Thursday, November 02, 2023

‘Bad Blood’ about the Big Machine? Taylor shows how to ‘Shake it Off’

There are about three reasons for behemoth songwriters to revisit their back catalogue in that most fastidious way: rerecording an old album being number one. And, unless you have just arrived from outer space (if that applies to you, welcome, have a chai latte, and enjoy the ice caps and forests while you can), you will be aware that there’s something called “Taylor’s version” popping up on the end of a lot of pop songs lately.

No, it’s not a rogue hashtag loosed on the world’s streaming platforms by a hapless marketing intern or any of our current megalomaniacal techno-villain horsemen. Rather, it’s because everyone’s favourite free-roaming whole-ass economy, Taylor Swift, went nuclear on the corporate nasties who bought her original masters in 2019.

Now she’s marauding through everything that any fool Swiftie can see is rightfully hers, reclaiming all she’s lovingly crafted, clear-eyed and unrelenting, on an intellectual property and artistic freedom crusade of unshakable righteous power, like an eternal titan from a pantheon beyond the scope of our mere earthly concerns.


No sir, the release of ‘1989 (Taylor’s Version)’ was not contrived as a contemplative retrospective on all the personal growth and water under the bridge of pre-mid-life ageing that Taylor has sailed through in the past decade, though there is a little bit of that in the mixes that primarily aim to, and succeed in, faithfully emulating the originals (more on the points of departure in a minute). With all the current albums and cinema experiences and once-in-a-never concert ticket prices, Taylor Swift does not require such gimmicks.


And there’s no bad blood with old bandmates à la Roger Waters redoing ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. Well, there is ‘Bad Blood’ with old bandmates, but it’s… you get it.

The release of ‘1989’ in 2014 is widely regarded as the point at which Taylor Swift became a household name, largely thanks to its mega production standards and a string of chart smash hit singles. For example, the one about Starbucks. You know, Starbucks lovers. What was it called? ‘Blank Space’? Really? Yeah, it doesn’t say “Starbucks lovers”. It’s not a sell-out coffee shop romance song. Taylor doesn’t sell out. She buys back. The lyric is “Got a long list of ex-lovers”, and the setting of the lyric produces an aural illusion that makes you crave a venti frappe mochaccino or whatever sugar-ocalypse you’re into because it puts stress in unexpected places. Like this:


Got a long list of ex-lovers  (‘Blank Space’ stress pattern)

Got a long list of ex-lovers  (natural speech stress placement – try it)


When we hear these words in the song, our language centres scramble for the nearest words with that distinctive stress placement, and they land on something like “Gotta love those Starbucks lovers”, and the rest of the brain goes “Yep, that sounds right” and we move on.


So, does Taylor’s version fix this by subtly tweaking the lyric setting, shifting the alignment of the words into synchrony with the rhythmic pattern of the music? No, reader, it doesn’t. But you know what, it kind of doesn’t sound like Starbucks any more on either version. Maybe you can just over-think yourself out of that cognitive trap after all.


‘1989 (Taylor’s version)’ feels a little more relaxed in its vocal intensity in places, compared to the tendency to belt in the 2014 original version, produced mostly by Max Martin. Where is Max Martin on this re-release? The stand-out mega-hits (‘Blank Space’, ‘Style’, ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Bad Blood’) still pop in a universally strong album, but they have a more diffuse and less try-hard energy than the versions from a decade ago. It’s easy to read a sense of self-assurance into this subtle development, but it could also just be a matter of different producers having their own magic formulae that AI are still apparently several months away from faithfully replicating.


Has Taylor’s accent changed? Yes, and thank you for asking. Everyone’s accent changes as they get older, mix with different people, identify with different things, and transition from millionaire to billionaire. It’s perfectly natural. But did you notice that pop songs often do a bric-a-brac of accents to boost their ear-worminess? That’s why you suddenly get a syllable of what you could have sworn was Cockney in a Lady Gaga song, or a random bit of Berkshire in a Nicki Minaj lyric. The spectrum of accent tourism on this recording is subtly shifted from the original, and Swift completists will bake their noodles over small differences such as these for years to come.


The big differences are the five extra tracks included in the new version (plus a version of ‘Bad Blood’ featuring Kendrick Lamar for the ‘Deluxe’ record), including the mellow ‘Slut!’ which name-checks slut shaming and gestures towards reclaiming the term rather than directly, single-handedly and finally smashing the patriarchy into a pink mist of ball dust as one might have hoped in 2023 (“If they call me a slut / You know it might be worth it for once”). But there’s still time.


John Weston


Image: '1989 (Taylor's Version)' Official Album Cover


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