The Number Ones

September 6, 2014

The Number Ones: Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Thanks to the magic of social media, my immediate reaction is preserved for all of eternity: “Every generation gets the ‘Hollaback Girl‘ it deserves.” I’m not sure which generation I was talking about when I wrote that, nor do I quite know what “deserves” means in this context. Twitter one-liners rarely have room for precision, and you usually don’t have to go back a whole decade and think about what you might’ve meant. Still, I’m pretty sure I was right.

When Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” hit the internet, I was touring the preschool that my two-year-old son would start attending soon afterwards. His teacher would take the class on this path through the woods every day, and that’s where I was — birds chirping overhead, stream burbling along beside me, all that stuff. I wasn’t paying attention to any of it because a new Taylor Swift single was occupying my brain. I made my probably-false excuses, snuck off down some alternate path, and watched the video on my phone. This is the music-blogger way. Even when you’re not working, you’re working. You can’t stand the idea that this song might be moving through the world without anyone knowing how you feel about it. And how I felt about it was: “Every generation gets the ‘Hollaback Girl’ it deserves.”

I loved Taylor Swift. I still love Taylor Swift, but I really loved Taylor Swift in 2014. In situations where rock critics get together to drunkenly argue — always a fun time, you should try it — I would drunkenly argue that Swift’s first four albums were all bulletproof pop classics, that none of them had any bad songs. At that point, there was only one Taylor Swift track that I didn’t like: A “Santa Baby” cover that only appeared on a Target-exclusive Christmas EP in 2007. With that “Hollaback Girl” line, I think I meant something like: Taylor Swift has finally written a bad song.

To be clear: I never thought “Shake It Off” was as bad a song as Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” which I guess was my generation’s “Hollaback Girl.” I also never thought it was anywhere near as good as Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” a previous generation’s “Hollaback Girl.” Maybe that means I think my generation is the worst generation. I just found “Shake It Off” kind of annoying. I have warmed to “Shake It Off” over the years, but I still think it’s kind of annoying.

“Shake It Off” had to accomplish a set of goals for Taylor Swift. It had to mark a clean break from the country music that Swift had at least ostensibly been making for her entire career. It had to put her smack in the middle of the pop mainstream and turn her into the biggest star on the planet without sacrificing any of her gawky underdog charm. It had to signal the kind of pop stardom that Swift wanted, and it had to get stuck in your head for days and days. It accomplished all those goals.

“Shake It Off” did not, however, have to be a great song. That part was optional. “Shake It Off” was a brand strategy as much as it was a pop song, and the first part was more important than the second. I maintain that “Shake It Off” is not a great pop song, even if it’s an effective one. It’s OK, though.

Taylor Swift was gigantically popular long before she made 1989. She was a phenom, a comet, even when she was still an actual child. In her first four albums, Swift breezed past just about every career milemarker that a prospective pop star might face: tabloid romances, stadium shows, movie roles, a Grammy for Album Of The Year, a #1 hit. Swift was already four albums deep before “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” became the first of her many Hot 100 chart-toppers, but that’s a little illusory. Swift was kinda-sorta working in the mode of country music, and until very recently, the chart game was stacked against country singers.

From the very beginning, Taylor Swift was about as pop as a country singer can possibly be. The Pennsylvania native barely even bothered to fake a twang on debut-album bangers like “Our Song.” She effused about the Eminem and Katy Perry songs that she loved. She covered Fall Out Boy. Her first high-profile romance was with a Jonas Brother. Her songs were big and bright and immediate, and they made an impact on the Hot 100 right away. But Swift still worked in Nashville, with Nashville songwriters and producers and session musicians. Her record label was a Nashville-based startup. She made the country-radio promotional rounds required of country singers. But there was a ceiling on country music. The ceiling was extremely high, but it existed. To achieve full-on global domination, Taylor Swift would have to detach herself from country completely and become a no-qualifiers pop star. That’s exactly what she did.

The change in focus was not a surprise. Taylor Swift’s 2012 album Red was really her big pop move, with barely any country left in its DNA. Swift recorded a handful of that album’s singles, including “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” with mainstream pop baron Max Martin and his protege Shellback, and she went back to the two of them for the bulk of 1989. She also recruited a few more collaborators from the pop trenches — the ones who could best help her realize her dream of gleaming, monocultural ’80s-style stadium status.

The title of 1989 was the year that Taylor Swift was born, and it was also a signal for the kind of pop stardom that she was chasing: Madonna, George Michael, Annie Lennox, Debbie Gibson, the Bangles, Richard Marx, Tom Petty. That wasn’t a more innocent time, necessarily, but it was a time when pop had a center, which meant that it was awfully different from 2014. Tellingly, Taylor Swift made her big takeover without even flirting with rap, something that not even Katy Perry, her closest real peer at the time, could resist. Swift might’ve left country music behind, but she would not venture outside her gawky-white-girl comfort zone — not yet, at least.

In the time after she released Red, Taylor Swift toured tirelessly. She dated a few more famous men. She took roles in The Lorax and The Giver, two movies that nobody likes or remembers. She recorded her first track with Jack Antonoff, who’s already been in this column as a member of Fun.: “Sweeter Than Fiction,” a song for the possibly-fictional movie One Chance. (I have legitimately never heard of this film. James Corden is the lead? Yikes. “Sweeter Than Fiction” peaked at #34. Good song!) Antonoff also worked on a few 1989 tracks, and he would eventually become Swift’s main collaborator, but not yet. Perhaps most importantly, Taylor Swift moved to New York early in 2014, reportedly paying about $20 million for a Tribeca penthouse.

Every New Yorker I knew performatively hated on “Welcome To New York,” the wide-eyed synthpop twinkle that opened 1989. (It peaked at #48 and earned Swift an official position as NYC’s official Global Welcome Ambassador, whatever that means.) The move to Manhattan was symbolic as much as it was physical. Swift kept her Nashville house and jet-setted everywhere, but the image of a young, unformed person launching herself into a bigger world for the first time was a resonant one. It was how Swift wanted us to imagine her approaching pop music, too.

On the Yahoo! livestream where she debuted “Shake It Off” and announced her new LP, Swift referred to 1989 “my very first documented official pop album.” I thought that was funny — the idea that there was some pop governing body that could determine whether something was or wasn’t officially pop. There isn’t, but there is at least something like that for country music. Against her label boss’s wishes, Swift made the conscious decision not to push any tracks from 1989 to country radio. There would be no bet-hedging, no remixes with banjos and mandolins to keep the fire warm in Swift’s home genre. She actively alienated an audience that sometimes loves to feel alienated. This wasn’t a radical decision, but it was a notable one. She made it even more notable by ensuring that no country radio station would ever play “Shake It Off,” even by accident.

“Shake It Off” is an announcement, a mission statement. It doesn’t really play a part in Taylor Swift’s ever-deepening personal lore. There’s no fan theory that the fella over there with the hella good hair is really Matty Healy, unless I just made that one up. (The timelines do kind of fit.) “Shake It Off” did have to function within Swift’s public-life narrative, and its lyrics are aimed at the faceless hordes who claim that Swift stays out too late, has nothing in her brain, goes on too many dates but can’t make them stay, etc. Somewhere in “Shake It Off,” there’s a burning anger, as there is in so many Taylor Swift songs. I don’t know who the haters on “Shake It Off” are, but I know that she knows. Still, “Shake It Off” had a function to serve, and that function was not to convey burning anger.

Swift intended for “Shake It Off” to be an ebullient, celebratory song. If anything, she steered too hard into that skid, landing on a cheerleader-chant version of positivity that feels shallow and forced. She hasn’t forgotten about the liars and dirty dirty cheats of the world, but she would rather focus your attention on this! Sick! Beat! To that end, she makes sure that every piece of “Shake It Off” serves the beat — the drums, the horn-stabs, her own vocal interjections. She does it without letting the beat attain even the most superficial levels of funk, which honestly feels like an achievement.

Taylor Swift co-wrote “Shake It Off” with producers Max Martin and Shellback. At the song’s livestream launch event, she told her audience, “It was our #1 priority to make a song that sounded nothing like anything Max and Johann had done and sounded nothing like anything I had done.” It’s true that “Shake It Off” is not exactly the kind of EDM thumper that Martin would’ve helped concoct for someone like Katy Perry. Instead, Martin and Shellback build walls of percussion — marching-band rumbles, crisp electronic thumps, digitally enhanced handclaps that bore right into your skull. There are synths all over the track, but they’re mostly decorative. Swift’s voice is almost solely responsible for carrying the melody, and she belts out earworm hook after earworm hook with self-conscious theater-kid gusto. I winced hard when I heard the spoken-word bridge for the first time, but Swift was never above something as embarrassing as that. She sold it as hard as she could.

In some ways, “Shake It Off” went for the same ultra-obvious uplift beats as Pharrell’s “Happy,” the biggest hit of 2014. Both are songs about dancing past naysayers, embracing joy while indulging in clattering bubblegum repetition. “Shake It Off” is a lot better than “Happy,” but both songs have the same cartoonishly bright worldview. (“Happy” was literally written for an animated blockbuster. “Shake It Off” inevitably found its way into one, as you can see in the Bonus Beats below.) Swift wasn’t directly imitating the other big hits of her moment, but she was aware of them, and that awareness found its way into her music.

Swift made the “Shake It Off” video with director Mark Romanek, a music-video legend who’d already made the movies One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go. The video was bright and high-energy, and its central storyline did wonders for Swift’s pop-star positioning. The idea was to juxtapose Swift in scenes with different kinds of world-class dancers — people doing ballet, modern dance, breaking, Step Up-style street-dance gymnastics. In all of them, she’s enthusiastic but hopelessly, awkwardly out-of-place. The most telling moment is the one where Swift crawls through a tunnel of twerking asses, implicitly reassuring her audience that she’s making pop music but not that kind of pop music.

In Taylor Swift’s vision of pop, there was no room for anything nasty or sexual, anything that might give America’s parents any kind of pause. Naturally, this led to plenty of hand-wringing thinkpieces about whiteness and appropriation and everything else. The thinkpiece-industrial complex loves Taylor Swift. Any controversies around “Shake It Off” felt even more forced than the song itself. Writers were gonna write, but nothing would stop Swift’s momentum.

Swift unveiled the “Shake It Off” video in that Yahoo! livestream, amidst loudly adoring fans, in August 2014. The song immediately rocketed to #1, surging in every way that a pop song could surge. Radio immediately got on board. The single sold more than 500,000 downloads in its first week. Swift kept the song off of Spotify, which hadn’t yet attained dominant-force status, and she still did big streaming numbers because of all the people watching the “Shake It Off” video on YouTube. Like “Happy” before it, “Shake It Off” immediately joined the small rotation of songs that would play at any event where you might take your kids, which probably reinforced my general feeling that the song was pretty annoying.

I understood. Taylor Swift had goals to accomplish, and “Shake It Off” was one of the keys to those goals. The song had its month at #1, and it fell from the top spot before Swift released 1989 that October. The album sold about 1.3 million copies in its first week — the biggest single-week number since Eminem’s The Eminem Show a dozen years earlier. Swift wouldn’t let Spotify have the album right away, since the service refused to limit the record to paying subscribers, which would’ve dragged down Swift’s royalty rate. It gave Swift a chance to send Spotify a message: That company needed her more than she needed it. Even though it came out near the end of the year, 1989 became 2014’s biggest-selling album, narrowly edging out the Frozen soundtrack.

As with practically every gigantic post-“Blurred Lines” hit, “Shake It Off” inspired a flurry of copyright lawsuits. Unknown R&B singer Jesse Graham claimed that Taylor Swift stole the “Shake It Off” hook from his 2013 song “Haters Gonna Hate“; that suit was dismissed in 2015. Songwriters Sean “Sep” Hall and Nate Butler got further with their claim that Swift had ripped off “Playas Gon’ Play,” the 2001 track that they wrote for the girl group 3LW. (“Playas Gon’ Play” peaked at #81. 3LW’s highest-charting single, 2000’s “No More (Baby I’ma Do Right)” peaked at #23.) That suit bounced around the courts for years before it was finally dropped in 2022. Ultimately, nobody could claim ownership over the idea that players are gonna play and haters are gonna hate. But you know how it is: Copyright holders gonna sue sue sue sue.

Earworms are gonna earworm, and “Shake It Off” has never really gone away. If you have even the slightest interest in popular music, you’ve probably heard the song more times than you could possibly count. When we were gearing up for the Eras Tour last year, my daughter mounted her most passionate defense of “Shake It Off”: “It’s not that bad! It’s kind of fun!” She’s right. “Shake It Off” isn’t one of my hundred or so favorite Taylor Swift songs, but it’s both not that bad and kind of fun. When Swift sang “Shake It Off” in that absurdly packed stadium, I didn’t roll my eyes or run away. I continued to have a good time.

Late last year, Taylor Swift released her Taylor’s Version re-recording of 1989, and it did huge numbers. This wasn’t a surprise. Everything Swift-related nowadays does huge numbers. Swift recorded her new version of “Shake It Off” without Max Martin’s assistance, and it manages to uncannily recreate every moment of the original without having quite the same energy. I wondered whether Swift would be too embarrassed to do the spoken-word bit about the hella good hair, but no. She even ad-libbed her own cackles again.

The re-recorded “Shake It Off (Taylor’s Version)” peaked at #28 — way lower than plenty of the other new version of old Taylor Swift songs. I don’t get the sense that “Shake It Off” is considered a beloved classic among the teeming Taylor Swift cult. Even when she performed the song at the Eras Tour, it felt slightly perfunctory. It’s probably plenty of people’s favorite Taylor Swift song, but most of those people are probably not giant Taylor Swift fans. At this point, “Shake It Off” might be best remembered for playing a crucial role in the ascent of a towering figure. It did its job. Partly as a result of its success, Taylor Swift will appear in this column many more times, and the next one will be quite soon. We’re nowhere near done with the 1989 album cycle yet.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s future Taylor Swift collaborator Kendrick Lamar spitting an amiable off-the-dome radio-station freestyle over the “Shake It Off” instrumental in 2014:

(Kendrick Lamar will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s future Taylor Swift tourmate Sabrina Carpenter singing a soft acoustic “Shake It Off” cover in 2014, when she was just a little baby:

(Sabrina Carpenter’s highest-charting single, the 2024 summer jam “Espresso,” has thus far peaked at #4, though it could still go higher. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Charli XCX, someone who just came up in this column, was another future Taylor Swift tourmate. On the Reputation stadium tour in 2018, Swift sang “Shake It Off” with openers Charli XCX and Camila Cabello every night. (Cabello will eventually appear in this column.) That wasn’t Charli’s first time performing “Shake It Off.” Here she is, doing a cool and vaguely punky version of the song in a 2015 visit to the BBC Live Lounge:

(Charli XCX’s highest-charting lead-artist single, 2014’s “Boom Clap,” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the great and sadly defunct New Jersey power trio Screaming Females doing an even cooler, more directly punk version of “Shake It Off” during a 2015 installment of AV Undercover, the sadly defunct video series from the functionally defunct AV Club:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Sing, the wildly lucrative 2016 singing-animals movie, where Reese Witherspoon and Nick Kroll, both voicing pigs, sing “Shake It Off” together:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Nicki Minaj’s shamelessly, gleefully nasty “Baby Got Back” bite “Anaconda” — another song that, weirdly enough, had a memorable moment in the movie Sing — peaked at #2 behind “Shake It Off.” It’s an 8.

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The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Hey hey hey! Just think, while you’ve been getting down and out about all the liars and the dirty dirty cheats in the world, you could’ve been getting down to this! Sick! Book!

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