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…