(August 24, 2019). If you’re not one of the millions of Taylor Swift stans – or Swifties as they’ve been anointed – you likely didn’t rush to Spotify or Apple Music and stream every track on her newly released Lover album (minus the three or four you’d already heard).
You certainly weren’t playing them on repeat, as the Swifties likely have been doing since just after 12:01 am Friday morning.
In fact, when it comes to pop’s biggest superstar, people typically fall into one of two camps: the Swifties I just mentioned, or the uninitiated – those who hate what they believe Taylor has become in recent years: essentially an unsympathetic, former underdog of a character who has taken advantage of her privilege to become one of – if not the biggest, most omnipresent superstars of the soon-ending decade.
Both parties might agree on this though: there’s hardly any middle ground with Taylor Swift. You either love…no, worship her, or you despise the Easter-egg riddled ground she walks on. And, like it or not, you might also agree that no one with a pop music pulse can ignore her.
Swift is indeed a master manipulator of multimedia and it has benefited her tremendously. Each album release cycle – like the one we’re now orbiting for the just-released Lover – is accompanied by a ginormous promotional campaign, the likes of which are unmatched by any of her contemporaries in popular music.
To compare her marketing strategy to that of another millennial superstar, expecting Swift to surprise-release an album Beyoncé-style would be like watching CNN without Donald Trump’s name being mentioned at least once every three minutes. It just ain’t gonna happen.
Yet, given Swift’s omnipresence in U.S. pop culture, it’s easy to lose sight of what she was to the masses just a decade ago: a precocious young teenager who bore her country music soul to the world and who wowed fans in the process; and later a young woman who felt country music’s strict confines were too limiting for her and that she’d be better served by the larger pop music stratosphere.
Along with that genre expansion, however, came the many mini-dramas that transcended her music and exceeded what most celebrities – male or female – ever had to endure at such a young age: the infamous Kanye VMA incident, the famous ex-boyfriends, the renewal of her Kanye beef a lá his “Famous” video and the ensuing “snake” feud with his Kardashian wife, the alleged appropriation of Beyoncé’s marching band swag, the dubious pro-LGBTQ+ stance she employed in the video for “You Need To Calm Down,” the recent song catalog feud with her former label head, Scooter Braun…
And that’s not to mention all the hypercritical analysis that accompanies every album and song release, largely because of the zeitgeist that Taylor Swift has become, both on and off the record charts, which she will no doubt be dominating over the next few weeks.
Think about it: few people in this generation have had whole articles written not just about official single releases, but individual album tracks, like her poignant new duet with the Dixie Chicks, “Soon You’ll Get Better,” or the new album’s quality closing track, “Daylight,” itself a Taylor-comes-full-circle reprisal of lyrics from her Red album and a song believed to be inspired by her current relationship with boyfriend Joe Allwyn.
But unlike the major “events” that her other album releases have increasingly become, Lover actually begs – on repeated listens – for fans to appreciate it for what it is at its core: just plain, good ol’ pop music, mostly built on standard four-chord progressions with interesting uses of pre-choruses and bridges that help bring the artist’s main points home.
And Lover actually has some pretty darn good pop music at that, something with which listeners might agree if they judge the songs on their own merits and don’t become influenced by any preconceived notions about the artist herself.
For instance, if listeners can’t appreciate the pure confectionary of the upbeat “I Think He Knows,” with its melodic, layered harmony vocals infused into the chorus, or the trademark Taylor lyrical wit found in “The Man” (“If I were a man, I’d be the man”), then maybe it’s not just Taylor but perhaps pop music that isn’t for them. (And whether or not you agree with Taylor’s premise in “The Man,” that women in the music biz are generally treated inferiorly, she effectively raises enough doubt in listeners minds to leave you wondering.)
Even more musically satisfying are two back-to-back cuts midway through the album. The graphically reminiscent (and interestingly beat-driven) “Cornelia Street” is one of the artist’s most poignantly reflective songs in years. It recalls a past or current (?) love relationship and the New York City street where much of it played out.
Equally as good is the next song, “Death By A Thousand Cuts,” a wistfully crafted description of a relationship ending, which Taylor compares to a slow, painful death.
“Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” is a mid-tempo bop with a shuffling beat that adeptly uses high school metaphors to explain, well, Taylor and the relationships that have shaped her life over the years.
It’s songs like those that show Swift at her songwriting best and which are the reason the public fell in love with her in the first place. As is often the case when artists become engulfed by their own stardom and the public’s reaction to it, the music gets lost in the shuffle, or at the very least, the songs become more about the event than the music itself.
In that regard, Taylor didn’t do herself any favors with the first two singles from this album. In fact, they may be the worst two songs on Lover.
“ME!” may have been intended as an anthem of self-affirmation, but the lyrics were consumed by the title, which fed into people’s perceptions of the superstar as narcissist (especially when the previous album was introduced by the similarly self-focused “Look What You Made Me Do” in 2017).
Similarly, “You Need To Calm Down” seemed more preachy and opportunistic than it did authentic, even if Swift has backed up its pro-LGBTQ+ stance with other actions both before and since the single’s release.
Both songs debuted and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (behind the juggernaut of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus). More telling, though, were the songs’ quick descents down the chart (“ME!” dropped as low as No. 66 in less than four months while “Calm Down” was out of the top ten in less than two).
The more understated third single – the album’s title track – is a much better quality song than the first two releases, and it has a better chance of reaching No. 1 on next week’s charts without the recent impediment of “Old Town Road” standing in the way. The video is already a delight for fans with its multi-colored rooms (more Easter eggs for Taylor’s Swifties) and Taylor’s stamp on interracial love.
The track that will likely get the most attention – and deservedly so – is the Dixie Chicks duet, “Soon You’ll Get Better,” which recounts Taylor’s struggles in dealing with her mother’s cancer diagnoses.
The ballad is perhaps the singer at her most vulnerable and even acknowledges her propensity to focus on self:
“And I hate to make this all about me, but who am I supposed to talk to? What am I supposed to do if there’s no you?” she sings in the bridge with the Dixie Chicks.
Ahh, those Dixie Chicks know a thing or two about being former darlings of the country music world who pissed off a few too many people by speaking their minds. Taylor was only 13 when lead singer Natalie Maines made the infamous anti-President Bush speech that essentially tanked the Chicks’ career in 2003.
Taylor’s decision at 29 to include them on her album – and on its arguably strongest track – was both a nod to her country roots and a bold power move, the kind of middle finger the singer has been extending to people in the industry quite a bit these days, and perhaps deservedly so.
In the end, Lover is chock full of good, back-to-basics pop songs and several potential hit singles (“London Boy” and “Paper Rings” are strong contenders among those not previously mentioned).
It’s an album that Swift has branded as an ode to love itself, which thematically comes through on almost all of its tracks. Perhaps it’s the album that Taylor knew her fans needed from her at this stage in their longstanding relationship.
But the irony is you don’t actually have to be a Swiftie to like her latest project. You might be able to populate that middle ground of listeners (between the stans and the haters) who can appreciate good music no matter who makes it.
In other words, Lover is actually a good album…if you can focus on the music itself and not just the singer.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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