Shameful partisan that I am (just ask those who, like, disagree with me and stuff), I can’t help but view the recent tabloid fodder around the Kennedy wedding with a smidge of interest. Specifically, this modern Kennedy scandal, as prepared for US Weekly, centers around one of pop’s brightest stars, Taylor Swift. I guess she’s dating one of the Kennedy boys. You know, the one that isn’t this guy. Or this guy.
Swift is best known for her pop country ballads that focus on her many romantic trials and tribulations (dating a Kennedy is only the latest in a series of ill-advised mates that include John Mayer). But what most struck me about Swift’s recent venture into the gossip columns is that it nicely synched up with the release of a new single. The song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” sounds like a curious artistic departure for the 22-year-old artist, accustomed to producing minimalistic songs on her guitar about being 15 and getting dumped at prom.
She is still being dumped. But, this time, she is taking it … with edge.
At first listen, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” feels like Swift’s first foray into deliberate pop territory. Kelly Clarkson long ago perfected the instantly catchy, but unmistakably bitter post-break-up pop-rock anthem, a delicious sub-genre of pop for many of today’s female artists. Tracks from P!nk (“So What”) and Beyonce (“Single Ladies”) tell similar stories of survival, female empowerment, and celebration – they are stadium-ready anthems for today’s iPhone generation. Especially for girls more likely to view Britney as a role model over, say, Amelia Earhart.
These songs follow a kind of tenuous logic. They reject dependence on men and urge triumph over despair, while all the same basically reaffirming the vapid ultra-seriousness that is teenage dating. No one more clearly plays into this commercially viable trend of third wave rock stars than Swift. With its hard but vacuous production and cute harmonizing, Swift heavily draws on some of Avril Lavigne’s best post-”Complicated” work while also building on this year’s biggest single to date, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
However, what distinguishes “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” from something as equally catchy as “Call Me Maybe” is that – deep down – this still feels like a personal moment for Swift. She believes the hype.
Like Eminem, part of Swift’s appeal is the way she personally connects with her audience. Each song feels like a glimpse into her evolving personal life and, more broadly, how her sound and worldview changes as her fame grows. She has her niche, yes, but “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” succeeds by being yet another earnest love song from Swift that somehow – miraculously – still feels urgent.
Whereas output from the majority of today’s pop artists feels manufactured at best and like pandering at worse, Swift continues to make it distinctly about her, to the point where I am always questioning why this girl takes her failed love life so serious. However, I am reminded that – unlike her much older contemporaries like Gwen Stefani (42 years old) – Swift is still very much a girl. So her tales of getting dropped by some boy, while enhancing her brand, is also quite plausible. That kernel of truth, in today’s pop landscape, makes a world of difference.
The moment that especially anchors “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” comes at 2:15. Abiding by formula convention, this is the bridge of the song. Swift doesn’t waste the moment.
Instead of some flat whisper relief (trademark of so many pop songs), or moment of instrumental overproduction (another trademark), we have what sounds like an actual out-take from the recording session. We don’t know where she is, but one gets the sense this is a captured moment in time. “So he calls me up and is like ‘ohhh, I still love you.’ And I’m like, ‘this is exhausting. We’re like never getting back together. Like … ever,’ ” says Swift to some unknown second party. Cue chorus.
To me, this completely brings the song together and is its own mini-statement on Swift’s popularity. It is as if that one sound bite was the main inspiration for the entire song – something that inadvertently came up in conversation between takes and was caught on tape. Swift lets her audience in and then blasts the defiant chorus one last time.
It’s the definition of what makes pop music such a guilty pleasure – stupid, campy fun. Her “Like. Ever.” is so oddly endearing while also blissfully, amusingly self-important and inarticulate. Yeah, Taylor: stick to your convictions girl! … except then you’d have no more material, have to go dirrty and end up on some god forsaken singing competition or reality show. And no one wants to watch that. Like. Ever.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” also succeeds by having it both ways. It is the most recent example of pop music flying in the face of weighty issues like women’s suffrage by saying sometimes the biggest problems we struggle with aren’t earth shattering at all. They’re basic and kind of dumb. But when you overcome them, it still makes you feel like rejoicing.
Like Kennedy’s Camelot, Taylor Swift’s discography is an exercise in a kind of winking optimism sprinkled with a tinge of idealism. Because, after four albums, clearly Swift is no good at selecting mates. The real story may have its blemishes, but at its core, it at least strives to be genuine. That isn’t being cynical, because deep down, even when the end result is grating or ego-centric or destructive, there’s true conviction. Swift’s sincerity is both her greatest asset and her Achilles’ heel. Sometimes, her self-pitying shtick comes off as just silly (her ballad to Kanye West comes to mind), but … I think she’s got a pretty savvy approach going for her. In the case of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” she nails it. Song of the year.