Monday, February 16th, 2015

Taylor Swift – Style

Midnight memories…


Luisa Lopez: The first time I heard “Style,” I thought it was a Spotify ad for a different artist. That was the only way it felt possible to conceive of things like Taylor Swift and minor keys and the slinky foglike repetition of those opening chords existing so close to each other, painting a portrait of nighttime and sex and the delirium that comes with the memory the next afternoon. The greatness of 1989 isn’t so much that Swift transcends boundaries as that she chooses to measure herself against new ones, so it’s not a mistake that “Style” doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio right now. When it does trip into familiar territory — when it arrives at last into the field of major keys and constant beats — it’s almost too late and the recollection of those early passages feels unshakeable. This makes the song a tribute to sex, rather than love — not entirely new territory for Swift but, with the exception of “Treacherous” on Red nearly three years ago now, rarely something she has approached so distinctly and with such vigor. “Style” delights in curling around moments of desire and turning them into hooks, in making what was once sacred a party. The stories we tell about sex are different from the ones we tell about love: they are not necessarily lesser but they often seem to linger in one place, to wrap themselves around specific images, to resist the scope promised by love. Swift knows this and allows the greatest moments of “Style” to take place on the stairs just outside a dark room (“takes me home/the lights are off, he’s taking off his coat”), spiraling into the jazzy ether of fantasy. She lets “Style” grow from these images and it becomes a tribute to desire, to the wandering ghostlike thoughts we hold for the bodies we crave, to the extraordinary starlight of our want. Which is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for Harry Styles, I bet.

Edward Okulicz: It’s not entirely about Harry Styles (she’s been over him since the Red promo campaign, shippers!), but being a resourceful songwriter, Swift has no qualms about putting his face (and hair and clothes) over the top of the guy, or guys, it actually is about. What’s important is that “Style” is both catchy and clever, and Swift plays the stages of the relationship — getting back together for a weekend, feeling good, saying goodbye again — in a way that makes her specific experience more widely resonant with her fanbase. You’ve been there before, or thought of it, at least. The Swift of Speak Now and Fearless only hinted at the greys in relationships she now considers old hat, and it’s a sign of development that an artist who has so many songs of love gone wrong can so easily write one about how the End Of The Relationship isn’t necessarily the end of the relationship. “Style” sounds like a big warm life lesson, and like some might turn to their exes for warmth and comfort, some might turn to “Style” instead.

Josh Winters: The sky was a midnight blue when we raced along the highway at 5am on the last day of high school. We made a plan to drive down to Big Sur and watch the sunrise from high atop the cliffs, something we always wanted to do together. For me, “Style” is an aural photograph of that shared adventure, something I remember both vividly and hazily. I can almost feel the morning breeze grazing my neck, holding my head in its wispy arms. I want that surging synth to burn my skin like how the leather seats in his car would, surrendering to the melting heat. I wish the song could stretch itself out as long as the California coastline, soundtracking an entire day at 70mph with the orange sun and the ocean blue.

Michelle Ofiwe: A groove-funk guitar, thumping bass, and Taylor Swift singing on key makes for a decent jam. As someone going “round and round” with a few people (and feelings) in her life, I probably identified with the lyrics more than I am completely comfortable with, but that definitely doesn’t mean that Swift couldn’t stand to think a lil bigger next time. “You’ve got that daydream James Dean look in your eye?” “I’ve got that red lip classic thing that you like?” Something’s definitely gone out of a style, and it’s Swift’s songwriting templates. 

Mo Kim: That guitar is funky as all get-out, and the synths swirl around everything like mist at a high school prom. Taylor puts on her reddest lipstick and goes dancing. It’s all sultry longing until she finally cracks on the bridge, asking her James Dean daydream lover to take her out. 1989 is Taylor Swift’s mall makeover montage album, and this one of its quietly blooming highlights: the vulnerability in wanting somebody rarely sounds this self-assured and strong.

Alfred Soto: Taking to sequencers like she once did fiddles, Swift hooks up boilerplate teenage erotica about James Dean white T-shirts and slicked back long hair to an electronic pulse, as nervous as a young heart in love, as fresh as a good kiss. The strummed rhythm hook is heaven on earth. Shading comes when she follows the bit about her knowing the boyfriend’s going out with other girls with the line, “I’ve been there too a few times.” If the song has problems, blame the Dean reference: no one her generation gets it, and hey, James Dean was not sexy, even in a white T-shirt.

Patrick St. Michel: 1989 wasn’t much Taylor Swift’s “first documented official pop album” as much as her first opportunity to play chameleon with as many styles of music as possible. Free to step away from the country twang expectations that still bordered Red, she absorbed a lot of different sounds across that album to mixed results. “Style” is the best result; Swift embracing a sleek, nocturnal electropop chug and playing it for all its smoldering intensity. 

Jonathan Bradley: Swift’s vaunted transition to pop last year had more to do with the intricacies of industry politics — 1989 was her first record not to feature a single promoted to country radio programmers — than a definitive sonic shift, but nonetheless she has never sounded more urbane than she does on “Style.” This is the kind of song in which someone shows up in the chorus with hair slicked back, and for a moment it’s uncertain whether the description will end with a James Dean white tee or a pair of Wayfarers. But the adrenaline here is as important as the high fashion, and the homme fatale swinging back in to Taylor’s life sans headlights is as bewitching as he is dangerous. The video for “I Knew You Were Trouble.” began with a gleefully bathetic monologue culminating in, “I think that the worst part of it all wasn’t losing him; it was losing me.” Here, Swift seems to reconsider: perhaps that’s the best bit? When the pair slip back into her darkened apartment, he takes off his — ahem — coat while each murmurs admissions of infidelity as if the entire subject were one demanding immediate and intimate attention. The key-change that ushers in the hook, brochure-glossy, breaks the mood, but it’s there as narrative ellipsis, a cut away from wild eyes and bit lips to impossible, impermeable glamor. Maybe never getting that satisfaction is what keeps us coming back.

Katherine St Asaph: Taylor Swift cleared the pop-crossover hurdle with ease on Red, but her next task is harder still: to simultaneously go pop and go indie and stay comprehensible to the current and former kids, to leave every revenue stream as intact as possible. It’s a conundrum every pop star faces in our discovery-addled age, where musicians are sorta-freelancers assembling piecework fanbases from clicks-apart iHeartRadio and Stereogum. Taylor just has the highest stakes in the biz. “Style” attempts to solve the matter like most of her peers have: with Hold On, We’re Going Kavinsky synthpop. Smartly, she’s dropped the New Yorker cosplay — nobody in NYC has a car — for a narrative of the rest of the country, where her fans dream. The demographic juggling is masterful; I think of that James Dean line, because, of her listeners to whom it means anything, half will think of the actor and half the porn star, and given the amount of time Swift’s team spends milking social media it’s gotta be deliberate. “Style” is easily the best production she’s had, too: a midnight trip through reverb thick as headlight fog, deceptively lulling like a bad decision or like being tucked gently into the wrong bed. Swift is out of her depth — the lyric’s a fantasy about a guy who hasn’t called in long enough, in which he nevertheless thinks of her constantly and likes her for nothing dirtier than just-so lipstick — and the second verse is a vocal-delivery masterclass, like hearing lust and awe and resistance commingle in real time, some Cara Ellison Sacrilege shit. But the more I listen, the more I’m convinced it’s really Taylor Swift who’s out of her depth. I keep wanting another singer on the verses — perhaps Tracey Thorn; imagine this mixed into “Single.” And all the heavy air of “Style” is let out abruptly by Swift’s stubborn tendency — shared, amusingly, with the country market — to write big Taylor Swift choruses where they don’t belong. “Good-girl faith and a tight little skirt” is practically out of a tacky Florida Georgia Line song; “OUT! OF! STYLE!” is forced cheer; the rest is nothing but a “Welcome to New York” jingle about Harry Styles. He’ll deflate it for you.

Brad Shoup: If I were Nashville, I’d view this bittersweetly. Check that chorus: the pile of metaphors and referents standing in for characterization. She’s still a country writer at heart, even if she’s swimming though muted disco guitar and the general malaise of “Boys of Summer”.

Anthony Easton: I love how ever since Tay Tay moved to New York, she quit trying to play being homey. It’s like a gentrified seven-figure condo — so slick, so expensive, so beautiful, so fashionable, and so delightfully blank.

Jonathan Bogart: Too many signifiers, not enough signification: playing dress-up in 80s sophistipop is hard to pull off when your voice still twitches as nervously as suburban pop-punk.

Will Adams: Finally, a good single. “Style” is the best argument for 1989‘s cultural dominance, not only anticipating the rising disco trend in pop music but executing it near perfectly. The songwriting, too, is top-quality; the back-and-forth, is-this-good-for-me conceit is reflected in the minor verses and major choruses, and the lush production is the album’s most sophisticated offering. If there any sign that Swift has successfully crossed over, this is it.

Ian Mathers: On initial listens “Style” didn’t seem like an obvious choice for a single; among other things the lyrics, especially the chorus, find her at maybe her least relatable or accessible. Many, many people, including Taylor Swift fans, never find themselves in style in the first place, let alone eternally there. More than anywhere else on 1989 this song registers to me as Swift singing from and owning the level of cultural privilege she wields, and the meta-narrative dovetails with that. This is the story of a rich, famous, beautiful, talented young woman and her equally lionized tragic/tortured love. But, of course, when you look at (say) the fandom for a TV series, the fans swooning over any given ship are not just identifying with one or more of the characters, they are enjoying them as characters, taking a rooting interest. And so “Style” is actually a perfect follow up to “Blank Space,” where, in the wake of Swift acknowledging and detonating her character/persona, she turns around and gives many of us exactly what we want; the next scene in that character/persona’s eternally lovelorn adventures. 1989 is, if nothing else, an extremely wistful album, and “Style” works best for me when it channels those feelings through the nagging suspicion that things should be easier. And of course, none of that would be compelling if the dark-night-driving pulse of the verses — which seem to indicate that Swift, like most of us, liked the soundtrack to Drive — and the bop-bop-bop-bop-gliiiiide of the chorus prove just as ferociously addictive as its predecessor.

Sonia Yang: I get a chill down my spine every time the guitar intro gives way to that pounding beat; Style is possibly one of the best nighttime freeway driving songs ever (though, I sincerely hope driving without headlights was only a metaphor for the relationship). Swift has certainly grown up since her good girl/bad girl dichotomy days. Here, instead of balking at her lover being “out and about with some other girl” and falling for his promise that she’s the only one he thinks about, she fully knows that all of this is going to end badly but chooses to embrace the highs of the moment. As for the video, I was expecting a darker palette than those lush, dreamy projections but I’m glad they went the more creative route.

Andy Hutchins: One of the things I liked best about Red, still Taylor Swift’s best album, is that it began with the sweeping “State of Grace,” and specifically with 40 seconds of the sort of riff-and-drum concoction that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any of U2’s 14-or-so attempts to remake The Joshua Tree. On a road trip with a dear friend as spring neared in 2013, I listened to Red in a car, front to back, more than once, and I loved its beginning most each time; if I were to take another trip like that one tomorrow, I bet I’d feel the same, even though that brilliant song is carried by the production, not the singing. All of that is to say this: “Style” has the best instrumental lead-in of any song Swift has ever recorded, for my money, and she sounds so much more natural in the breathy-and-yet-breathless mode she settles into for the fantastic verses of this song than she did singing big over an arena rock template. It takes only half as long for Taylor to sing for the first time on “Style” — it is a single, after all — but this song is all about style in the form of cool restraint, everywhere except the marginally too-busy hook, and it works beautifully because of it. Going 20 seconds into a four-minute Taylor Swift single without vocals is a massive departure from 1989‘s first two radio offerings: she’s singing by the five-second mark of both “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space.” “Style” is this generation’s most flawless pop star at the height of her powers and figuring out how to use them in moderation. Maybe it won’t net her a third straight No. 1 single; already, “Style” has proved enough of a slow-burner to cost Swift her chance at becoming the first act in history to self-replace in the winner’s circle of the Hot 100 two consecutive times. But “State of Grace,” never released as an official single, was the No. 13 song on the Hot 100 in 2013, mostly on the strength of sales of Red — and then fell entirely out of the chart. Sometimes the best pop music isn’t actually all that popular.

Danilo Bortoli: It’s truly interesting that we choose to separate a specific artist’s body of work into eras. It makes the fan’s work a lot easier and it gives them a kaleidoscopic view of the artist’s art, separate but still making up a cohesive whole. When Taylor Swift announced that 1989 would be a much more pop-oriented album than its predecessors, some people wondered whether this fact would hurt the immaculate cohesion that comprised a lot of Taylor’s earlier body of work (ditching country, after all, could be compared to resigning her own DNA) or everything would go down just fine. Obviously, all of this proved to be just mindless, simpleton incorrect guessings. But what’s left of all of this is that Taylor’s musical DNA is more austere than we’ve thought. Working as proof for my thesis is the fact that “Style” is one of the most unpredictable songs off the album. In some ways, classic Taylor is still here — it’s, somehow, always been present in the word plays and her blatant hatred of boredom. Still, this is a Neon Indian-esque take on Purple Rain and any other mildly cinematic music — songs whose only purpose is to evoke very specific imagery. In this case, “Style” succeeds because its lyrical themes — James Dean’s iconism, vapid romances, love and fashion as matters of style — are as fugacious and ephemeral as the song’s dreamlike sound, evoking, mainly because of Taylor’s unusual talent as a songwriter, the kind of infatuation brought by the act of falling in love and still resisting the impending tragedy related to loving. But unlike her other songs, “Style” only covers half of the truth related to the early stages of romance and when you already know how everything will go down, still willing to go along with it. Which is to say this is mindless behavior beautifully put inside a perfect pop song. And the best part is that she didn’t need a James Dean reference for us to get how the love story is going to end. Just like Taylor, all we need to know is whether she’s capable of keeping up appearances. After all, this whole thing is just a matter of style.

Reader average: [8.63] (124 votes)

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33 Responses to “Taylor Swift – Style”

  1. Can we just appreciate how amazing Style is? ‘Style’ is truly Taylor at her best.

  2. How was Luisa listening to T.Swift on Spotify?

  3. Asking the important questions. I wasn’t, but sometimes when I increase the volume on my laptop Spotify automatically starts if I have it paused. Left out for the sake of poetry.

  4. Ugh @ Maxwell sitting this one out too

    Does the quote “the only thing necessary for the triumph of Taylor Swift is that good men blurb nothing” mean nothing to you?

  5. this is my least favourite song on 1989, not because i think it’s particularly bad but because it comes so close to being great and just falls short. love the production, love the lyrics, love the melodies, love the rhythm section dropping out on the pre-chorus, love the cheekiness of the title and bridge. can’t get my head around that pre-chorus/chorus combination (individually those sections are good but, to my ears, don’t complement each other at all) or the third bar of the chorus going back to the I chord (soooooo annoying). the love this gets is totally baffling to me, but then again 1989 is also my least favourite tswift album so what do i know.

    that last background “tight little skirt” ad-lib is total carly rae. i think all the time about that isabelthespy post about how “i wish you would” should have been a carly song.

  6. “I say I heard that you been out and about with some other girl, some other girl, he says what you’ve heard it’s true but I, can’t stop thinking, about you and I, I said I’ve been there too a few times [laughs]”

    woooooooooo that second verse is just breathtaking, especially when all of her past songs are set as the backdrop. I feel like her entire discography has led up to that moment and god what an amazing payoff it was.

  7. 9.67 with 31 user votes. Shieeeeeet. Has anything ever scored this high with so many voters?

  8. I have been swinging back and forth on the point Katherine (and others) identified, that this starts off as pleasing Laura Branigan cosplay which then breaks character and becomes Taylor Swift(TM) — but I think ultimately I’m with Ian M., it’s not Taylor Swift writing a song about eg. Harry Styles, rather Taylor Swift writing a 1980s AU fanfic starring the media-filtered ideas of Taylor Swift and Harry Styles and posting it to the Internet under a pseud, so of course the protagonist has to be ultimately recognizable as Taylor Swift(TM) under the feather flip, or she’d feel out of character.

    It would have been a [7] for me for Branigan cosplay alone, debating if I’d give it more as I’m still not sure how much staying power it’ll have for me.

  9. I’d dock this a point today for the James Dean line, which strikes me as anachronistic; it’d make more sense if she referred to a James Dean poster.

  10. Jeez fam, T Sweezy wrote literal Ethel Kennedy fan fiction for her last record; I’m pretty sure she knows who James Dean is.

  11. IDK, I think I agree with Alfred. Even if the whole song is a retro pastiche, James Dean is still of the wrong era. Poster works, so does admitting she was thinking of JFK, Jr. or Patrick Swayze.

  12. I could see Katherine’s interpretation (James Dean/Deen); I could also see Swift casting herself (or, rather, “Taylor Swift,” the protagonist and narrator of 1989) as Natalie Wood — “Style” then not being a nod to Rebel Without a Cause but a nod to all the hooking up that was going on during the filming of Rebel Without a Cause. Which makes me sad that there’s no Sal Mineo on 1989.

  13. She knows the names, no doubt. “Starlight,” the best song on Red, works (in part) because “Ethel” and “Robert” are ciphers.

  14. “Deen”

  15. that’s a vote btw

  16. I kind of cheated because I had access to pre-edits

  17. “Starlight” is still amazing

  18. Folks, I expect better of you. Ms. Swift may have input on what her hired songwriters and producers cook up for her, but treating her like the primary creative force is just bad journalism and bad for music history.

    She’s a likable entertainer at the center of a promotional push from corporate radio. So were Lennon and McCartney; they just wrote their songs with respectable but distanced assists from the other Fab and George Martin. Taylor gets Max Martin and Shellback to hand her 95% of a hit, and likely to coach her through the last 5%. She once wrote her own songs, and they were pretty good. Then she realized C.R.E.A.M. and the songs released under her name are even better.

    So let’s stop treating her as the primary songwriter. She’s a fantastic entertainer and the “Taylor Swift fan fiction” that her producers create is damn fine pop lyricism.

  19. The primary creative force of a song doesn’t have to be the primary songwriter.

  20. Wow, who is this Max Martin you have discovered Jeff. Pls tell me more about this shadowy impresario about whom none of us have ever heard anything.

  21. actually I’m pretty sure the topline writer on this is ali payami, but y’know, keep talking about “primary songwriters”

  22. (I’m actually not quite sure of that — he seems to be more of a producer but has been credited as a lyricist before — but I’m also sure I’ve done way more actual research on this in the past five minutes than you have.)

  23. (ALSO most of Swift’s debut album was co-written with Liz Rose, and then Nathan Chapman and Hillary Lindsay, but I guess Max Martin is different because…….)

  24. Also, this, which points us to this:

    “My friend Ed [Sheeran], no one questions whether he writes everything. In the beginning, I liked to think that we were all on the same playing field. And then it became pretty obvious to me that when you have people sort of questioning the validity of a female songwriter … It’s a little discouraging that females have to work so much harder to prove that they do their own things.”

    And this:

    “If someone has studied my catalog and still doesn’t think I’m behind it, there’s nothing I can do for that person. They may have to deal with their own sexist issues, because if I were a guy and you were to look at my catalog and my lyrics, you would not wonder if I was the person behind it.”

    And also Imogen Heap describing Taylor’s collaborative process.

  25. It’s a little more complicated than that. There’s no question that celebrity artists sometimes get credited on songs they contributed little to nothing to, or that were ghostwritten (see: Robin Thicke testifying in court that he didn’t write much of “Blurred Lines”); there’s no question that the music industry is heavily invested, quite literally *invested*, in obfuscating this to hell (see: that fact only coming out in court); and — this is probably not going to make me popular, but it’s true — in 2015, a female artist making a point of saying she has creative control, and making it a feminist-enough point, is a good way to obfuscate that if it exists. (In a way this is a sign of tremendous progress! But it’s also just the wee bit cynical.)

    The problem is that unless there ARE big juicy piles of court documents — which there aren’t — all people have to go on is speculation, and the speculation is colored by their pre-existing notions of authenticity and rockism and artistry. Which means it is disproportionately aimed at women and around people of color, and around pop. (It’s sort of like how people only complain about autotune in songs like “Buy U a Drank” and not, say “She Will Be Loved” or “Set Fire to the Rain.”)

  26. (There’s also a little bit of the very human impulse to be THE ONE who knows THE TRUTH unlike all the other SHEEPLE, regardless of whether they, in fact, know the truth or are just talking out their ass.)

    (That’s not even getting into Madeleine’s point, which everyone has made a million times and yet never gets to sink in; you’d never say that, oh, Maria Callas or Meryl Streep weren’t “creative forces” in their art, and they generally didn’t write a goddamn thing that came out of their mouth during the big-money commercial course of it.)

  27. (Like, C’MON MAN, don’t get your music industry ~*conspiracies*~ from the Daily Beast, that’s weaksauce, go straight to the source):

    “To be honest, that’s the only part where — I was high on Vicodin and alcohol when I showed up at the studio. So my recollection is when we made the song, I thought I wanted — I — I wanted to be more involved than I actually was by the time, nine months later, it became a huge hit and I wanted credit. So I started kind of convincing myself that I was a little more part of it than I was and I — because I didn’t want him — I wanted some credit for this big hit. But the reality is, is that Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song.”

  28. Sure, and Maddie’s point is a good one which I endorse wholeheartedly. But Swift is a songwriter with such a strong and consistent voice who has gone out of her way to document her songwriting contributions (and in country music too, a genre that has never bound authorship as tightly to authenticity as rock or folk-derived communities have) that to suggest without evidence that she’s suddenly abandoned that looks a lot like a specific and specious withholding of credit. And if someone has the idea that the whole thing has been a decade-long effort in playacting, I expect we’ll next discuss how jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.

  29. Hell, Madonna still endures these slings and arrows. Note how many reviews of Rebel Heart go out of their way to mention how many producers and co-writers employed.

  30. Doesn’t the delux version of 1989 have Taylor’s phone-recorded demos for some of the tracks?

  31. It does, but in a very pointed way that gets back to Katherine’s “in 2015, a female artist making a point of saying she has creative control, and making it a feminist-enough point, is a good way to obfuscate that if it exists.”

    It’s a smart move that makes sure her “first documented pop album” centers her songwriting contributions via her introductions to each of the demos, but to get a little conspiracy-friendly for a moment myself, I’m not sure it’s one that can be taken as a counter-argument here.

    That said, I don’t think there’s any value to Jeff’s argument to begin with, for the many reasons Katherine, Maddie and Jonathan outlined above.

  32. honestly I just outlined it as an excuse to link to the thicke deposition, aka the greatest piece of screenwriting this century that wasn’t actually screenwritten

  33. It’s people in the 80s wearing a James Dean look, it’s people now wearing a James Dean look. It’s ‘never go out of style’. God.
    [also people as perpetual archetypes who are inevitable in getting together again and again (or at least that’s the excuse)]