Wondering Sound Editors and Critics on Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 08.20.14 in Features

On the advent of the release of Taylor Swift’s album announcement and new video premiere, Wondering Sound assembled a roundtable of critics and writers to weigh in on the song and its implications.

The Players

J. Edward Keyes is Wondering Sound’s Editor in Chief.
Jayson Greene is Wondering Sound’s Senior Editor.
Claire Lobenfeld is Wondering Sound’s Features Editor.
Maud Deitch is a Brooklyn-based culture writer. She contributes to Rolling Stone, Vice, The Fader and others. Her favorite Taylor Swift song is “All Too Well.”
Jessica Hopper is the Senior Editor at The Pitchfork Review and author of the forthcoming book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.
Caitlin White is the Weekend Editor for MTV.com. Don’t insult Beyoncé in front of her.
Alex Macpherson is a London-based freelance writer on culture, travel and tennis.
David Turner misses when pop was about the music.

J. Edward Keyes: So, Monday at about 5 p.m., in a format that resembled the world’s weirdest talk show, Taylor Swift announced the release of her new album, 1989, to an audience stocked with breathless Taylor Swift supporters. The whole event struck me as super bizarre. Fans asked Swift scripted questions and she responded by running point-by-point through the marketing plan for what she called her “first pop record.” The whole thing was capped by the premiere of her new video, “Shake it Off,” which A) Gave a pretty good indication of just what Taylor Swift considers a “pop record” and B) centered around a song that felt like an odd choice to follow what was essentially a long celebration of Taylor Swift.

As someone who’s found myself in the position of passionately defending Taylor Swift in the past, I’m going to take the first run at this, because I am not a fan of “Shake it Off.” What bugged me about it, despite the fact that it shares its title with a clearly superior Mariah Carey song, was its premise. I have a bias against what I loosely term “persecution pop” — songs in which the singer essentially rails about the media’s treatment of them for three and a half minutes. When Taylor opens the song with, “I stay out too late/ Got nothing in my brain/ That’s what people say,” I’m already tuning out, mostly because I’m not sure how true either of those statements actually are. It also sort of capitalizes on what I’ve always found to be Taylor Swift’s least appealing quality, her insistence on painting herself as the victim. We’ll talk about the actual content of the song later but I’m curious: Did this bother anyone else, or am I overreacting here?

‘This song is basically an extended woo-girl shrug emoji, an oblivious “who cares” with a horn section. — Maud Deitch’

Claire Lobenfeld: Taylor’s self-victimization has been a long-standing issue of mine. I admit she appealed to me circa “Should’ve Said No,” but when her breakup anthems took a turn toward judge-y (i.e., “She’s better known/ for the things/ that she does on the mattress” re: Camilla Belle’s relationship with Swift ex Joe Jonas), it muddled her strength with self-aggrandizement. Before she actually presented “Shake It Off” — and, seriously, Mariahhhhh — I was interested to see if, by “taking on” pop for the “first time,” she would start gliding into what I would call “Bad Bitch Territory” and start owning her breakup narratives, a la Rihanna and Katy Perry. Instead, I found some of her self-critiques to be a little dubious, just like you do, Joe. I am fine with her acknowledging the whole, “They say I go on too many dates” thing, but yadda yadda people in glasshouses (see: aforementioned Belle-bashing) and, like, you essentially stalked a baby Kennedy, girl.

Maud Deitch: I wasn’t so shocked by it, because really, the majority of the Taylor Swift canon is made up of persecution anthems. Whether it be persecution of the nerdy girl at the hands of the cheer captain (oh, how the tables have turned, Tay) in “You Belong With Me”, or of the innocent at the hands of her cruel boyfriend in “Dear John,” Taylor has been consistently wronged and very rarely wrong herself. “Shake it Off” comes as no surprise, though its lack of narrative is striking — this song is basically an extended woo-girl shrug emoji, an oblivious “who cares” with a horn section (and not, as she claims at one point, a “sick beat”). Like Claire, Taylor’s “Should’ve Said Now” period was also her most appealing to me, mainly because of her personalization of the wronged-woman trope. This newer, poppier Taylor is so devoid of context that even my most apologetic impulses can’t stand it.

Jayson Greene: Yeah, the “persecution pop” move only works for me when the performer is a specific kind of cultural lightning rod — Britney’s “Piece of Me,” for instance, worked for me because her career was such a layered commentary on agency and the male gaze to begin with. There was simply no question that her central assertion — “you wanna piece of me” — was true, and it worked as a knowing indictment because everyone listening had a similar lizard-brain sense of complicity.

‘Hearing that she’s “shaking off” snark about her dates is about as compelling to me as hearing that Khloe Kardashian had a sorta crappy Tuesday – it doesn’t really capture what’s powerful, or interesting, to me about Taylor Swift at all. — Jayson Greene’

With Taylor, it feels different, or at least less interesting. Like Maud said, her “playing the victim” side is definitely not the most compelling aspect of her personality. Casting herself as the rube, the little girl who didn’t know any better, the “I knew you were trouble when you walked in” gee-shucks gal — it just doesn’t jibe with her persona. Her persona is a lot of things — knowing, savvy, impeccably balanced, bulletproof — but “vulnerable,” to me, isn’t one of them. Hearing that she’s “shaking off” snark about her dates is about as compelling to me as hearing that Khloe Kardashian had a sorta crappy Tuesday — it doesn’t really capture what’s powerful, or interesting, to me about Taylor Swift at all.

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Jessica Hopper: Her guilelessness has always been annoying, and it has worked to counteract any of the girl-power kabuki of her songs and stage banter. Her image and her songs have made her particularly safe, palatable and not the least bit threatening. Her pose discounts her ambition and calculation with her career as if she doesn’t really mean it. She’s a multimillion-dollar empire unto herself, but pulling this “Gee, shrug, I am still just an awkward teen like she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, or why,” like her superstardom was happenstance. I know that everygirlness is a huge part of her appeal — the video makes that clear. It’s the reintroduction of the Taylor Swift that’s just like us, just one of the girls at the most vertiginous height of her fame.

Deitch: Yes, Jessica — there is so much cognitive dissonance happening here, especially because of the personal nature of her songs up until this point. The listener hears that just one of the girls, sentiment and it’s hard not to block out whatever comes next with a screaming response of, “No Taylor, you absolutely are not.”

Caitlin White: I really want to focus on lyrics because that’s one of the things that always drew me to Taylor. Isn’t it funny that her song directly aimed at “haters” is her worst-received to date? And, I would argue, one of her worst written. Using “haters” as an inspiration might not actually be the best source for the incredibly nuanced songwriting we’ve come to expect from her. Her songs have always reflected what she was going through in a way that is specific to Taylor, but universal enough to appeal to the teen-girl experience as a whole. Even the awful slut-shaming Claire mentioned on “Better Than Revenge” — we’ve all been there and felt that kind of anger or injustice. But this time, even the title “Shake It Off” seems pilfered both from Mariah and from Florence + the Machine’s “Shake It Out.” The lyrics have no personal connection and none of her personality. I don’t get any of her sharp phrasing or grace. It makes me sad.

David Turner: That lack of context might be why I like this song — at least now, less than 24 hours since its release. Swift’s music always begs for context, even though she sells millions of albums. The whole deep dive into who she’s really talking about on a song can be thrilling for fans. But as a person who has gotten used to Taylor as a pop-radio star, that kind of investigation into her personal life never much interested me. So “Shake It Off” being a generic “haters” song is almost preferable. I was never much invested in who she was subtweeting before in her lyrics, so pushing that aside is an addition by subtraction for me.

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Deitch: Jayson, related to what you said about her gee-shucks side, there’s a particularly striking moment in the video when Swift engages with her own meme: the Taylor Swift surprise face, while she gyrates for a second in her doorknocker earrings. Eyes wide, manicured hand covering gaping-open mouth, Swift is channeling her awards-show self, but instead of being shocked at another statue being thrust into her hands, it’s the gyration of her own hips that has her so disingenuously shocked. The country singer has been possessed and she just doesn’t know what came over her! But the engagement with her own meme winks out at her fans, saying, I can be “bad,” too. In this case, “bad” being sexual, “bad” being black. It’s a horrifying moment, frankly.

Alex Macpherson: I’m not sure I agree that Taylor consistently presents herself as persecuted. For one thing, most of her narratives, even the more straightforward breakups, are more nuanced than that. Look at “Breathe,” for example, and how she acknowledges that her ex has dumped her, “Because people are people/ And sometimes we change our minds.” Shit happens, and even though she feels devastated it’s because shit happened. Her catalog also has several examples of her admitting to fault on her part, especially “Back To December.”

‘It’s a standard Katy Perry-style anti-haters anthem that could’ve been by anyone and is about nothing in particular. For someone whose gifts are about capturing the specific, that’s a fatal misstep. — Alex Macpherson’

My issue with “Shake It Off,” which I initially thought was disappointing and gets worse with each listen, is that there’s none of that nuance or narrative. It’s a standard Katy Perry-style anti-haters anthem that could’ve been by anyone and is about nothing in particular. For someone whose gifts are about capturing the specific, that’s a fatal misstep.

Lobenfeld: Alex, I didn’t really find much connection to Katy Perry in this, save the fact that the timing of their “rap culture”-appropriating videos. If you reflect on her hits — and, yes, there are some enormo-missteps — her music is generally more about positivity and self-empowerment. What gave me most pause with “Shake It Off” is that it sounds like an amalgam of Janelle Monae and R. Kelly’s “Feelin’ on Yo Booty” and includes an interlude that probably gave Toni Basil, somewhere, the chills.

Keyes: It seems like the note that keeps emerging is general disappointment with or indifference to the song, in general. Maud, I liked how you called it “an extended woo-girl shrug emoji,” and Claire, I think you’re right to point out that this doesn’t really push her too far out of her musical comfort zone. That kind of moves us into the next thing I wanted to discuss. Is there anything to her consciously positioning this as a “pop” record? (As opposed to, you know, the relentlessly avant-garde Red)? What does that do for her, exactly?

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Greene: It feels weird to be arguing that this song isn’t “as catchy” as her others while the hook dances relentlessly in my mind, but… it isn’t as catchy, or, not as shrewdly catchy. There’s an invisible line somewhere in pop, this point where the modular-shelving approach to pop songwriting meets personal quirk — I had always considered Taylor Swift as the Jedi Master of that line, to the point where the quirks seemed universal and the universal seemed quirky. “Shake It Off” sands off all the distinct intelligence my mind associates with her craft.

‘Once Bey knocked Taylor off that pedestal with her self-titled album, there is a total necessity for Swift to switch up her narrative. Calling her album 1989 is not tantamount to naming it TAYLOR, but it’s pretty darn close. — Claire Lobenfeld’

Deitch: Part of what gained Swift her dominance with critics was the fact that even as a coltish baby country star, she could write. She was the girl in the country aisle who was pushing the boundaries of the genre towards pop, with her own pen and her own guitar. Now that she’s done that, without falling into the gendered “country princess” trap, she can move on from writing and can let the machine take her to pop heaven, as it were. It’s disappointing, because I do believe that her songwriting was important for the evolution of pop-country.

White: I think it’s a huge step for her to willfully shake off her beginnings in the world of country. Taylor wants to be the biggest pop star in the world and, although New York magazine already crowned her, I’d have to argue that she’s not there yet. For a lot of people still, country suggests a fenced-off area from the rest of music. I think her primary motivation is to shed that skin. She’s out for Beyoncé-style domination. Did anyone else read this video as partially a stab at Beyoncé, who has capitalized so unequivocally on her own stellar dancing? I was hoping that Taylor would try to emulate Beyoncé and push herself to write and work with amazing, undiscovered collaborators like she has the power to as a Pop Star.

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Lobenfeld: Is this video is an I Am Not Beyoncé statement? Taylor certainly wants to be the monolith, but it is, in fact, King B who is firmly planted in that throne. Bringing up the NYMag cover line is paramount here, Caitlin, so I’m glad we’re discussing that. I do think that once Bey knocked Taylor off that pedestal with her self-titled album, there is a total necessity for Swift to switch up her narrative. Calling her album 1989 is not tantamount to naming it TAYLOR, but it’s pretty darn close. With “Shake It Off,” she’s essentially telling us that she’s thrown her hat in the ring, that she can defy the genre she’s attached to (like Beyoncé with R&B), and stand on top of the mountain, victory flag waving high. I don’t dance? Who cares? I’ve got more than that, I think she wants to say. And the fact that her sloppy finger dancing closely resembles Beyoncé throwing up for Houston’s Third Ward pleases a pop conspiracy theorist like me.

McPherson: What is it about the current climate — among fans or the media — that makes Taylor feel she has to compete with Beyoncé, of all people? I can’t really think of any specific facet of either woman’s art that’s even sorta-comparable to the others.

White: Where they’re comparable is in their untouchable perfection. Here’s how to be the ideal woman. And those narratives are competitive.

McPherson: But even there, Taylor has never traded on perfection like Beyoncé has (and which BEYONCE deconstructed). Taylor has always been about being relatable, not untouchable.

White: I actually disagree with that quite a bit. Taylor has always taken her “failures” and spun them effortlessly back into her perfection. Even during the “You Belong With Me” era, we identified with her character and saw the hot, perfect woman as less desirable. I think the other reason we compare them is that VMA moment. When Beyoncé was a perfect cyborg dancing in one of the most iconic videos of the last decade, Taylor won! That’s how powerful her flaws are.

Hopper: Taylor’s perfection is more permeable than Bey’s, but it’s very much there. A huge part of that relatability was that she gave her young, female fans a fantasy of themselves that’s very accessible, due to Taylor’s success and what age she came by it. And she wrote songs that tapped, albeit generically, into high school experience. When you are 11 and look at Beyoncé’s Instagram, with its wine, babylife and yachts — it’s maybe harder to imagine that as your life.

Greene: Yeah, I’m 32 years old and a man, so maybe I shouldn’t even be weighing in on relatability, but…her “relatable” has always felt to me like “OMG! The Prom Queen is talking to me at my locker!” relatable. A condescending sort of “relatable.” To play off of what Caitlin just said, in the “You Belong With Me” video, Taylor plays both the blushing wallflower and the hot vixen! She gets it both ways.

Lobenfeld: I agree with you, Jayson, that she plays both sides of the fence — and it’s to her fans’ disadvantage. Taylor sells this idea that not being captain of the cheerleading squad isn’t going to stop you from being desirable, not matter how scuffed your Chuck Taylors. (Although, probably not very!) The problem, I find, is that most people tend to forget that her blonde hair and blue doe-eyes (and the fantastical biographical note that she was raised on a Christmas tree farm) opens more doors, so she’s selling a false promise. Even though Bey is “the hottest chick in the game, wearing [Jay Z's] chain” (although, for who knows how much longer?), better to absorb the family-taught lessons on “***Flawless” (home-training! Loving your haters! Speaking your mind!) then flippantly brushing naysayers off.

Deitch: I feel like Taylor’s so-called relatability is playing off of a type that is, perhaps more than most, a creation of the male gaze: The girl or woman who doesn’t know her worth until a man tells her how hot she is, scooping her out of bespectacled oblivion. The “secret hot girl” is the ultimate prize. Taylor is able to be a goofball because, wink-wink, she’s super hot, fits the image of the thin white blonde babe, and listens to James Taylor (which I guess is an attractive quality to whatever unnamed man she’s singing to in “Begin Again”). This is a valuation that depends entirely on thinking you’re not “good” enough, as determined by the patriarchy.

Greene: Great point, Maud. Feel the need to stop here and single out One Direction’s creepy instructional “What Makes you Beautiful“(as in, “You don’t know you’re beautiful/ That’s what makes you beautiful”) as a master class in this particular brand of manipulation.

‘She’s calling out the haters who think she goes on too many dates (subtext being we think grownup TS is, in the parlance, a slut), which, given what a HUGENOURMOUS deal her virginity was at the start of her career, is pretty major. And so here, she’s saying “See, I hardly know what I am doing. I am still the innocent gawky creature you love.” — Jessica Hopper’

Keyes: So, we’ve sort of touched on this at various points in the discussion, and this seemed like a good place to wrap up: Maud, you mentioned the video subtly (or not-so-subtly, I guess) conflates the notion of being “bad” with being black. Claire, you point out her — intentional or otherwise — mimicking Beyoncé. Perhaps the .jpeg most often used in association with this video, in the short time that it’s been out in the world, is the one of Taylor Swift crawling beneath the spread legs of a long line of twerkers. So the question does need to be asked: To what degree is this video guilty of the kind of cultural appropriation and exploitation that other pop stars — most famously, Miley Cyrus — have blindly indulged?

Greene: This is the most interesting part of the discussion to me, if only because it seems like the team that put this video together actually did take notice of the Lily Allen and the Miley controversies, but somehow failed to learn their lessons anyway. The casting of the dancers even in that oh-god, viewing-through-fingers twerking segment feels almost careful, albeit in a witless way. “Make sure they dancers aren’t all black women, guys! Remember we don’t want a Lily Allen situation on our hands here.” There are also several different scenarios that take place: Taylor Swift as Martha Graham-style interpretive dancer, Taylor Swift as Lady Gaga (seriously, side note, what’s with the obvious Lady Gaga shade? Talk about kicking someone while they’re down). They almost feel like PR padding for when backlash pieces roll in.

It makes the larger tone deafness even more apparent. The Taylor Swift Big Machine is usually pretty good at foreseeing and heading off colossal failures of judgment like this. In this case, they switched around some of the cast members of the standard black-appropriation fantasy, but left the appropriation fantasy in there completely intact.

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Turner: If there are levels to the recent string of major white pop singers’ appropriation of other cultures, I find this one by far the least notable. Miley was presenting an entire persona shift, where poor taste and being offensive was part of the deal none of us signed up for. Lily Allen’s mess-up just seemed like the product of a person thinking satire couldn’t reinforce the stereotypes it’s critiquing. (It can!) Those twerking scenes in “Shake It Off” just feel like checking another box in what’s required for a 2014 pop video, which is terrible but not surprising. The video feels so much like a commercial for JC Penny or Old Navy that I cannot take it too seriously. There was a meanness and mockery with Allen, Cyrus and Perry, which feels lacking here. That isn’t a huge step forward or, really, a step at all. But taking from a culture for an aesthetic stings slightly less than grabbing from it to laugh.

Hopper: It’s the least notable, but in this other way it’s the most egregious because Taylor Swift, we know, is more calculating and self-aware than Miley. Miley used women of color as props, but her appropriation was participatory. In a strange way, her dancing with them is maybe a modicum “better” than Taylor tunneling out from underneath these legs and looking up with this smirk, like “Isn’t this wacky? I don’t even understand? This is so not me.” That smirk highlights the chasm between the guileless white pop star playing dress-up with her Cuban link chains and the capable brown ass shaking above her. It’s a really cheap move that plays on the historic, racist mythology about black women’s sexuality in order to underscore her own. It made me think about what, with this nostalgic album theme of 1989 that she might be seeking to recapture in her own image, what ground she is trying to reclaim. She’s calling out the haters who think she goes on too many dates (subtext being we think grownup TS is, in the parlance, a slut), which, given what a HUGENOURMOUS deal her virginity was at the start of her career, is pretty major. And so here, she’s saying “See, I hardly know what I am doing. I am still the innocent gawky creature you love. This stuff that other pop stars do is not me.”

‘Taylor Swift isn’t just appropriating twerking or black female bodies dancing—she’s appropriating it from other pop stars appropriating it! — Caitlin White’

White: Taylor Swift isn’t just appropriating twerking or black female bodies dancing — she’s appropriating it from other pop stars appropriating it! It feels like the worst, most baseless and lazy form of copying to me. Taylor has never once dabbled in any sort of hip-hop sound or persona, or even collaborated with anyone from that world. It felt like the most self-involved way to appeal to those consumers that I can think of. My secret dream is that Taylor and Drake team up one day. She is at the level where she could be working with the most high-profile rappers in the game. I am positive if she called, nearly anyone in that world would work with her! Why in the world would she foray into it in such a heavy-handed and egregious manner?

McPherson: Taylor does have a minor history of hip-hop dabbling! There was “Thug Story,” a hick-hop parody with T-Pain but the actual good one was her habit, early in her career, of covering “Lose Yourself” as a concert opener. My personal dream collab for Taylor is Kanye, obviously.

Lobenfeld: Taylor was also featured on B.o.B.’s “Both of Us.” But more significantly, pop’s real Ambassador of the Weird Girls Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” crossed over because Taylor Swift rapped it on the radio. She opened up Minaj to a bigger audience of teen girls.

McPherson: She’s had Nicki and T.I. join her on stage during her tours. Actually, it was because of “Super Bass” that I asked her about possibly collaborating with rappers last time I interviewed her. She told me she was a huge hip-hop fan because of the storytelling and seemed fairly genuine and knowledgeable, but, when it came to collaborating, was a bit aware it wasn’t her lane. It makes “Shake It Off” and its video even odder, like an old friend acting completely out of character in order to gain popularity.

White: These are good points re: her connection to that world, but they all feel tenuous at best. This still seems like a 180 and it could’ve been a 180 in a more interesting and cool way! Instead, it’s the cheapest shot at that culture and, as Jessica said, in the way that has consistently been called out so many times already. It seems at odds with the media-savvy Taylor we know.

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Hopper: To me, it also counteracts this idea that she has her own agency — that this was someone else’s bad idea, you know? Not that I imagine she is lounging around reading Roxane Gay, per se, but there has always been clarity and intention in Swift’s work and her image. This is something a room full of middle-aged white dudes would think is edgy or incisive or a way to put into relief the Taylor Swift we grew up with. For someone who has had unparalleled success (multiple albums charting in the Top 10 simultaneously, etc.), this is a strangely lukewarm move. Either under-confident or overconfident, I can’t tell yet.

White: I always respected Taylor because I felt like she made her own decisions, and even when I didn’t agree with them, I loved the idea of a pop star controlling her own destiny. This feels like someone told her, “Look, we’re going to need some hip-hop elements in here.”

McPherson: Another interesting change is that Taylor Swift’s artistic evolution is going in the opposite direction of most pop stars. The accepted route is to progress from bubblegum fluff to “mature,” credible music (which not everyone pulls off). But Swift has gone from “mature” songwriting — maybe about stereotypical teen subjects and scenarios, but the complexity of her songwriting was the fundamental appeal — toward bubblegum fluff with no complexity about it at all.

Lobenfeld: #FreeSkyFerreira

[Corrections: The song "Should've Said No" was originally identified as "Should've Said Now." Additionally, Alex Macpherson originally stated the lyrics he quoted were from the song "Change." They are from the song "Breathe." Both errors have been corrected.]