Pop Song Review: Taylor Swift – “Shake It Off”

So Taylor Swift has gone full-on pop (as if she’s been anything but for the past couple of years), and has decided to stamp this fact on the forehead of the collective consciousness with her latest single, “Shake It Off”. Yeah, again, I’m a little late to this one, but what can you do?

First impressions: Well, it’s certainly pop. Y’can’t deny that. It’s all horns and high-pitched vocals and repetition and that sort of charming quirkiness that wait a minute, do I actually like a Taylor Swift song?

The music: The more I listen to “Shake It Off”, the more I realise how little there is to it. The skeleton of the song is comprised mostly of syncopated bubblegum beats (that actually sound like someone chewing bubblegum – fancy that), staccato horns (mind you, when did you last hear a legato horn in pop music?) and the odd addition of synths to polish it up here and there, along with bolstering the melody.

And that’s about it. It’s pretty bare bones, but I don’t mind it too much. Could it have done with a bit more variation? Yeah, it’s too simple, but then pop music is built on simplicity, is it not? And she wants to prove she’s a popstar now, right? This is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t care much about the structure of this song as I keep telling myself I should. It’s a bit empty, but it’s also loose and vibrant.

I will say that I like Swift’s vocals in this song – the way she starts the fifth and seventh bar of each verse (you know, the “that’s what people say” bit in the first one) on a high note and descends to a “mmh-hmm”? I like that. The way she draws out the syllables in “cruising” and “moving” in the middle eights? I like that. The “woo-hoo-hoos” in the chorus? I even like the repetition in the chorus. Yeah, her vocals are brasher than usual, but then this is a brash pop song. It works for the music: the song’s having fun, she’s having fun… can’t be bad.

And that’s the thing: it’s not all that great a song, but I can’t help but like it at least a little. It’s fun, it’s upbeat and it’s genuinely catchy – and given some of the tuneless dreck that’s being played on the radio right now, what’s wrong with that? Let’s just ignore that weird, Gwen Stefani-style quasi-rap breakdown towards the end and say that musically, this song works for me.

The lyrics: Okay, so the music is generic but catchy, so it gets away with its lack of originality on a likability clause. The lyrics, however? Not so much.

Taylor Swift has pretty much dropped her country image and gone for a pop aesthetic, and with that she’s traded the thought-provoking, charming and slightly naive storytelling of her early work for the same faux-inspirational, “just be yourself” message that all popstars seemed obligated to have a bash at these days. In “Shake It Off” she’s putting herself in the shoes of teenagers who feel like their parents and teachers are always getting them down, but she just keeps on “cruising” because “it’s gonna be all right.”

Despite the sheer ubiquity of it now in pop music, it is a nice message for young people to keep in mind. Thing is, Swift is in her mid-twenties now, so isn’t this all a wee bit disingenuous? I mean, lines like “I stay out too late/ Got nothing in my brain” sound really bizarre coming from her mouth: I don’t recall her ever being criticised for breaking any sort of curfew; and I’ve certainly never heard anyone call her unintelligent.

“Go on too many dates / But I can never make them stay / At least that’s what people say”… okay, I’ll give Swift that one – the media does have a weird fixation with her love life.

The gist of it all, though, comes in the chorus: “I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off, shake it off” (yes, I counted the number of shakes) – and by “it”, she means your nagging and your criticism, whoever you’re supposed to be in this scenario. In other words, if people are getting you down, just shake off that negativity and party, peeps! So if somebody has something to say that may not be a glowing commendation of you, your work and everything that you say, do, think and are, just ignore it and keep on being yourself, even if who you are is a pretty stupid and unlikable person. I’m pretty sure this mentality is why teenage pregnancies keep happening, but what do I know?

On top of that, we get another drop of that ever-so-charming buzzphrase, “haters gonna hate.” I should say now that I’ve never particularly liked the term “hater” – to me it always seemed like a cheap tool for people to wave away valid criticism. People who have something negative to say about you don’t necessarily hate you and aren’t necessarily making their criticisms just to spite you. Perhaps they just, I don’t know, wanted to point something out? Besides, wouldn’t it be better to actually engage with the criticism, taking some points on board while explaining why others aren’t necessary, instead of just pretending that it doesn’t exist and that your critics are just stupid and jealous? You’ll fight off more enemies with a gun than a brick wall. That’s a metaphor that makes sense, right?

Besides, if you want to really rub your “haters” the wrong way and prove their opinions don’t matter, wouldn’t it be more productive and make more sense just to ignore these people and keep doing what you do? The fact that some widely unpopular bands, shows and film franchises have had continued success for many years is proof that critics don’t have the cultural force many think they do, so why indulge them at all? By calling them out you just draw attention to them. I’m sure Swift’s fans just love having it pointed out to them, in her first new song in two years, that there’s a sizable number of people out there who despise her and everything she does, and that they’re large and significant enough a group to warrant a song about them. Kinda sullies the fun, bouncy vibe of it all, y’know?

Verdict: You know, I’m torn. I keep getting told I shouldn’t like this because it’s generic, hackneyed and dumb – which it is – but I can’t help but enjoy it a little bit. So I’ll give this one a 2 for effort and a 4 for likeability, rounding out to a 3 out of 5. I’m sure Miss Swift is very happy with that – and if not, well, she knows what to do.

Today’s double-up is Guns N’ Roses’ “Used to Love Her,” which provides us all with some helpful context: as annoying as the term “hater” is for dealing with people who complain about you incessantly, at least it isn’t the Axl Rose method.

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