Taylor Swift and the honesty of “We Are Never Getting Back Together”

“We Are Never Getting Back Together” sounds like the first honest song that Taylor Swift has written.

This may be surprising, considering that it’s also the most shamelessly commercial thing she’s written. It’s a brazen play for the pop charts that excises whatever was left of her country music aesthetic in favour of a Max Martin/Shellback co-written pop monster.

And what a monster it is: those colossal drums, that stuttered “never-ever-ever” that flirts with the upper ends of Swift’s register, the carefree way she throws out that high-pitched “wheeee” each chorus . . . and the sass. Oh, the sass.

But admittedly, calling “We Are Never Getting Back Together” perhaps Swift’s first honest song means dismissing a great deal of her entire persona. We’re talking about a young songwriter whose work is treated with diary-like authenticity by fans and critics alike, with an understanding that her feelings and experiences flow straight from heart to pen. The gossip rags spend endless webprint trying to figure out which of her high-profile ex-boyfriends she’s singing about this time: Joe Jonas? John Mayer? The werewolf kid?

It’s an old trick, and an effective one, maybe more so in this day and age. It seems hardly coincidence that artists like Swift and Adele are some of the last pop juggernauts standing, even if only as a counterbalance to the vacancy (admittedly, entertaining vacancy) of singers like Katy Perry and Ke$ha, who mostly succeed as semi-hedonistic vehicles for the world’s best evil songwriters.

But is it an honest one?

In Swift’s case, I never quite bought it. I’ve grown into her pop sensibilities a fair bit, particularly vocally where she has a remarkable gift for phrasing. (“Careless man’s careful daughter” and “She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers” are amazing cases in point: small twists on her diction and delivery that transform her words from lyrics into outright hooks.) But where I struggled was with the holier-than-thou persona, the authoritativeness with which she sung.

When combined with her awards-show shock face — COME ON, Swifty, surely you expect that you’re a contender now? — the sense I got from Swift was that of a young girl with self-confidence but lacking in self-awareness. The precociousness with which she approached the scenarios in her lyrics wasn’t balanced with any sense that there may actually be another side to this story she’s singing. After all, isn’t SHE the one who’s constantly getting into these complicated romances? Might the holier-than-others perspective that sneaks into her lyrics cover her own blames and indiscretions in all these minor scandals? Real honesty isn’t just about honesty to self. It’s about honesty to others, to mistakes, to a broader reality than just our interpretation of it.

Which brings me to “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” where for the first time, Swift sounds like an unreliable narrator.

And it’s thrilling: the way she sings about her boyfriend needing “space” (note the air quotes in the music video), the bratty tone with which she describes his claims of change, the flighty way she talks about her original thoughts of forever . . . This isn’t about offering an authoritative take on this situation; this is just her take, and she’s going to sing the hell out of it.

Even the chorus’ extreme repetition invites doubt in her point of view: really, Swift? Never ever ever? Overstating things a bit? It’s probably the most age appropriate she’s sounded in some time, singing with the (likely false) absolutes and extremes that teenagers use to cut through adolescence.

For the first time, rather than sounding righteous, Swift sounds self-righteous. And she sounds all the better for it.

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