The Taylor Swift I love loves specifics: old scarves that remind you of innocence and 20 stitches in a hospital room and screaming, crying, perfect storms. Her best songs (and she has a lot of those) have a point of view, they tell a story. But the Swift we’ve gotten over the last couple years doesn’t delight in the details. She likes turning generics into mechanized pop songs. That can be an admirable feat: Reputation ended up growing on me because of the hooks alone, basically through sheer force of will, but one of its shortcomings is that Swift anonymized a lot of the little touches which make her such a great songwriter. She’s still a great songwriter — her new single “ME!” is nothing if not ferociously catchy — but her success feels hollow.
Take the one little story that Swift manages to squeeze onto “ME!”: “And when we had that fight out in the rain/ You ran after me and called my name.” It’s a scene that could be so much more, like this similar but evocative one from 2010’s “Mine,” Speak Now’s lead single: “I remember that fight, 2:30AM/ As everything was slipping right out of our hands/ I ran out crying and you followed me out into the street …” The song goes on like that, painting a realistic picture of a relationship crumbling. But what Swift boils a fight down to in two lines here isn’t economical songwriting, paring emotions back to their basest level. It’s just sort of lazy.
Of course, “ME!” isn’t a story song — that’s antithetical to its point as pure confection — but it lacks all nuance. “The song is about embracing your individuality and celebrating and owning it,” Swift said in an interview before the track was released. “With a pop song, we have the ability to get a melody stuck in people’s heads. I want it to be a positive one.” That’s an admirable goal, but “ME!” is a self-empowerment anthem that doesn’t allow any room for an actual self, a living, breathing human that can push through real problems.
I’m all for optimism in the face of overwhelming darkness. Swift certainly used up all her moody bitterness on Reputation, so the inclination to push her creativity in the opposite direction — light and airy and technicolor — is understandable. And while the concept of a relentlessly bright album is almost interesting, “ME!” makes me nervous. It comes across as a bad faith misstep — what people who turn their nose up at Taylor Swift pretend a Taylor Swift song sounds like.
“I’m the only one of me/ Baby, that’s the fun of me” is not a good line no matter what way you spin it, and the song’s hee hee hee, hoo hoo hoo melody is downright cloying. Swift produced and wrote it with Joel Little, best known for his collaborations with Lorde, but you wouldn’t know it — any unique production choices are completely swallowed up by the whole.
Having Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie duetting on the track pushes it into overwhelming cheese. I have a soft spot for his band — I’m of the nostalgic generation that would say A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is a classic and I even sort of like their Beatles rip-off Pretty. Odd. — but over the last few years, Urie has been churning out the worst kind of shlock, which also tends to chart pretty well. His inclusion on the track pushes it into bad theater kid territory. (As a former bad theater kid … I can say that!)
Its accompanying video, co-directed by Dave Meyers and Swift, is impressive in an absolutely overwhelming sort of way, but it’s also basically Mary Poppins Returns, a movie for babies. Amid a lot of pastels and an ill-fitting suit, Swift gives the hard sell on the song’s aesthetic, but it’s too much for too little. Swift’s cornier moments in the past have been grounded in an undeniable humanity. She had the ability to render emotional honesty with such clarity that it could make you sick. “ME!” inspires a different kind of nausea, like Augustus Gloop pigging out at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Now, Swift has a bad track record for lead singles. Her last three — “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Shake It Off,” and “Look What You Made Me Do” — are all arguably the worst songs on their respective albums, so “ME!” isn’t necessarily a damnation for this whole new era. I still have confidence that she could pull it off, but this is a bad note to start out on. “ME!” is basically “Everything Is AWESOME!!!” without any of the irony — a soundtrack song to a Disney film.