Thursday, November 21st, 2019

Taylor Swift – Beautiful Ghosts

Taylor takes a chonce…


Thomas Inskeep: Where we learn that Swift has ambitions of writing relentlessly overblown, ridiculously florid Broadway songs just like her co-writer, Andrew Lloyd Webber. And god, her keening vocal on this makes me want to punch someone.

Alfred Soto: Her voice is not her strongest element, a fact this farrago overlooks. By comparison her accent on “London Boys” is a Meryl Streep Oscar stroke.

Katherine St Asaph: I don’t mind Taylor Swift being on this, in theory (in voice is a somewhat different proposition); Sarah Brightman was a dancer in Hot Gossip. Nor do I want to reassign this piece to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cat. I could even, begrudgingly, stop minding that Nile Rodgers worked on this, or that there’s a gratuitous Phantom reference, or that the whole thing is a worse version of Jekyll and Hyde‘s “A New Life,” when Cats already had the blueprint for “A New Life.” But I do mind there being no structure, melodic, emotional, or otherwise.

Katie Gill: The idea of adding in a song to CATS kind of misunderstands the structure of the musical. You see, CATS already has a big awards bait song, “Memory,” which is musically is integrated into the show via a prelude at the end of act 1, other cats singing the tune at various point, and the prelude ending with a leitmotif often heard throughout the show. HOWEVER, now “Beautiful Ghosts” exists. It’s positioned as a direct response to “Memory” and ALW loves his goddamn leitmotifs so logically it should sound like a response to “Memory”, but it doesn’t! It just sounds like a Taylor Swift song! Likewise, if this song is a direct response to “Memory” then one would think it would come AFTER “Memory” or the “Memory” prelude. However, “Memory” is the emotional climax of the show and the prelude is the Act 1 finisher, neither of which are a good time to add in a pop song to kill the plot. “Beautiful Ghosts” should really be positioned as a response to “Grizabella the Glamour Cat” because the transition between that song and the next one is an awkward spot in the musical that the pop song + a bit of dialogue could help smooth over. HOWEVER, if you position “Ghosts” as a response to “Grizabella” then it’ll occur way too early in the film and also rob “Memory” of its lyrical impact. Part of the big impact of “Memory” is that you’ve had two goddamn hours of fiddle-dee-dee Jennyanydots whimsical nonsense and then WHAM, we go right into “touch me / it’s so easy to leave me” which gives us the big, giant, emotional impact that “Memory” deserves and dammit, I don’t have anywhere else to write about how this addition means that ALW fundamentally misunderstands his own musical so y’all are going to have to put up with me here.

Jackie Powell: What makes this recording so charming is how practically imperfect it is. And I mean that as a compliment. The attempt at a British accent aside, Taylor Swift did her homework. And I’m not talking about T.S. Elliot, which I’ll return to. This performance reminded me of Roland Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice,” an essay that discusses how perfect vocals aren’t what always sell a performance. The French philosopher and critic pontificates that a singer who is compelling has what he refers to as a “grain” or the “body in the voice.” In other words, when Swift embraces her weaker while spectral head voice on the verses, cracks on the last line of the bridge and forces her belt on the last note of the entire song, she embraces Barthes’ “Grain of the Voice” almost to a tee. Her belting is far from bodacious and like Jackson McHenry of Vulture, I question if this Andrew Lloyd Webber penned melody was really meant for Swift. But ALW did, in fact, need her. “If you can’t get T.S. Eliot, get TS,” she said while in the studio with Webber. “I’m here for you.” And TS does study up on T.S. In “Beautiful Ghosts,” Swift penned a lot of gerunds and descriptive nouns that have shapeshifted into gerunds. Or sometimes she just uses the suffix -ing more than twice the amount that Elliot employed it in his 1915 poem “Hysteria.” In between all the “Chonces” being “Bawn into Noothing” and being “let intou,” it’s endearing to get a sense of Swift’s acting chops via listening to her inflection, diction and even her ability to weld some dynamics that we don’t often hear in her own catalog. But Swift was in between too many decisions. Was this supposed to be a pop version of a Broadway-style song? Was this supposed to be akin to Demi Lovato on “Let It Go?” (Maybe not, as we all know which version of the song is sung at karaoke.) But with all else being equal, Swift shalt have made a commitment to one of these two worlds: she’s now clinging to pop but Broadway is now calling? She’s straddling between these two islands and it doesn’t work as well as she might have “waaanteed.”

Isabel Cole: Is it weird that I think I would like this better if it were more awful? Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber are not similar artists, but they are two people who have between them made [checks spreadsheet] a million bajillion dollars by being wildly extra and unafraid of leaning the fuck in. Many of my favorite Taylorisms are fun because of their hyper-earnest theater kid melodrama (just think of the tremor with which she sings another girl in “Style”); many of my childhood memories involve belting “Memory” in my bedroom. But this is just so… dull. TS + ALW 4 CATS sounds like a nightmare of unhinged excess, but this could be any generic Best Song Oscar also-ran; the most interesting part is that she reuses the best line from “Fifteen.” Worse, these artists who can write a hook that will be stuck in your head until the end of time somehow came together to write a melody so sprawlingly uninspiring I cannot hum it after several listens. There’s nothing here even to make fun of beyond (objectively funny) Taylor’s sporadic British affectations. Like, come on, guys: I’m not sure you can do better than this, but I know you have it in you to do worse.

Alex Clifton: Cats didn’t really need a new song (nor, frankly, did we need the new nightmare adaptation) and I’m mixed on Andrew Lloyd Webber at best, but this still hits my heart somewhere, especially with Swift’s breathy delivery for the first half of the track. I am both surprised and annoyed to relate to a song sung by a cat. Points deducted for chooooooooooonces.

Natasha Genet Avery: Let’s dispense with the obvious: 1. That newfangled British accent is…something. 2. Playing into her favorite victimhood narrative, Swift’s contribution to Cats *had* to one-up Grizabella (“At least you have something!”.  3. This is blatant Oscar bait. Now onto the meat: Cats is a corny and embarrassing head-scratcher. Cats is why people don’t trust musicals. I love Cats. To me, to anyone who has been in a musical, musicals are about unreasonable, outsized commitment–you peel off your self-protective shield of irony and spend dozens, if not hundreds of hours donning clown-school makeup and spandex, somersaulting across the stage and belting the praises of storybook animals. If you’re entrusted with a big number, you practice and practice until your delivery is technically masterful, if not heavy-handed. Beat me to death with that vibrato. Fuck me up with those dynamics. Leave it allll on the stage. And so, when Taylor set out to out-emote “Memory”, she agreed to take on 30 years of mockery, three key changes, Elaine Paige, 600+ professionally recorded covers, and countless school productions and karaoke renditions. A lot of people fault Taylor for being a try-hard (I’ve always found it sort of endearing), but here, she simply didn’t try hard enough. Swift admitted that she wrote most of “Beautiful Ghosts” “immediately after hearing the song for the first time.” Without T.S. Eliot’s hand, Beautiful Ghosts” is empty, untouched by whimsy. Oh, and the singing: Swift is sorely out of her depth, and mostly opts for limp falsetto, culminating in a strained, awkward belt. We’ll see what Francesca Hayward does with it, but for now “Beautiful Ghosts” should get booted from the clowder.

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: I consume music of all genres voraciously — with the exception of musical soundtracks. This is for a number of reasons: 1) I haven’t seen a lot of musicals, 2) for the ones I have seen, I tend to find the music and lyricism overwrought and boring, and 3) I would prefer to just listen to artists’ original music outside the parameters set by some make believe world. I was worried that I would have a tough time trying to check my own bias in reviewing this song, but am now relieved and confident in asserting that “Beautiful Ghosts” is objectively bad. In an alternate reality, this could be a compelling country-lite track on Fearless or Red, or even a synth heavy ballad on 1989, but here, Taylor just sounds drowsy with a weird British accent, selling a metaphor that makes about as much sense as the utterly bizarre Cats movie trailer.  

Andy Hutchins: One tweet that has stuck with me is the one that correctly called Reputation — before its release, even! — the final boss of 2017. I think Cats might play a similar role for the final days of 2019 and the first month or so of 2020, even if its pitch is obviously to a smaller segment of the population than pre-Crisis Taylor reached. So how convenient it is that we have Taylor here, indulging her theater kid impulses with none other than Andrew fucking Lloyd fucking Webber co-writing, singing her heart out in the ingenue role she’s clung to throughout her 20s for better and worse (which is, hilariously, not her role in the film itself!), pining for something wild for what feels like the 20th time. “Beautiful Ghosts” is as subtle as a hurricane, and churns powerfully, and Taylor almost hits that note at the end — the strings wouldn’t swell if she’d hit it perfect, of course. It’s good. Fine. Whatever. This sort of hopeful schmaltz is so safe, though, that it mostly makes me wish that Taylor were still willing to take excursions from beaten paths: That way lies “Style,” even if you might have to double back from the doorsteps of “Look What You Made Me Do” or “End Game” on occasion.

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6 Responses to “Taylor Swift – Beautiful Ghosts”

  1. I feel like I’m missing something? Both the ‘chances’ have pretty clear ‘a’s

  2. In American English, it makes sense to render the RP “chahnce” vowel sound as “chonce.”

    Compare to how she sings “dance” later in the song: that is a bit affected and not quite the American “dance” (rhyming with “pants”) that she uses in, e.g. “Holy Ground,” but it’s not the “dahnce” that a natural “chahnce”-sayer would say.

  3. i’m living for katie’s CATS indignation

  4. It’s just BASIC STRUCTURE and BASIC MUSICAL THEORY and goddammit ALW I know that you’ve been phoning it in ever since the trainwreck that is Love Never Dies but at least put in a little bit of effort.

  5. what if the nightmarish remake was alw taking revenge on his cat

  6. plot twist: the new Cats film was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who has been Andrew Lloyd Webber this entire time