One of the most impressive things about Taylor Swift is that she keeps finding a way to offend people simply with sound alone. The story’s been the same every album rollout since 2012’s Red: Swift, the onetime mascot for speaking your own truth over humble country strums, “goes pop,” garishly and greatly. The bungee-jump yodels of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the Jazzercise drum line of “Shake It Off,” and the rude robotics of “Look What You Made Me Do” each represented a fresh, unapologetic kind of tackiness. The first listen, in every case, had to trigger a Yikes.
That Yikes, for both die-hard fans and more reluctant admirers, tended to flip to Yes! as Swift’s idiosyncratic cleverness came out with repeat listens. Even the dour Reputation, her 2017 album that amounted to a slight commercial disappointment for her, is more charming than it initially seemed. But at the present moment, hours after Swift kicked off a new album cycle with the single “ME!,” it’s very hard to imagine the reconciliation process replaying this time. The song is everything that gives pop a bad rap.
Reputation represented Swift’s attempt to have fun with the backlash that formed after her winsome persona curdled into a perceived smugness in the public eye. Packed with hip-hop tricks and electronic frazzle, the album sounded clanking, confrontational, and gray. Pastel images that flooded her Instagram in recent weeks advertised that she’d be rebooting somewhere sunnier for the follow-up, but few could have expected “ME!,” whose harsh cheer evokes a megachurch concert mass-dosed with ketamine.
It does open with a Reputation callback, in the form of Swift singing with the same ethereal vocal effect she used on her lovely single “Delicate.” This probably means Swift is working her story lines, hinting at a continuation of the “Delicate” meet-cute that was presumed to be about her current boyfriend, Joe Alwyn. This musical touch is the last personal note from Swift, who used to be known for small, concrete details of remarkable economy. In “ME!,” she sticks to highly generic scenes of phone fights, rain fights, and rainbows under which no one fights. The most memorable lyric comes when she shouts “Spelling is fun!” and then declines to spell out anything.