Is Taylor Swift Breaking Up With Nashville?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 30 2012 8:30 AM

Top of the Pops: Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift performs in Auckland, New Zealand in March.

Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images.

Taylor Swift’s first No. 1 pop hit may at first appear to be the least Taylor Swift of any of her records. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was co-composed by Swift and the Swedish hit whisperers Max Martin and Shellback, who, together and separately, are responsible for dozens of the biggest pop smashes of the last decade-plus. The song’s insistent 4/4 beat, its taut arrangement, the jet airplane whoosh of its liftoff from pre-chorus into chorus—this is Scandinavian design, all gleaming surfaces and sleek contours. It’s a song assembled from fine, high-end parts, built to top the charts.

In a sharp piece on NPR’s music blog The Record, critic Ann Powers calls “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” “pop punk,” placing it in the canon of tuneful, attitudinal hits Martin has made with Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, and others. Swift’s song “is almost a parody of the punk-pop form,” Powers writes. “[She] has joined the ranks of Martin’s sass brigade.”

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Powers is right about the musical lineage—but didn’t Swift enlist in that brigade years ago? She arrived on the scene in 2006 as a prodigiously skilled and agile songwriter; though just 16 years old when her debut album was released, Swift had already mastered the storytelling and tune-crafting forms of Nashville’s Music Row. And she had audibly assimilated another influence: Max Martin. Listen to songs like “Should’ve Said No” and “Picture to Burn”: Swift spitting out vengeful putdowns in big, catchy choruses bolstered by electric guitars. Swift has often been praised for the diary-entry transparency of her lyrics, the way she gives unmediated expression to the emotions of young women. But listen close and you will hear more: the voice of a 41-year-old man from Stockholm, who has made his fortune ventriloquizing the patois of American teenagers. The verses of “Picture to Burn” might have come straight out one of Martin’s songs for Perry or Pink: “Go ahead and tell your friends I’m obsessive and crazy/That’s fine/I’ll tell mine you’re gay.”

In other words, for Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is less something new than a refinement of the same old. It definitely feels like a Taylor Swift song. For some, it’s too familiar. In a post on Slate’s XX Factor blog, Alyssa Rosenberg argued that Swift’s “once-fascinating songbook now reads more like the blind-items section of a gossip magazine,” that “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was another of Swift’s catty kiss-and-tell breakup anthems, designed “to establish [Swift] as morally and culturally superior to anyone who gets in the way of what [she] wants.”

I’ve lodged similar complaints against Swift in the past. But “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” isn’t a sour chanson à clef like “Dear John” or “Innocent.” It’s a whole lot of fun. I love the vernacular chattiness of the lyrics, packed with those Valley girl “likes” and exasperated asides: “I remember when we broke up the first time/Saying, ‘This is it, I've had enough’/’Cause, like/We hadn't seen each other in a month/When you said you ‘needed space’/What?” The story rings true: how many of us have experienced a relationship that is stuck in a death-spiral cycle of breakup-makeup-breakup? The spoken word interlude after the middle-eight is priceless. (“…and I’m like, I mean this is exhausting. Like we are never getting back together. Like, ever.”) And Swift sings better than she ever has—possibly with some pitch-correction assistance from Martin and Shellback.

The song raises an interesting question going forward. On her debut album, Swift was fully a country gal, drawling songs about Tim McGraw and Chevy trucks and “slammin’ screen doors” and bedtime prayers. With each new album, Swift’s long vowels have become more clipped; she’s stopped dropping her g’s; she’s turned down the volume on the mandolins and fiddles, and in some songs, jettisoned them entirely. (Swift released a softer, sweeter “country radio mix” of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” but it sounds half-hearted.) The change makes sense: Swift was a carpetbagger in the first place, a Pennsylvania girl whose family relocated to Tennessee for her career. But country made Swift’s music stand out; it gave it an earthy tang. Her forthcoming album, Red, is reportedly her poppiest yet. Who exactly is getting kicked to the curb in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”? A boyfriend? Or Nashville?

Previously in Top of the Pops:
Flo Rida, “Whistle”
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”
Gotye (featuring Kimbra), “Somebody That I Used to Know”
Fun. (featuring Janelle Monáe), “We Are Young”

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.