeah, that, too. This song will always remind me of being badly behaved in my early 20s.

Rachel Bowles on “Untouchable” [6.15]

Incredibly rare within Taylor’s output, she is not the author of “Untouchable.” The song is actually a cover of a Luna Halo song, a little known band outside of American Christian rock circles. Swift repurposes it as a stripped back solo ballad with only her acoustic guitar as accompaniment. It’s wonderfully intimate, Taylor’s percussive acoustic fretwork is almost tactile. Both guitar and vocals are quiet, amplifying each perfect aureal facet and causing the listener to lean in as does Taylor’s lover when she softly beckons, “come on, come on, say that we’ll be together.” Untouchable’s beautiful simplicity extends to its imagery, love as the sublime- “a distant diamond sky”; “burning brighter than the sun”; “a little taste of heaven”; “a million little stars spelling out your name.” It harkens back to Taylor’s first utterance on her first LP- “He said the way my blue eyes shined/put those Georgia stars to shame that night,” (‘Tim McGraw’.) Taylor’s love is elusive and requires a temporary dissolution of the self, an ecstatic “coming undone.”

Joshua Coppermann on “Out of the Woods[8.02]

One thing I noticed when going through Swift’s discography was that as her career goes on, her songs become less universal and more specific to her own life. This isn’t necessarily an original observation, and neither a good nor bad thing, but “Out Of The Woods” manages to balance Old and New Taylor, even if musically it’s indisputably New Taylor. While not Swift and Jack Antonoff’s first collaboration, this is arguably the song that made Jack Antonoff an in-demand producer, and for good reason. I won’t give him all the credit, as much as I adore the soundscape he creates, dense and bombastic without being overly earnest or sentimental. It’s ultimately Taylor that makes the song feel as big as it is, whether through the extravagant multitracked harmonies on the chorus or the bridge’s contrast between maximum Antonoffiness and a snowmobile incident in Utah with Harry Styles. As that section proves, the duo work best not in unison, but in contradiction, yet “Out Of The Woods” succeeds because at the center of their Venn diagram is intensity and anxiety – for Antonoff, to reach for the back of the arena, and for Taylor, to figure out whether a relationship is even feasible.

Nellie Gayle on “You Are In Love” [7.00]

In 2017, it’s hard to imagine a Taylor Swift who is this unabashedly, unguardedly in love. Every detail is memorialized in song, every glance and interaction fitting neatly into a grander narrative like pieces in a puzzle she would do in her picturesque Rhode Island home. 2014 Swift was just beginning her flirtation with public riffs. And so, perhaps because she was less preoccupied with maintaining a pristine public image punctured by several messy internet brawls, she willingly left every morsel of her emotional life on the table. It’s the stuff of wedding vows, the stuff your own friends barely recognize as trademarks of your relationship. It’s the ‘things’ that couples delightedly declare as benchmarks in chronology of their bond. Sundays with burnt breakfasts, the buttons on the coat you wore that first time we met in the park, the rides back home filled with warm and exciting silence. These are the symptoms, 2014 Swift eagerly tells her teenaged audience, of being in love. And for awhile there, the simplicity of this message was all she needed to be both a public and personal Taylor Swift.

Olivia Rafferty on “I Know Places” [6.08]

Taylor always has a way of making polarising any situation into a “now or never” quest for love and freedom. Two known celebrities ducking from the paparazzi becomes an game of World War era espionage, with phrases like “loose lips sink ships all the damn time,” and that neat little click of a tape recorder at the start and end of the track (are we being tapped, Taylor?). Playing into the heightened tension, Swift manages to convey the dichotomy of freedom and captivity within the song structure itself. Every verse is fenced in with snare patterns that thrum down like jail bars, whereas the chorus opens it all up with light and lilting vocal phrases that travel skyward like fountains. The tension and release in “I Know Places” is a perfect capsule of her 1989 era: thunderclouds lacing cotton candy.

William John on “Treacherous” [7.47]

The object of “Treacherous” is, in that infuriatingly common way, a dichotomy of “bad news” and charm, with whom every personal interaction, no matter how minor, carries portent and thrill. They’re perfect, terrible, elusive, irresistible; the sort of person you can’t imagine having and losing without losing your mind too. The weight of this crush – heaped stones sitting immutable in your stomach, piling up inexorably toward your heart – forces you to question the merits of your desire. Not in the sense that they mightn’t be good enough (because of course they’re good enough), but that you mightn’t. And when they finally enter your orbit, your attempts to exercise caution and foster intimacy with whispered poetry is futile. Instead you find yourself asking them to stay without thinking, because the pain of indulging what you believe to be unrequited infatuation is somehow what you think you deserve. Swift, finding herself here with the whole thing rolling away from her, doubles down on the pressure and discharges it by means of a second, spotlighting chorus – this one louder, defiant, and the more honest expression of longing. Vulnerability clarifies her echoing mind; the treacherous “slope” flattens to “hope”, and that object remains perfect and irresistible, but no longer quite so elusive, nor so terrible to behold.

Edward Okulicz on “Picture To Burn[6.50]

Given what she goes through now, it seems quaint to imagine that the biggest furor she’d created when she had one album under her belt was over lyrics like “So go to and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy/That’s fine/I’ll tell mine you’re gay.” Of course, she could have explained it away as a rejoinder to the subject’s reflexive “bitches be crazy” excuse, and she was young and shockingly earnest. Listening to her debut in 2017 is so bracing because it’s amazing to hear the world’s biggest pop star sound so guileless, even as she lacerates her exes. Her country pop seldom doubled as such excellent power pop, but what really sells it is her vocals. The way she lashes at the words “stupid dumb pick-up truck” reminds one of the tantrums that were probably embarrassing to watch but felt so, so satisfying to execute. And she never sounded more like a girl who grew up adoring Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks – the cartoonish revenge fantasy of this makes it no surprise that she used to sing “Goodbye Earl” at talent shows. The realest danger in this song is how she makes anger sound so fun.

Ryo Miyauchi  on “Forever and Always” [7.60]

“Forever and Always” does no good to better her countless criticisms of just how vile Taylor Swift can be. The crux of her loathing in the song is a sin committed by many men after him: a broken promise, this one swearing “forever and always.” The impossibility doesn’t matter as much as his failure to deliver, and how merciless she gets with her retaliation gives chills. She mocks his emotions and belittles him as a “scared little boy”; she brushes off her response as not offensive but that she’s only coming off strong and too honest. Already as a teen, she painted a classic, rainstorm-filled portrait of Taylor the Victim and masterfully denied any and all faults.

 Julian Axelrod on “Gorgeous” [5.87]

Taylor’s made her name on small emotions writ large; in her hands, something as simple as teenage crush or a song on the radio becomes a matter of life and death. When she’s off her game, you feel the chasm between your humdrum life and that of a massively famous pop star who’s been famous since before she could vote. But her best songs transcend her carefully curated narrative and feel like staying up all night talking shit with your fearless, funny, flawed best friend. If Reputation is Taylor’s heel turn, “Gorgeous” is her faceplant. Our narrator presents herself as a jealous, petty weirdo who melts into a puddle of dumbstruck mush at the mere sight of a British guy with blue eyes, and honestly? Same. Much has been made of the new Taylor’s lack of self-awareness, but “Gorgeous” grounds her bitter, boy-crazy persona in something tangible and relatable and real. It’s a nice reminder that Taylor Swift is just like you and me — but only when she wants to be.

Anjy Omiyi on “Shake It Off[5.68]

“Shake It Off” should have been Taylor’s last word on her haters. Instead, she’s still fighting this war today. In fact, right after releasing this song, she embarked on a campaign to show everyone else how loved she was by “building a fortress of other celebrities” around herself. Almost as if to say – these people like me, so why don’t you? But the answer to that question lies in the song itself. The handclaps, the catchy lyrics, the punchy horns – this song was made by black people. But instead of recognizing and uplifting those that contributed to the greatness of the song, she throws into the video a bunch of women of color twerking, with few shots of their faces. She and her team ignored the very obvious fact that soul music – and gospel music and slave songs before that respectively – were created to shield and heal from real oppression with lasting effects on the black soul and psyche, and instead proceeded to replicate that very degradation. She cannot enslave women of color to an image society imposes on them, and get free from society’s opinions of herself in the same breath. And until she truly reckons with her whole self – the good, the bad, the ugly, the real, and the imagined – she won’t ever be.

Ashley John on “Mean[6.64]

The rabbit hole of listening to Taylor Swift is getting trapped in an endless house of mirrors. “Mean” is petulant and a bit whiny, but singing along to it from my laptop speakers while drinking wine out of a plastic cup when my roommates are (finally, god) both out of the apartment at the same time feels meant to be. The boring arguments to be made about Taylor are whether we should be rooting for or against her. But “Mean” and Taylor Swift as an artist brings up a more fascinating question of how we understand lived experiences in the context of a greater truth. Taylor Swift is the biggest pop star in the world, and I think she knew that she would be when she wrote this song. Yet I would guess she still thinks of the person she wrote this song about. “Mean” is relativity theory, comparing yourself to your surroundings as a means of evaluating self-worth—a dangerous game. “Mean” is Taylor comparing her now to the versions of herself that exist in the memories of others. “Mean” is a question, like all of Taylor Swift’s music is, of how a life looks through the filters and refractions of memories, of stories retold in a new slant of light. “Mean” lives in the land of Someday and is built on the foundation of A Once Upon a Time, light beams bouncing off broken glass.

Julian Axelrod on “Clean” [7.16]

There are many valid reasons to hate Taylor Swift. But of all her supposed transgressions, “writing songs about boys” is the most suspect. Her reputation as a serial dater who can’t stop writing about her famous beaus is a distinctly sexist rap, one that never seems to afflict her male peers. (If you think I wouldn’t write songs about making out with Harry Styles if I was rich and famous, you are sorely mistaken.) And yet this read makes “Clean,” one of the most underrated songs in her catalog, all the more fascinating. It’s a song about being on the other side of heartbreak, when loneliness turns into independence and the pain fades away. It’s not vindictive or angry, and it’s not exalting or tearing down an ex. It’s triumphant in a quiet, hard-won way; you’ve taken your licks and been through hell, and you’ve come out stronger than you were before. And while it doesn’t reveal any salacious details about Taylor’s personal life, it’s one of the most personal songs she’s ever written.

Jonathan Bradley on “Long Live” [7.68]

“What is a legacy?” asks Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, as he lays dying in the denouement of the Broadway musical named for him. “It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” At twenty years of age, Taylor Swift was already thinking of her legacy, of what she had accomplished in the space of four years and three albums, and how she would eventually dissolve into memory and myth. These are large concerns for a songwriter who built herself on describing in fine detail the way trivia and ephemera can matter so much to the way we turn our lived experiences into stories: the times when a conversation, an encounter, a fight, a glance can mean the entire world. “Long Live” is a song about work and effort and endurance, but it begins small: “I said ‘remember this moment’” is the opening line, and it’s a reminder Swift makes to herself absorbing applause, the enraptured kind she might hear at a show or an award ceremony. Her love of story and ceremony led her to fairy tales at this young stage of her career, but “Long Live” is an inversion of the stock romance that was “Love Story”; this time, her fantasy tropes are used to tell a story of labor and accomplishment. There are still princes and princesses, but Swift makes herself the leader and the hero of a scrappy enterprise: “a band of thieves in ripped-up jeans” who light up kingdoms, fight dragons, trade a “baseball cap for a crown,” and rule the world. She takes the sparkles and ballgowns that characterised her public persona and used them to claim domination over the entirety of the contemporary pop landscape. In 2017, the idea of Taylor Swift as odds-battling outsider might seem incongruous, even risible, but “Long Live” deserves its sense of awe and fragile triumph. Swift’s rise was never inevitable, and particularly not in 2010, when her creativity and authorial genius were regularly trivialized, belittled, infantilized, and dismissed. When she performs this live and whispers the bridge asking us, if one day this should all come to nothing, to tell our future children about what this was like, I feel a sense of such uncontainable pride in this young woman and all she accomplished. She really did it. She wrote herself into history. This is her legacy.

Nellie Gayle on “Call It What You Want” [6.95]

Much as been said about Reputation‘s role in formally divorcing Taylor Swift from her lyrical and rhythmic past. Jon Caramanica of the NYT called it a “continued deemphasis of the sorts of dense narratives that were so integral to her early career.” In other words, the plaintive, warbling that once marked both her swipes and swoons at old lovers have been replaced by production elements that cement her place in the alt-pop milieu. But there are one or two exceptions that recall the Taylor of yore – Taylor whose songs contain intimate crumbs of old relationships, usually tactile things like love notes scribbled on old napkins. Trucks that break down on Southern back roads. Scarves left at a lover’s sister’s house. It’s not the things themselves – it’s how they’re couched in terms so specific they are heartwarming. This is what has always endeared Taylor Swift to me. Nostalgia’s strongest pull is in the details, and they usually casts ambiguous situations in a glimmering sheen. “Call It What You Want” is very much this Taylor, just launched into a new life phase. All of Reputation sees a young woman very much wounded by criticism – some of it valid, some of it barely disguised, misogynist contempt. Reputation is a sonic rejoinder, leaping from one supposedly ‘UnTaylorable’ genre to another. Here’s some trap, supplemented by the godfather of trap himself. Rap? Sure, why not. But in between defiant responses to enemies both real and imagined, my favorite Taylor nestles herself in choruses and occasionally an entire song. All of the aforementioned offenses are not exactly solved, but rather softened by the very specific love she portrays in “Call It What You Want.” Her carefully curated empire is under attack, but ‘it’s alright’ and ‘I’m doin better than I ever was.’ She hasn’t been rescued by a “Love Story”-era hero, but instead the situation is cast in a different light of her own making. Swift trusts whoever her partner is – and it’s unusual for her to truly describe a partner in her lyrics – with the most ferocious fights of her public life. ‘I want to wear his initial on a chain round my neck/ Not because he owns me/ But ’cause he really knows me/Which is more than they can say.’ While Swift is smart to keep the press and larger public at arms’ length, it’s through these salient details that we feel we really, truly know her.

Reader average: [7.73] (23 votes)

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10 Responses to “Taylor Swift: A Mid-Career Retrospective”

  1. I’m sorry, but are these average scores from a panel or just the score from the blurb writer?

  2. Also I am very pleased to see Treacherous included here

    It’s her best song

  3. It’s the average score from all of the writers participating (barring a few, I believe)

  4. we all scored the songs we knew well enough to score

  5. I hope mid-career retrospectives become a regular feature! I’m a fan of the idea we shouldn’t celebrate people just after they die. Would have loved to see one for Beyoncé last year.

  6. Also “Dancing With My Hands Tied” is definitely the best song on Reputation.

  7. It’s ‘Delicate’, but good effort

  8. Just want to say thanks for this. I agree that semi-regular mid-career (or late career) retrospectives would be wonderful. I recall an amazing retrospective on Kate Bush way back when TSJ was part of Stylus, but it seems to have been lost to the sands of time…

  9. I don’t love Reputation but I do really enjoy “Dress”.

    And yes, we will do these from time to time.

  10. Wonderful feature. I love all of the love for Red, especially the album tracks.

    If you retrospect on Bjork to celebrate Utopia you’ll make my holiday season :)

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