We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together - Taylor Swift
Some Indie Record That’s Much Cooler Than Mine
Tomorrow, we are going to meet Taylor The Real Girl, or try to, and maybe then I’ll manage to stop talking in circles about the self and selves and personal and private and all of these concepts that have meaning and value but begin to take on a sort of marbles in the mouth quality that chokes meaningful conversation when overused. Even still, I can’t pretend I’m not interested in layers, I can’t pretend I don’t believe it’s important, necessary, even, to peel back the layers of production, both self production and commercial production and the spaces where the two intertwine, in order to really understand and appreciate creative output. Obviously, some things are more complex than others; I’m not here to claim that Taylor Swift is achieving the height of introspection. I would, however, maybe argue that introspection is not actually the goal of her personal project, a claim I’d defend with an interrogation of the layers at work within her “confessional” music and persona. Layers!!! I think we need to talk about the layers of The Taylor Swift Machine (My favorite moment in the entirety of Buffy is when the gang whirls around and stares at Cordelia, shocked to hear that she’s looking forward to the SATs because she does well on standardized tests, and Cordelia just shrugs and says, “What? I can’t have layers?”) and I want to start with the shiny outer layer first, the glossy pop star veneer, the candy coating that can be sickly sweet or tongue-in-cheek tart depending on the moment, but a sugar rush either way. Tomorrow we’re going to talk about precocious teenager Taylor Swift, but today is all about the equally important Taylor Swift™.
"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" was an important moment for Taylor Swift. It was the first of her singles to be indisputably, unquestionably, a pop song. She’d been riding the lines of country pop for years (and, just to get it out of the way, I am neither qualified to nor interested in debating whether or not Taylor Swift is “real country." She says that’s what she’s making, fine.) but this song vaulted her indisputably into the land of the glittering pop princesses, and it turns out she’s a natural fit. The spoken word interlude is ridiculous and perfect and hits that exact pop sweet spot where delightful juuuust starts to veer into grating, and the glossy Max Martin production plays well on the radio. The song is not one of my personal favorites on an album loaded with more outstanding tracks, although I appreciate its intentions, or what I perceive them to be, but I do believe it’s going to hold up really well at roller skating birthday parties for many years to come, and that’s kinda what counts.
This song is very girly Taylor, it’s very young Taylor, it’s a little petty a little flip, all shades of Taylor we’ve seen before, but this time packaged more Katy than Shania. What makes it work, for me, is that the quality of immaturity, for lack of a better word, that this song possesses, feels like a purposeful choice, not an accident of personal emotional weakness. I think it’s important to remember that Stage Taylor/Record Taylor is allowed to be malleable, allowed to be dreamed up and twisted around, important to remember this young woman does not owe you or me or anyone an Authentic Self that can be easily pinned down and exposed. I swear, it’s not that I want to say it again, but there are layers. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” can be read as Taylor speaking a truth through a put-on voice. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” doesn’t have to be silly just because it sounds like it.
So, is it “real” then? I don’t think “real” is the most useful or satisfying concept to use in relation to music or art or, anything, really, because what does real mean, because why do I care what is real, because that Grammy performance where Taylor took on an English accent that was assumed to be a dig at recent ex, boy bander Harry Styles, in particular, was extremely stylized and huge. I mean, it was literally a circus, right? But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real, per say, because exorcising lived experience through intentional frivolity, making the personal a spectacle, is a very, very real thing.
Beyond this one performance, there is the matter of how one chooses to interpret this song to begin with. In my mind, reading “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” as purely Taylor talking to a dude she broke up with, rather than Taylor in dialogue with the public perception of her as Girl Who Only Sings About Boys, is so dull. This song trades the stinging earnestness of other Swift breakup songs like “Last Kiss,” or even the jilted anger of a “Should’ve Said No,” for a thrilling gum-smacking indifference. I just, I mean this is exhausting you know? Every syllable sounds like an eye roll.
When Taylor took to the Grammy stage and performed this song in the manner that she did, I think she was acknowledging the swirling rumors and stories about her love life publicly and with a smirk, and the moment felt much more about the “Harry Styles Dumped Taylor Swift Because She Would Only Talk About Antiques,”-type headlines than about the real life actual mopheaded lil bro she chaperoned to a tattoo parlor that one time.
In the end, I relish that artifice. High octane girlishness that soars to heights revolting to many, merrily revolting, I say. This Taylor is an absolute brat. I relish the idea of the personal as performance, where, in turn, the performance becomes personal, where the performed behaviors don’t need to be “true” to be “real.” I want both the quiet guitar strumming and the long legged struts in a glittering outfit, I want all of it, and Taylor Swift wants it, too. And I don’t care if I’m giving her too much credit. I really don’t believe that I am, but it doesn’t matter, because this experience of Taylor Swift is mine and I am entitled to it. When I say that Taylor Swift is something of an evil genius, which I do, I mean it as the truest and highest compliment I can give, because, literally, homegirl has channeled this crazy overgrown preteen inside of herself, a girl that is clearly not who she is in real life but is a lot of playground chanting fun to indulge in here and there if you’re not a boring jerk, and she is using that pigtailed bunny-boiler to make money hand over fist, so that when everybody gets their panties in a twist over it she can just go home and sit on a pile of awards and sparkly oxfords watching Law and Order reruns with her cat. It’s brilliant and beautiful and she ought to be very proud.