The drum beat that opened Taylor Swift’s 1989 made a slow, simple, statement: “1 … 2 … 3 … and 4!” at a pace roughly appropriate for lurching along in a grocery line, with a regularity that even the most drunken campfire-side clapper couldn’t mess up. The song, “Welcome to New York,” kicked off her supposed first “official pop album” with a portrait of glorious naivety. Swift was the country girl just arrived in the big city, amazed by all she saw: the lights, the sounds, the homosexuals. Her gait was accordingly untroubled, steady, optimistic: “It’s a new soundtrack / I could dance to this beat forevermore.”
The album that followed largely stayed in that shiny, straightforward mode. She was open-hearted yet unflappable, whether brushing off criticism (“Shake It Off”), lightly dressing the wounds of breakups (“All You Had to Do Was Stay”), or memorializing the thrill of a new relationship (“Out of the Woods”). Slabs of synth and driving, steady beats cast a movie-trailer glow of enchantment. Reviewers noted that this mode actually broke from recent pop trends, spurning the influence of hip-hop and R&B, as well as some of the grim moodiness creeping onto the charts. The video for “Shake It Off” even poked fun at the idea that Swift might start imitating Nicki Minaj like some of her contemporaries.
Two songs didn’t quite fit that pattern, though. One was “Blank Space,” a masterwork of hip-hop-adjacent sarcasm. The legendary pop producers Max Martin and Shellback threaded together a high, whistling harmony and kick-drum/snare pattern over which Swift sneered rapid clusters of syllables about being a man-eater. “Bad Blood,” too, waged war in what sounded like a personal feud over modern jock-jam thump. It got an extra layer of syncopation for the Kendrick Lamar remix that, like “Blank Space,” enjoyed a run at No. 1 on the Hot 100.
The rumors about the recording sessions for Swift’s forthcoming album Reputation were that they’d see her, finally, diving into hip-hop and R&B. Those reports drew immediate skepticism, as it was hard to imagine how such a change might work for Swift without her seeming ridiculous. But it now appears the rumors were true, though the question of ridiculousness hasn’t quite gone away. Where 1989 was sleek and stiff and retro, Reputation’s songs so far have been busier, choppier, and decidedly modern—which is to say, rap-influenced. They also, perhaps not coincidentally, spotlight a persona that’s the opposite of the one in “Welcome to New York.” This Taylor Swift is jaded rather than inexperienced. And she’s aggressive.
Her newly released song, “Gorgeous,” is on the surface the most 1989-like of the three Reputation songs so far. Co-created by Martin (1989’s executive producer), it’s built off a bright, playful loop that you can imagine announcing an arcade-game victory in The Wizard. Swift sings the title in a high, carefree tone, and the rest of the chorus is similarly cutesy and fun. But what distinguishes the song as of this era is the pre-chorus, with what sounds like an 808 drum machine snapping out a very familiar hip-hop rhythm (my first thought was “Drop It Like It’s Hot”). There are also other recent production touchstones, such as the low, pitch-shifted voice that at various points echoes her like an evil twin.
The Swift of this song is definitely not naïve. She tells of meeting a guy out on the town, negging him like a pick-up artist, and lusting after him in spite of already having a boyfriend. It’s a come-on, a hard one, following in the romantic seek-and-possess mode of Reputation’s grinding, Rihanna-esque “ … Ready For It?” As is typical for Swift, the lyrics cobble together plenty of inside jokes: In the bridge she amusingly suggests she’ll become a cat lady, and a campy bell sound punctures the tension periodically. But the remarkable thing is the way she flips the classic stance of unrequited love into something active, assertive, pissed-off: “I’m so furious / At you for making me feel this way.”
The song is very catchy and refreshingly straightforward. Unlike with “Look What You Made Me Do” or “ … Ready For It,” there’s no acclimation period required before the listener is able to bop around their house to the song. But attitude-wise, it’s definitely the new Taylor. When she sings about drinking whiskey at Sunset and Vine—Hollywood—she’s signaling that her days as an everywoman are over: She’s famous and she’s not going to pretend otherwise. For “Look What You Made Me Do,” it seemed she wanted listeners to step into a fantasy of being a media-manipulating superstar. For this song, though, the glamour is just context. Insert your own encounters with unbearable gorgeousness.
Most interesting, though, will be what effect that pre-chorus drumbeat has. Rap is dominating the charts lately, partly to the exclusion of female pop stars, so it does seem market-savvy for Swift to mix a little more of that genre in. But you can also hear a comment about musical styles and identity in her new songs, and not a particularly original—or culturally un-fraught—one. Once again in pop history, a singer attempts to convey new edge, new danger, by trying on a little more syncopation.
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