“Shake It Off” is hater-proof, which is a good thing because damn do people ever hate it. Not everyone, of course: The lead single from Taylor Swift’s 1989 is projected to become her second #1 hit next week. That makes sense because “Shake It Off,” while no masterpiece, is built to be an irrepressible smash. A series of professional-grade hooks set to simple, meme-ready lyrics with a “Hey Ya”-meets-”Hollaback Girl” pep rally for a bridge, it is the kind of song that you end up internalizing without ever really thinking about it. But people who do think about it have shared a lot of thoughts this week, and most of them have manifested some combination of disappointment and disgust. Wondering Sound’s insightful roundtable is a one-stop shop for critiques of “Shake It Off” and its video, a laundry list of crimes against good taste including but not limited to ripping off a relatively recent Mariah Carey song title, draining Swift’s music of its distinguishing factors, lazily relying on tired “persecution pop” tropes, disingenuously presenting the relentlessly poised and put-together Swift as a clueless dweeb, and — as has become the unfortunate standard for white female pop stars — reinforcing harmful stereotypes about black women.
Earl Sweatshirt wasn’t the only one who called out Swift for perpetuating the notion that a black woman twerking is either a white girl’s favorite accessory or something to be gawked at disapprovingly or both. Swift’s myriad faux pas kept the thinkpiece economy booming this week. Fair enough; the video’s attempt at humor seemed like it came from the same sheltered celebrity dreamworld as Gwyneth Paltrow’s dismissal of working mothers. Still, I think director Mark Romanek makes a persuasive case that the “Shake It Off” video contains knowingly flubbed efforts at all kinds of dancing — ballet, modern dance, breakdancing, cheerleading, etc. — the punchline being that Swift is terrible at all of them so she throws a goofy freeform dance party with her fans instead. Swift’s trademark mystified “Oh my!” expression scans as an implicit judgment of the twerkers, and I certainly agree with those who are tired of seeing white people trot out twerking as a symbol of otherness, but Swift mostly just seems guilty of misreading the cultural climate. She could have made the same joke about being a klutz without sailing into such treacherous waters, but she’s ventured so far into her mannered, expertly stylized celebrity bubble — the one where there’s still hope for the music industry — to anticipate her error.
Alternately, maybe Swift doesn’t give a fuck who she offends and the “Shake It Off” video is her sinister way of selling sex without blemishing her good-girl image, slut-shaming her less pious competition while cashing in on their more graceful gyrations. I prefer to think Swift was just oblivious, but hey, the race to be the queen of pop is cutthroat. As Caitlin White wisely observed in that Wondering Sound roundtable, the “Shake It Off” video is about appointing Swift as a different kind of ideal woman than Paltrow’s pal Beyoncé, who asserted her status as pop’s reigning queen with a surprise “video album” in the interim between Red and 1989. Beyoncé’s appeal includes not just good taste and mental savvy but pure physical ability of a monster voice and powerful dance moves. Cursed with two left feet, a voice that’s merely average, and a more uptight, class-president breed of charisma, Swift is making her own case as the ultimate pop star by playing up her weaknesses, clinging to her original image as the quirky girl next door. She’s not that person anymore, though — or if she is, she refuses to show it in public. Her attempt to be adorkable and a posh urbanite princess at the same time is creating some cognitive dissonance for me — and, I imagine, for anybody who tuned into her webcast Monday, or her interviews with Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers last week, or even the commercial for her fashion line that runs before the “Shake It Off” video on YouTube. (Oh really, Taylor? Switching up your look can be fun? You don’t say!) It’s such an endless parade of platitudes and non-statements that you’d think she really was running for class president.
Despite accusations that she’s no longer distinguishable from the Katy Perrys of the world, Swift’s music is actually the one place where I still notice her personality beaming brightly. Don’t listen to those who say “Shake It Off” is the sound of Swift giving in to homogeny; stylistic metamorphosis aside, it’s absolutely a Taylor Swift song on both the musical and lyrical axis, and there’s a lot to love about it. If not for that horrendous “Hey Mickey” cheerleader breakdown they substituted for a bridge, I’d even call it one of my favorite pop songs of the year. Those horns undergirding the verses remind me of the TNGHT sample Kanye used on “Blood On The Leaves” minus the menace. The drums pop and snap with a triangulated crispness only someone of Max Martin’s caliber can pull off. The melodies are bountiful, and they go down easy. And since when did we fault pop music for expressing simple sentiments or incorporating played-out slang — especially Taylor Swift songs? It’s not like this is the first time Swift has revealed her inner MOR; she has long been the world’s foremost basic bitch, since way back when she was writing songs about motherfucking Romeo And Juliet. As for the notion that her songs are no longer relatable: Are you guys out of your gourds? What’s a more universal experience than shrugging off the people who say hateful things about you? How is this anything but the grown-up sequel/happy ending to “Mean” and its promise “Someday I’ll be living in a big ol’ city/ And all you’re ever gonna be is mean”?
“Shake It Off” is not on par with the hits from Red, and if it’s the best thing 1989 has to offer, Swift’s “first official pop album” will be a letdown. The video failed in that what was intended to be inclusive turned out to be alienating instead. (I cringe thinking about what her VMAs performance this weekend is going to entail.) She is not #flawless, and she seems confused about whether she wants to be or not. But even without its built-in buffer against the so-called “haters,” “Shake It Off” is a monolith that can withstand any and all scrutiny. Whether you see it as a cure-all or a contagion, it’s pop music in the truest sense, an all-conquering force that will impose its will on the rest of 2014. Swift’s powers have not diminished in the slightest. Let’s hope the rest of her new record uses them for good.
Iggy Azalea and Ariana Grande have been all over the Hot 100 this year, but this week they dominated in a way that’s maybe even more impressive than that stretch when “Fancy” and “Problem” went 1-2 for all those weeks. As Billboard reports, both Azalea and Grande have three songs in the top 10. Their collaboration “Problem” remains at #7. Azalea also boasts the omnipresent Charli XCX collab “Fancy” at #5 and the Rita Ora duet “Black Widow” at #8. Grande’s Zedd production “Break Free” is all the way up to #4 (that’s 14 spots higher than last week), and her pop posse cut “Bang Bang” with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj is at #10. This is the first time two women have both logged three simultaneous top-10 hits. The only other women to do it were Adele in 2012 and Ashanti in 2002, which doesn’t shed much light on whether this accomplishment will translate to long-term success Azalea and Grande. Either way, very impressive, Promotional Machine Behind Iggy Azalea And Ariana Grande!
Iggy and Ari account for half of the top 10; what about the rest? Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” has ascended to #2 but unfortunately could not knock off MAGIC!’s “Rude,” which remains at #1 for a whopping sixth straight week. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” is at #3, Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” is at #6, and Sia’s “Chandelier” is at #9. That means two Stereogum favorites, Disclosure and Sam Smith’s “Latch” and Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap,” have fallen back out of the top 10. Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne’s “Rather Be” is down one position to #14, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it rebound up high enough to crash the top 10 given how much airplay it’s been getting on my local top 40 station this week. And of course, next week’s big question is whether Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” will shoot all the way up to #1. Stay tuned!
As for the album chart, the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack stays on top with 93,000 in sales, and the Frozen soundtrack shot back up to #3 again with 43,000, though Billboard notes that iTunes sale pricing played a part in that surge. Now 51 is in between at #2 with 52,000, so, all in all, not a very exciting week at the top of the Billboard 200. There were some top-10 debuts though: The Gaslight Anthem’s Get Hurt bows at #4 with 33,000. Nineteen-year-old Australian pop newcomer Troye Sivan came out of nowhere (or rather, out of YouTube) to debut at #5 with 30,000 units of his TRYXE EP. The rest of the top 10 is made up of familiar titles by 5 Seconds Of Summer, Sam Smith, Godsmack, Tom Petty, and Luke Bryan, whose Crash My Party also benefitted from an iTunes sale.
Katy Perry – “This Is How We Do (Remix)” (Feat. Riff Raff)
If you’re battling charges of cultural appropriation for your music video, I’m not sure adding a verse from Riff Raff on the remix is going to help. Mighty fine absurdist bars by Riff here, though.
Troye Sivan – “Happy Little Pill”
As noted above, this guy’s EP just debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200, so get familiar. Kind of reminds me of pretty-boy dark electronic take on Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra, if that makes any sense at all.
Alle Farben – “She Moves” (Feat. Graham Candy)
Meanwhile, German DJ Alle Farben could be making his way to the American charts soon too with “She Moves,” which is already a big hit in Europe. It’s a subtler take on the EDM/folk-pop thing Avicii popularized, or just a natural evolution of twee’s mainstream presence. The singer here — and, presumably, the mustache dude — is a guy named Graham Candy.
Gerard Way – “No Shows”
Both of the songs we’ve heard so far from Gerard Way’s solo album Hesitant Alien have been totally rad and a complete departure from the bombastic arena-emo of My Chemical Romance. Apparently he’s trying to bring Britpop back. That seems like a fool’s errand, but hey, we’re getting some great singles out of it.
Kimbra – “Miracle”
And you thought “Shake It Off” was embarrassing.
Tiara Thomas – “One Night”
They would have called this one “It Don’t Mean Shit To A Bitch” except that wouldn’t fly on radio, so the #ItDontMeanShitToABitch hashtag I just invented will have to suffice. Another memorable lyric: “I ain’t one of those emo girls that don’t like fashion/ I like going on shopping sprees as much as the next one.” Crossing my fingers that this one hits big.
Benny Benassi – “Shooting Helicopters” (Feat. Serj Tankian)
We found it both hilarious and horrifying that System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian will appear on the new Avicii album, but apparently Tankian singing on EDM tracks is a thing now. Here he is granting his unique brand of schizoid melodrama to Benassi’s aggressive electro track.
Brad Paisley – “Shattered Glass”
Brad Paisley's big corny feminist anthem >>>>> Brad Paisley's big corny racial reconciliation anthem. Schlock heaven. http://t.co/UFXb0HvSNn
— Jody Rosen (@jodyrosen) August 21, 2014
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Pharrell’s hat is going into the Newseum. [MTV]
- Apparently some radio stations won’t play Fifth Harmony’s excellent “BO$$” because it namechecks Michelle Obama. [Idolator]
- Flaming Lips sonic guru Steven Drodz called Miley Cyrus “fucking badass” and shed some light on the record they hope to make together in a new interview. [PureVolume]
- Rita Ora will have an album out by January, by which point she should be ready to properly break stateside thanks to “Black Widow.” [Popjustice]
- Also coming soon is Tove Lo’s album, which I guarantee will be better than Ora’s. [Popjustice]
- Simon Cowell says One Direction’s new album is “one of their best,” and it turns out this will be their fourth record so that statement is not as meaningless as I initially thought. [Twitter]