Love it or loathe it? EW debates Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off"
Taylor Swift dropped some big news yesterday—her forthcoming album 1989, inspired by the sounds of “late ’80s pop,” will debut on October 27. The singer also released the album’s first single and music video. EW writers Kyle Anderson (who knows a lot about music) and Marc Snetiker (who really, really likes music) debate the merits of Swift’s latest song—and whether it’s a hit or a miss.
MARC: Do you know what it feels like when Kermit the Frog dances? When he waves his hands in the air and lets his head wobble freely, as if little more than fabric and stitching is holding it together? That, perhaps, is how to best describe the dance I haven’t been able to stop doing—alone, in my office, with or without the lights on—since Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” dropped.
KYLE: I should begin by saying I don’t have any fundamental problem with Taylor Swift. She’s made a lot of songs that I like, and she’s made a lot of songs I don’t particularly care for. I’ve enjoyed work that she has done both in a pure country form (“The Best Day” is a tremendous acoustic story-song) and when she’s gone totally pop (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” remains my jam). But I find “Shake It Off” pretty repulsive for a number of reasons. I’ll start with the one that has always driven me nuts about Taylor Swift: Her inexplicable persecution complex. Sure, her personal life gets written about in tabloids, and she’s had to put up with her share of paparazzi, but she isn’t affected any more than any other famous person, and she’s spun the prurient interest in her paramours into radio gold time and time again. The whole “Haters gonna hate” refrain rings so unbelievably false to me.
Before we get into what a bummer it is that Taylor is rapping, let me say this: I’ll allow that “Shake It Off” is, fundamentally, a pretty good song. But Marc, doesn’t it seem like anybody could have recorded this song? For somebody who goes out of her way to market herself as morally superior to more manufactured pop stars (as she does in the video for “Shake It Off,” throwing shade at Miley and Gaga), this song feels un-Taylor to the point that it’s sort of generic. If Avril Lavigne had recorded this, would we even be having this conversation?
MARC: I wholeheartedly agree about Taylor’s bizarre persecution complex. Lyrically, she’s not reinventing the Swift wheel by any means—in fact, she actually seems to be regressing to her 16-year-old self, with the Carrie (Underwood) optimism and the Carrie (Bradshaw) hair. But to your second point: The over-earnest “screw the haters” attitude is what makes it a Taylor song through and through. It’s far too tame for 2014 Miley (though it would have been a slam dunk for 2008 “7 Things” Miley) and too aimless for Katy. But while it’s easy to be skeptical about Taylor’s self-awareness, it’s also easy to get swept up in her sheer enthusiasm. I have to believe that you can love “Shake It Off” and still fancy yourself an intelligent listener who fell for the melody, not the modus operandi.
The hook is catchy. The rhythm is custom-made for a jaunty morning walk or a casual treadmill run. Playlistically speaking, it’s got great tan-to-party ratio, and it’s one of those rare jams that makes you want to clean your room. As someone born in 1989, I’m not entirely sure that Taylor is the sole artist I’d pick to freeze my birth year in auditory carbonite, but that doesn’t mean I don’t unabashedly enjoy the haphazard fun of her first foray into pop. With “Shake It Off,” Taylor wants you to remember that she’s our last remaining link to an era of Gap commercials and B*Witched—or, if not the last remaining link, at least the most mainstream one.
KYLE: Let’s talk about that video. It’s totally a Gap commercial—I was mildly surprised when Lena Horne didn’t show up to scat until I remembered she died in 2010. And while I have plenty of nostalgia for the era Swift is tapping into, I don’t need her to be my conduit into it. Swift is arguably the most powerful pop presence in the United States, and her worldwide reach continues to extend. She has bottomless reserves of money, cultural cache, critical fawning, and a rapidly growing fan base that seems to stick with her at every turn. So while I don’t need Taylor Swift to go ahead and record whatever her Kid A would be, “Shake It Off” feels like a reductive step back. Taylor Swift is already a pop star, and she did it on her own terms. Why would she suddenly feel the need to play in well-trod sandboxes?
Also, you’re telling me at no point did somebody tap Taylor on the shoulder and say, “Maybe rapping isn’t for you”?
MARC: The video definitely has its flaws. Aside from crab girl, I’m moderately embarrassed for most of the dancers in the “everyone express yourself” portion. And if this is in fact Swift’s answer to P!nk’s “Stupid Girls“—which I glean based on both the pop culture jabs and the spoken-word breakdown that you call “rap”—I have to wonder why the satire is just a few layers too light to really make any sort of statement. (Also, Natalie Portman—why??)
But, Kyle, I will end with this: I get it. I’m playing right into Swift’s scheme to be seen as that quirky, fun-loving everygirl. She’s goofy and silly! She loves laughing and love and light! She dances alone in her room and spends Friday nights doing her nails and listening to the Spice Girls! The stars, they’re just like us! But I’m perfectly okay throwing my enthusiasm behind “Shake It Off.” It impels you dance, and hell if I’m going to go against that directive. There are two types of people: people who get a shiny red balloon and want to poke a hole in it, and people who get a shiny red balloon and lose their minds because they’ve just been given a shiny red balloon that, sure, might look similar to other shiny red balloons from memories past, but is still a shiny red balloon in the here and now. And who doesn’t love a damn balloon?
KYLE: If I want to hang out with people who are just like me, I’ll actually go and do that. (Both of my friends share the same interests as I do, which include muting “Shake It Off.”) Here’s my fundamental problem with the song: If this is who Taylor Swift really is, and we’re meant to take everything in “Shake It Off” at face value, then not only do I not want to spend any time with her, I also feel cheated. This weakens her past work, which I always perceived as being genuinely honest. If Swift is merely playing a blown-up pop character, then the song isn’t nearly big enough to justify its existence in 2014—not with the sheer number of qualified starlets we have currently filling the airwaves.
What I really want from Swift is an album (or even just a song) that genuinely reflects her current place in the universe as a privileged, protected pop star. She and her team go to such insane lengths to protect her “Aw, shucks!” demeanor that it has drifted cartoonishly far away from who she really, truly is: A super-rich twenty-something who is under no circumstances a victim or an underdog. I don’t want to hear stories about how much fame hurts, because we’ve heard that before. But if she really wants to steal the dancing and cadences from the hip-hop world, she might as well jack the braggadocio as well. “Shake It Off” isn’t the red balloon. It’s the weightless, empty air that fills it up: easily dissipated, easily taken for granted, easily burned off.
I’m not mad because “Shake It Off” is a bad song (because it isn’t)—I’m mad because Taylor Swift has every opportunity, and she’s not particularly interested in doing anything interesting with them.