On Taylor Swift’s “ME!”
Taylor Swift’s pastel confection of a new single “ME!” is a pendulum-swing away from the heel-turn she did on her previous album. Its’ ebulent girlish femininity apparently makes it hard for some reviewers to hide their misogyny behind clever phrases like “helium pep rally”–which is of course a derogatory reference to both the high pitch of teen girl voices and teen girl enthusiasm. (Seriously, misogyny is not a critical stance or an aesthetic and it doesn’t make your review clever. Stop it.) In fact, its apparently sincere embrace of frills, unicorns, soft hues, and musical-theatre type songwriting puts it in contrast with the hyperfemine image of Swift’s nearest competitor for top white pop diva, Ariana Grande–Grande’s hyperfeminine performance is always with both a wink and a sonic embrace of black masculine vocal styles she appropriates from mainstream hip hop. As I’ve argued before, Grande is the poster girl for chill femininity; like her big sister the “cool girl,” Grande’s chill girl balances hypercisfemme appearance with stereotypically masculine values and character traits like entrepreneurship and self-control (which are effectively what “chill” means these days).
I’ve previously contrasted Grande’s chill femininity with Swift’s ebulent one. This new Swift single doubles down on that contrast. For all its toned-down pastels, the video, with all its sparkles and CGI, is sparkly nugget of visual maximalism. The songwriting sounds like it was intentionally crafted to sound like something on the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman, which was the top selling album of 2018. (I am fairly sure that was the point–to mimic the best performing pop in recent memory.) Like that soundtrack album, which critics described as “a whole lot of self-empowerment, enlivened with some deracinated R&B beats, and given the necessary gravitas by some power ballads of the sort that make one imagine the singer filmed from below with a wind machine blowing in their face,” Swift’s “ME!” is supposed to be a mood booster. In an interview with ABC News’s Robin Roberts, Swift explains that her aim was to
“get a melody stuck in people’s heads, and I just want it to be one that makes people feel better about themselves.” To do that, the songwriting seems to take the Lakoff and Johnson-y point that we associate ascending pitch with the experience of rising up or uplift a bit too seriously. Ascending-pitch hooks are all over this song: there’s the main “Me-he-HE!” hook, and ascending glisses on the end of tons of phrases (the “one of these things is not like the othERS” pre-chorus, and some very country-inflected upward glisses on words like “you”).
All this bubbly mood-boosting mimics the logic that Liz Pelly’s 2019 PopCon paper identified in the logic Spotify uses to recommend mood-based playlists. Pelly ran some experiments where she began by listening to playlists about grief; almost immediately she began to be recommended playlists about lighter, happier moods. After reviewing the way Spotify presents itself to advertisers (“Spotify for Brands”), Pelley argued that advertisers want Spotify users to create positive associations with and feelings about their brands, so it’s in Spotify’s interest to get people listening to songs with positive vibes. Turning your frown upside down is in the best interests of capitalism. Whereas chill calms you down to keep you productive, Swiftian ebulence perks you up enough to keep you consuming.
This sinister reality beneath the sparkly surface is best represented by the pastel town square setting, whose allusions to the set of the TV show The Good Place remind us that this show was actually set in hell.