"Fast Slow Disco"

Spoiler alert: This song is just an excuse to talk about Taylor Swift. Sorry, it’s Lover release week—everything is just an excuse for me to talk about Taylor Swift. (Not that I really need an excuse to talk about Taylor Swift…) 

So. Anyway. Taylor Swift. 

“Fast Slow Disco” was apparently her idea. At least, that’s Annie told Matt Wilkinson duing a Beats 1 interview. Taylor heard “Slow Disco,” told Jack Antonoff that it would make a great pop song, Jack told Annie, and, boom, “Fast Slow Disco.” Because what Taylor Swift wants, Taylor Swift gets. And, also, because has a real knack for hearing the untapped pop potential in other artist’s songs.

It’s been awhile since she did a cover, but, back when she did them regularly, it was fun to hear her edit other people’s music; tweaking melodies to be catchier, adjusting pacing to be more dramatic. She didn’t always make adjustments—there was plenty of stadium-sized karaoke—but when she did, it was a window into her songwriting process/a burnishing of her #reputation as a pop savant. 

I’m particularly obsessed with her covers of Brooks & Dunn’s “Ain’t Nothin’ About You” and David Mead’s “Nashville,” because they’re the best demonstration of this little musical parlor trick.

In 2010, she covered “Ain’t Nothin’ About You” as part of Brooks & Dunn’s televised “retirement” send off. She was Country’s favorite daughter—just a few months out from winning Album of the Year for Fearless and years away from meeting Max Martin—and, accordingly, she got to sing Brooks & Dunn’s biggest hit. “Ain’t Nothin’ About You” spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Country charts in 2001. It was the biggest country song of the year and it peaked at No. 25 on the Hot 100, which is impressive considering it’s just two old-ass men with mustaches leisurely crooning over a distinctive guitar riff. But Taylor’s cover is different. And, in retrospect, an omen. Taylor’s cover is spirited, transcendently hormonal, and pop. It sounds like the type of song that crosses over; the type that cracks the Top 10 and hangs out there for months and months; the type song she was about to start writing. She managed to imbue the song with the energy of a youthful, wide-eyed crush by speeding it up just a touch and really digging into the chorus (the way she rushes through “there ain’t NOTHIN’ bout you” to decelerate into “that don’t SOMETHIN’ for me”... magic!). 

A year later, Taylor dug up “Nashville” an obscure album cut by David Mead, an indie singer-songwriter with ties to collaborator-slash-ex, John Mayer, to perform at one of her Nashville Speak Now tour shows. The original song (which only has about 500K plays on Spotify) sounds like one of those twee, mid-’00s Grey’s Anatomy ballads. No real drama… but lots of acoustic guitar and a soft, sensitive male vocal. It is… fine. Unless you’re Taylor Swift. Then it’s the first draft of an epic, stadium-sized power ballad. She slows the whole thing way, way, way down; stretching out each word and adding a full minute to the song’s runtime. It’s all slow-burning rumination and regret until the three-minute mark, when everything picks up and she starts building to big, dramatic “NAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-HAAA-shville.” It sounds nothing like the original and every bit like a superstar contemplating life as “A fast train/Blowin' through a valley.” 

In conclusion: Taylor Swift. Stream “Cruel Summer.” 

"All the Things She Said"

Happy birthday to my most problematic fave, “All the Things She Said.” 

Every time I listen to this song, I hear it for the first time. I’m startled by the way the drums crash in at the beginning, hypnotized by the laser-show synths in the middle, flattened by the acoustic guitar that gives way to something resembling strings under the second verse. The production is absolutely bonkers: manic one second, tender and depressed the next. It sounds like the hormonal mood swings it’s trying to imitate, which is no small feat—especially considering everyone involved was essentially an amueter at the time. There is so, so much that I love about this song. And then there’s... everything else. 

And there’s so, so much else. There’s the faux-lesbianism, obviously. Then there’s the way Julia Volkova’s faux-lesbianism mutated into some really noxious homophobia. Then there’s the whole ableist Lyudi Invalidy debacle. Then, of course, there’s Ivan Shapovalov, the child psychologist-turned-ad exec-turned-hyper-controlling svengali who dreamed up the idea for the song and band after watching some teen-centric porn (an origin story he absolutely loved to scandalize Western journalists with). 

But, even knowing all of that, I can’t bring myself to cancel the song. Or the video. Because, ultimately, I think the whole “Russian Lolita lesbians” thing is something of a red herring—at least as far as the appeal/legacy of “All the Things She Said” is concerned. At risk of sounding contrarian: I really don’t think the song took off because Julia plants a chaste, slow-motion kiss on Lena in the video. Ditto the (extremely gratuitous) upskirts. In fact, I think all the controversy obscured something essential: “All the Things She Said” isn’t particularly sexy. It’s hysterical, heady, and angsty as hell. 

In English, the girls are in “serious shit” and “feel totally lost.” In Russian, they’re “mad,” “insane,” it’s an “S.O.S. situation.” In both, they’re grappling with the life-changing implications of their desires—not, like, having a little too much fun at a slumber party. It’s a song about feeling like the world will reject you for what you want, while knowing that the status quo “IS. NOT. ENOUGH.” It’s the song’s all-consuming angst that aughties teenagers glommed onto, not Shapovalov’s lecherously obvious fantasy. 

Case and point: t.A.T.u. superfan-slash-pop luminary, Charli XCX, has repeatedly cited the group’s electo-anguish as the source of their appeal. When asked what she’d like to record with Taylor Swift after she joined the Reputation Stadium Tour, she said “something super emo… like t.A.T.u.’s ‘All the Things She Said.’” The primary inspiration for “Cross You Out,” her chilly, moody collab with Sky Ferreiera? t.A.T.u. And it’s not just Charli XCX! Lots of people heard t.A.T.u. in Halsey’s “Nightmare,” a song about female anger and ambivalence. 

TL;DR: “All the Things She Said” endures because what teens were hearing in 2002 was different than what adults were seeing.

"Get Naked (I Got a Plan)"

Because you’re legally required to mention Justin Timberlake every time you write about Britney Spears: It’s interesting to compare the legacies of FutureSex/Lovesounds and Blackout. The former was considered the height of aughties pop. The latter a minor miracle, because, you know. Justin Timberlake was hailed as a genius pop savant. Britney Spears was… not. FutureSex/Lovesounds made nearly every big end-of-decade wrap-up. Blackout was nodded at politely. And that’s not, like, totally unfair. But here’s the thing: when you listen to popular music in 2019, you hear much (much, much, muuuuuuuch) more of Danja and Britney’s narcotic nihilism than Timbaland and Timberlake’s baroque omni-pop.

Post Malone? Blackout. Billie Eilish? Blackout. Ariana Grande? …depends on the song.

Britney didn’t invent depressed hedonism, but she made it pop.

"The Archer"

After “ME!” came out in April, I tweeted (and deleted) something along the lines of “Songs Taylor Swift writes for Taylor Swift > Songs Taylor Swift writes to annoy ex boyfriends >> Songs Taylor Swift writes for her fans >>>> Songs Taylor Swift writes for the Billboard charts.” It’s one of those things that feels true in 220 characters, but doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny at all. Like, do I think “Blank Space” was written without the charts in mind? Haven’t I spent years defending the earworm-y delirium of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”? At her best, Taylor Swift marries confessional songwriting with ruthlessly catchy hooks. That’s what makes her special!

Buuuuuuut, in the specific case of Lover’s pre-release singles, I stand by the oversimplification: Songs Taylor Swift writes for Taylor Swift (“The Archer”) >>> Songs Taylor Swift writes for her fans (“You Need To Calm Down”) >>>> Songs Taylor Swift writes for the Billboard charts (“ME!”).

It’s not that “ME!” or “Calm Down” are bad, exactly. It’s that they’re so transparently engineered for syncs and radio play that it’s hard to engage with them seriously. You can practically hear the the marketing meetings: “ME!” is an obvious attempt to knock-off sunny, family-friendly mega-hits like “Happy” and “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” while “Calm Down” shrewdly observes what all of 2019’s biggest hits have in common (i.e., Instagram caption-friendly lyrics, sub-3:00 runtime, talk-sung verses, synthy beat) then treats those observations like a checklist. They’re very explicitly commercial products that iterate on existing trends, not art. I admire the mathematical pop craftsmanship, but, ultimately, if I can’t have the fully integrated Taylor Swift, I prefer the singer-songwriter version—I prefer “The Archer.”

Hushed and a little hazy, “The Archer” is Swift at her least commercial: There’s no drop, no hooks—there’s barely even a chorus. The song is just Swift, meditating on the consequences of own bad behavior, over a bed of dreampop synths. She’s navigating the wreckage of her relationships, hoping to find a way out. And the subtle way Swift brings this tense, cyclical anxiety to life in the song’s structure is [Chef’s Kiss Emoji].

“The Archer” is about toxic patterns and the struggle to change; the song’s production creates a similar sense of unease by building to a moment of catharsis that never comes. Verses give way to choruses, synths build. You expect percussion to explode or the drop to hit. Background vocals. Anything. But instead you just get tension. Lots of it. Until the song picks up exactly where it started: combat, a bad habit Swift is desperate to outgrow.

If only she felt the same way about chartbait…

"Can't Fight the Moonlight"

“Can’t Fight the Moonlight” is an essential piece of ‘00s trash; an endlessly fascinating work of art that is tremendously important to my personal canon! I love it because 1) it’s a deceptively weird song from an obviously deranged movie and 2) it’s a perfect example of how I overanalyze my bad tweenage taste to justify never developing a more sophisticated cultural palette. Chic!!! 

I first encountered “Can’t Fight the Moonlight”—and the Piper Perabo vehicle it was attached to—at my friend Kelsey’s house as a tween. Kelsey was beautiful, blonde, and worldly in the way only girls with older sisters and lax, borderline inattentive parents can be: Trendy, confident, and a little destructive. I felt special, golden when she invited me to her house for the first time. I remember sitting on the floor of her bedroom—deep purple, covered in plastic stars, and draped in fabric—marveling at her ability to know things as I flipped through the jewel-case of an up-and-coming alternative artist I had never heard of (Avril Lavigne). She seemed like the living embodiment of the girl all those teen magazines I read were written for. The girl I thought I wanted to be. So, at 11 or 12, I situated myself in her orbit and absorbed everything I could: Hair and make-up tips (add streaks to your hair with crayola markers!), a firm understanding of The Bases (second base encompasses both over- and under-the-shirt groping), Coyote Ugly

(Of course, the first time we tried to watch Coyote Ugly, her dad came home early and asked if we had gotten permission from my parents to watch a PG-13 movie and I, a hopeless narc from the jump, admitted we had not. Rules! I just wanted to follow them! Adults! I just wanted to please them! We were more successful the second time, when we took the DVD into her basement.) 

I have basically no memory of the film itself. Piper Perabo tries to become a pop star... by go-go dancing at a downtown club? Tyra Banks gyrates on a bar? John Goodman is disappointed in his daughter’s raunchy bartending? An Adrian Grenier-type… exists? What I remember is insisting on watching all the DVD extras about the music and then leaving Kelsey’s house to download the whole soundtrack on KaZaA. Something about the movie’s hilariously unsexy, private-label Britney Spears songs set off an absolutely wild chemical reaction in my adolescent brain—a flood of dopamine so intense I’m still wading around in its aftermath nearly 20 years later. 

Which, of course, begs the question: Lol, why??????? Because, again, “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” sound like every song released in the post-“...Baby One More Time” teen pop gold rush: All of Max Martin’s world-conquering spiky synths, lush strings, and melodic longing—and none of his attitude; Glossy, but desaturated; “Oops!...I Did It Again” after a game of telephone. So, whyyyyyy?? Why this stupid knock-off and not any of the hundreds of identical knock-offs that came out at the same time? 

And the answer, as far as I can tell, is that “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” isn’t actually a pop anthem—it’s a maudlin mid-tempo ballad gussied up with some synths. Written by Dianne Warren (the undisputed queen of blockbuster ballads!), “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” has as much in common with mawkish mega-hits like “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing,” “Because You Loved Me,” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” as it does early-millenium uber-pop. It’s just so… chaste. And sweet. And earnest. 

What happens “deep in the dark”? Your surrender your heart. Passion is abstracted to a “gentle breeze” the “weaves its spell upon your heart.” It’s Spearsian rauch in soft focus; sex with training wheels.

How could I resist? How could LeAnn Rimes, who signed on to Coyote Ugly so she should sing “Can’t Fight the Moonlight”? It was the song she wanted—needed!—to launch her pop crossover. No other song would do for the 18-year-old country ingenue: “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” was the right amount of sexy (not very), written by the right person (Warren also penned Rimes’ biggest hit, “How Do I Live?”). We were good girls who wanted to grow up… but not too fast.