“I really like that new Taylor Swift song,” Amy says, without a single hint of irony.
“Of course you do,” I quip back, with a laugh that, truthfully, is doing its best to hide a disappointed sigh, but is failing spectacularly.
Separated by eight years, Amy and I are sisters, but we’re the kind of siblings found in the negative space of each other: where she leans more country, I skew more rock-and-roll; while she deftly handles the impossible job of being a working mother to three boys, I happily dream of a spinster’s future with my dog and frozen meals-for-one.
We’re cut from the same cloth but styled differently—a singular thought and convenient metaphor that I return to again and again as I grapple with Taylor Swift’s newest single, “ME!”
A song filled with jovial horns, rapping snare—a particular pop of percussion Swift favors—and soft pastels, “ME!” feels like it would be more at home on the Trolls movie soundtrack. It’s sweet and simple, but in a way that feels more like musical coddling rather than a bonafide pop song; it’s bright and fun but plays like a parody of the sweetest bubblegum pop and romcom clichés—minus the bite, wit or nuance of smart satire.
While the first single from the new Swift-era—TS7—touts the optimist’s banner and marching band ethos of “Shake It Off,” it somehow lacks the 1989-hit’s self-awareness and groove. In place of conviction, “ME!” panders to an audience like a $30 t-shirt with a feminist slogan on etsy; instead of sincerity, it offers up guest vocals by Brendon Urie (Panic! At The Disco), manufactured self-acceptance and the hope that you won’t think too critically of it.
And that’s when my mind warps in on itself again as I listen to “ME!” for the third time in a row, because I’m hoping I can find something in this song. I’m hoping I can find anything at all that I can hold on to because music isn’t just a casual thing in my life. Instead, I pop my earbuds out as the the final “me-e-e” fades, and I sigh deeply and dramatically. Because I’m that bitch: that bitch who so desperately wants to like Swift’s music, just like everyone else.
“Did you honestly think I was over Swift yet,” I fire off to a friend beneath a Spotify link to “I Wish You Would” from 1989 .
It has been a week, and in my manic exploration of “ME!” and near-constant lament of it, I’ve revisited Swift’s previous albums—except reputation—because, the thing about me is: I have never been a Swift stan, but I loathe the culture of hating a successful woman blindly. And Swift is a successful woman—and musician—who is all-too-easy to hate as a form of “personality,” or lack thereof.
And while Swift’s brand of pop is not for me, I willingly concede—though occasionally through gritted teeth—that her catalogue is rich with bops and songs that absolutely slap. It would be a boldfaced lie if I told you that I didn’t play Red-era mega-hits, “I Knew You Were Trouble.” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” on a loop in 2012—a simple fact that gently floored me then, but one which I tried not to think too much of. And it would be nothing short of blatant deception to say that I haven’t shoulder-shimmied to “Shake It Off” and ”All You Had To Do Was Stay” within the last week.
Because that’s the thing about Swift’s music: it’s inviting in a way that justifies its eventual radio domination. Sure, you might find yourself rolling your eyes at hearing another Swift-hit while running errands, but damn if you don’t know the words.
Swift’s music doesn’t demand to be something it isn’t. It’s pop, with all its cheesy hooks, infectious choruses and delightful tropes—at least, it was.
My constant critique of Swift’s music post-1989 is always some version of: “I don’t believe a single word she’s saying.” And I don’t mean that in a way that looks to repackage hot takes—and all their latent misogyny, inherent patriarchy and general disbelieving of women—as genuine criticism. What I mean is: I ask a lot from music.
Music is both a mirror and a mile marker in my life. It shows me who I am and where I’ve been, all while scoring the inexplicably messy parts in between. I ask music to help me find a space, in an ever-increasingly loud world, that is quiet—a place where I can sort things out; a place where I can cope, or cry, or dance, or simply feel. I ask music to keep me company, and I ask songs to still surprise me, no matter how many times I’ve listened to them.
And I know, that is a lot to ask of anything, especially of something which some consider such a static thing—that noise in the background that they hear, but never listen to; or that song that they hum, but don’t know anything about. I don’t know what it’s like to be that person—that someone who happily trusts the radio to build them playlists—but I do know people like that. Because my sister, with all of her successes and victories over things I will only ever hopelessly fail at, is one of them.
Music isn’t a passion in her world—it isn’t this obsession that she orbits around and within simultaneously—it’s just a thing that is occasionally there. And the feeling that I can’t seem to shake with Swift’s new song, and the feeling that I keep returning to—and perhaps why I’m so flummoxed by it—is that “ME!” lacks that passion and obsession, that conviction and sincerity, that makes me fall in love with music.
With its overt optimism and “Shake It Off” nostalgia, “ME!” feels more like it’s trying to sell itself to everyone all at once: a safe and sterile earworm proclaiming that, “I promise that you’ll never find another like me,” without a single hint of irony.
And that is when my brain crashes in on itself again.
Because technically, “ME!” is a sound song. The polished and pristine vocals of both Swift and Urie work well together and soar above the current of percussion beneath the verses, but the verses alone cannot buoy the song through the uninspired choruses and baffling bridge. If music is both a mirror and a mile marker, then what is “ME!” trying to achieve?
Where 1989 was sonically rich, with lush layers of synths and gated reverb that created a depth worth exploring, “ME!” is jarringly shallow—both in sound and lyrics. “Hey, kids! / Spelling is fun!” Swift and Urie both sing at the top of the bridge so earnestly, it almost borders on endearing, but then loses its charm along an elementary end rhyme and cheap wink at hooked-on-phonics. And while 1989 was self-aware, and Red smartly navigated the divide between the pop sound Swift would explore and her country start, “ME!” flits from cliché to cliché—how many fights in the rain must we endure?—and bounces to its own lackluster cheer.
“ME!” is the song that you hear while browsing the produce at the grocery store, find yourself humming absentmindedly and then never thinking of again. It’s effervescently catchy, but cloyingly saccharin; it’s relentlessly rah-rah, and therefore, entirely marketable to Top 40 and carpool lanes. “ME!” is what happens when someone blithely skims the top of pop music as a whole, and doesn't stop to consider where pop music is today.
As an entire genre, pop is more complex and nuanced than “ME!” would ask you to believe. While the gothic pop of Billie Eilish, moody pop of Lorde and synth pop of Carly Rae Jepsen are far from brand new ideas—lest we ever forget Alanis Morissette, Paula Abdul, or Cher—they’re all sounds that have been carefully and perfectly mined in recent years. Because pop exists, and has always existed, at intersections of genre.
The sultry shimmy of a blues-tinged bass line, the hypnotic thump of a rap-infused drum, the slick riff of an electric guitar—all these sounds and textures and more mingle within pop music. And while the lines between these divisions of sound—your rock vs. pop; your rap vs. country—have always been blurry, they’re nearly impossible to pinpoint today. Because, like most things in life, the previous binaries used to explain or contain them don’t quite measure up like they used to—the forms are outdated, the angles are too sharp, the lines are too rigid—and there’s a beauty in that. There’s something inherently refreshing in this swirling of progress and sound and invention, and pop—and music, as a whole—thrives when these binaries are challenged, or defied.
And while it is always evolving and constantly adapting to the sonic landscapes around it, pop music has experienced a pitch-tilt within the last decade or so; a musical shift easily traceable in recent “pop” releases. From the grime of Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? to the crystalline pitch of Sigrid’s Sucker Punch; from the indie daydreams of The Japanese House’s Good At Falling, to Lizzo’s brazen Cuz I Love You, the genre is expanding in all directions, much like our own universe.
But the thing about “ME!” is that it feels like it’s trying to make pop music in a universe that doesn’t entirely exist anymore. Yes, there is always a market for bubblegum pop with a positive message—and yes, “ME!” will be a successful single—but even bubblegum pop has risen to a new level in its craft and direction in recent years; a level “ME!” can’t quite seem to find its footing on.
And if it seems like I’m being overtly harsh, just know that I’m not begrudging Swift for pivoting her sound slightly or exploring a new direction. I would never ask someone to limit their growth—artistic or otherwise—for my own comfort. But, if we’re being honest, this doesn’t feel like growth, does it?
Don’t get me wrong, music—art, poetry, film—can exist for the sake of existing. Asking everything ever created to be something to someone is a tall order, an impossible task; but “ME!” feels less like existing for the sheer beauty of it—living as this fun pop of pastels against a bleakly stark world—and more like reactionary regression.
A decided shift from the produced grit of reputation and a far cry from the textured 80’s-nostalgia of 1989—or self-possessed Red—“ME!” feels manufactured and hollow. With its brittle lyrics and shallow mix, it’s almost grossly commercial in way that runs counter to the song’s mission statement of individuality.
Maybe it’s a pitch-tilt, maybe it’s a work in progress, maybe it’s none of these things at all; but, for better or worse, “ME!” marks the dawn of a new Swift-era. And perhaps the season “ME!” has driven me slightly insane in its first week of existence is because it feels unnatural to be knocked so off-kilter by a pop song; a genre that has become such a red giant in my life.
And maybe TS7 will be for the casual-listeners and mega-fans; maybe it won’t aspire to new heights or be the album that finally persuades me to become a Swift stan. But the era’s lead-off single has redirected me towards 1989, an album, I admit, to brushing off after a cursory first-listen in 2014; a time when my musical universe was smaller and frustratingly dependent on public opinion. Because that’s the beautiful thing about music: it finds you, whether you’re looking for it or not.
“I’m very glad that you have a new song to listen to,” I quickly typed to the same—and endlessly patient—friend. “Please play it loud and with the windows down; or quiet, late at night, with headphones in. Play it whenever you can and however you need it: that’s what music’s for.”
Ashley Cline is an avid introvert and full-time carbon based life form currently living in south Jersey. Since graduating from Rowan University with her Bachelor's in Journalism, she can usually be found singing show tunes to her dog, drinking too much iced coffee and wearing beanies. Her personal best at all-you-can-eat sushi is five rolls in eleven minutes. You can find her yelling about Carly Rae Jepsen on Twitter and posting photos of her dog on Instagram.