The first single from Swift’s seventh album is a defiant reassertion of her positivity – a rabidly upbeat ode to individualism
Pretty much every artist who has released an album in the past 18 months has found themselves battling pop’s new glass ceiling: namely the unyielding chart dominance of the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman, the UK’s biggest-selling album of 2018 and only the second album in 30 years to spend 11 consecutive weeks at No 1.
It was never going to be long before pop acts started trying to play This Is Me et al at their own game. And so, contrary to fan theories that Taylor Swift’s seventh album would herald a return to her country roots, or pop psychedelia à la Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, the first single from TS7 is an unabashed slab of Showmancore: a rabidly upbeat ode to individualism, wide-eyed to the point of camp. (That would also explain Swift’s – one presumes – intentionally très mauvais Frawnch accent at the start of the video.)
It is (as the snake exploding into butterflies at the start of the Umbrellas of Cherbourg-meets-Mary Poppins Returns video signposts perhaps unnecessarily) the opposite of Look What You Made Me Do, the nihilistic lead single from Swift’s 2017 album, Reputation. On that record, she made being Taylor Swift sound like a kind of prison, under assault from all angles; ME! (capital letters are artist’s own) is a celebration of self, designed to tell fans that “it’s about not feeling like you’re replaceable”, and cannily bolstered by references to Swift’s back catalogue. The prismatic multilayered harmonies at the start recall Getaway Car from Reputation; the conceit in the verses (ie that Swift is a handful in relationships) hark back to Blank Space from 1989, while the sugary euphoria channels past hits We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together and Shake It Off. (The song was produced by Swift and Joel Little, the producer behind much of Lorde’s debut album, and with its chipper marching drums and brass fanfare, is the opposite of Pure Heroine’s chilly, hip-hop-inflected cool.)
It’s the first time Swift has shared billing on the lead single from an album – she trades verses with Brendan Urie from the one-time emo band Panic! at the Disco, who now hew closer to the pop-rock mainstream and have never shied away from the kind of vaudevillian drama that Swift exploits here.
It may be an acquired taste – critics awake to greet its midnight EST/5am BST release have compared it unfavourably to Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling, from the animated film Trolls – but it works as a defiant reassertion of Swift’s positive brand. She turns 30 this year, as she detailed in a recent essay for US Elle magazine, leading many to assume that she would take a more mature direction with her songwriting, but ME! amplifies the happily uncool persona that endears her to fans, and – in a manner less blunt than that of Look What You Made Me Do or Shake It Off, ie without tiresomely invoking the haters – shrugs at anyone who doesn’t appreciate it. It is likely to be unavoidable: it has the air of a triumphant finale for her next tour, whenever that may be, while there is speculation that her announcing the single on a broadcast related to the current NFL draft signals that she will be playing next year’s Super Bowl half-time show.
That said, Swift’s lead singles are often red herrings that offer little insight into the album to come. The Hey Mickey-style Shake It Off did little to presage 1989’s gleaming 80s-indebted pop-rock; the brittle Look What You Made Me Do gave way to an album that settled scores, but also basked in the sanctuary of a new romance. In the video to ME!, when Swift first sings that there are “a lot of cool chicks out there” that her beleaguered partner could be dating, the camera alights on a portrait of country radicals the Dixie Chicks hanging on the wall, leading fans to assume that a collaboration may feature on the record.