Taylor Swift’s teaser singles “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down” sucked much of the wind out of her pre-release plan, on account of them both being bad. They were so bad that expectations for the full album, Lover, were naturally tempered. After its August 23 release, Jezebel’s most disgruntled music lovers—Hazel Cills, Rich Juzwiak, Clover Hope, Megan Reynolds, Maria Sherman, and Julianne Escobedo Shepherd—listened and sat around a virtual roundtable to discuss.
Hazel Cills: The first thing I’ll say is that it’s better than Reputation, which was such a confusingly produced, caustic statement of an album. I had extremely low expectations for Lover given the singles, which were mindbogglingly bad even for Swift (just bad music in general) and so it’s hard to know whether my reaction to it is the way it is because I really thought we were getting a record full of “ME!” I am a fan of a lot of Swift’s music (despite the fact that our commenters think I hate her when I write even an ounce of completely warranted criticism about her girl boss career and the worst of her songwriting), and the best of it comes when she’s writing about her own life, not blowing up feelings into lobotomized pop tropes; the “All Too Well”s of her career stand up, the “Bad Blood”s do not.
All of this is to say that the lived-in moments here are the best ones: “Cornelia Street,” “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” (god help us with that title), “Death By A Thousand Cuts,” “Soon You’ll Get Better.” That’s a decent EP right there!
Where this album loses me is in its monotony. It’s boring, maybe, to say that this album is too long, but it is and when she’s writing these Big Pop Songs, with all-too-familiar 1989 production, I can barely differentiate between them. “I Think He Knows,” “London Boy,” and “Cruel Summer” sound way too similar, and all of them exist in the shadow of Reputation’s “Getaway Car,” which is kind of a hyped-up copy of 1989’s “Style.” A lot of this record feels like a consolation for what she gave us on Reputation, but in hedging closer to 1989 I feel like I’ve just heard a lot of these songs before. The Swift fan has logged on.
Rich Juzwiak: There are definitely songs I like here, which is more than I can say about most Taylor Swift albums. She can certainly turn out a satisfying chord change, and even though the production does the white-people pop thing of turning the bass down in beat-oriented music, there’s some real ingenuity here (I love how muted “I Think He Knows” is—the chorus’s bass line is murky sub-bass!). But this is me being “constructive” and saying the positive before the negative. So with my throat fully cleared, here is what irks me the most about this album: So many of its songs don’t feel at all like proper pop songs to me, but Broadway numbers that serve to further Swift’s narrative.
The production thrusts her vocal to the front, she theatrically interprets her own lyrics like they’re out of a cherished, oft-revived book (“It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference!”), she augments her choruses with shouty punctuations. Sometimes I feel like I’m listening to Kidz Bop? The story of Taylor Swift’s life and her petty tribulations is not a musical I signed up for or want to sit through. She does nothing to convince me that her story is actually worth following. As a lyricist, she seems to understand that specificity is good, but rarely does she deliver, so you’re left with consciously rendered blandness: creaks in the floor, bare feet in the kitchen fever dreams, the rolling of fake dice, dreary Mondays.
Maria Sherman: I found myself listening to some other new releases, and who could blame me? Even as a Swift fan, I felt like nothing good would come from it. I approached this record fully ready to be disappointed—regardless of Taylor’s tried-and-true history of dropping a bunch of mediocre singles before an album that is far superior to them—but I don’t think I expected to like it as much as I did. “Cruel Summer” arrived too late in this year, and recalls 1989 (a good album) more so than Reputation (not so much).
I even like Swift at her most passive-aggressive (“I Forgot That You Existed”) and vulnerable (“Soon You’ll Get Better” featuring the Dixie Chicks). In many ways, this feels like a definitive Swift album—not because it is the most recent or perhaps the least vindictive in her repertoire, but because Taylor has been writing love songs forever and ever and it feels like now she’s doing so… about herself? It feels distinctly more… internal.
Clover Hope: “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down” were clearly the worst choices for singles. The album’s opening track, “I Forgot That You Existed,” is the best of what she does in that lane of vain, half-charming, annoying breakup songs about an interchangeable lover or “hater,” with taunting hooks, under the “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” banner. They’re the songs that remind me of the elevator moment on Mad Men where the Charles in Charge-looking dude tells Don Draper, “I feel bad for you,” and Draper responds, “I don’t think about you at all.”!! (Except, Taylor Swift is thinking about... her former partners... because she’s writing about them...) But a similar sentiment: a fuck-off.
The “Enhanced Album” notes on Spotify say Taylor says this first track is a closing chapter to Reputation and an end to “that whole conflict” (Kim and Kanye?), which she feels ruined her reputation, which it did but it didn’t end her. The marketing narrative she’s running with now is about recovery, I guess a switch from darkness and resentment to love and acceptance. I just never trust a Taylor Swift narrative, and I’m not much of a fan (it’s mostly the repetitive playground chant style that repels me). I enjoy her better when she trusts her audience. In the batch of songs Hazel mentioned, I would kill “London Boy,” fuck “I Think He Knows,” and marry “Cruel Summer.”
Megan Reynolds: I went into the album as an avowed Swift-hater, out of principle rather than anything else, and emerged from the other side not quite an apologist, but something like it. Reputation was not an album that I could ever listen to, but Lover? Sure! I’ll try it! There’s a lot in Lover that sounds like the kind of stuff you’d listen to if you wanted to feel sort of like Carly Rae Jepsen makes you feel, but didn’t want to hear that specific album. This is a pleasant pop album with some songs that I wouldn’t quite recognize as a Swift song. “Lover” is a nice facsimile of CRJ that I don’t mind; same with “The Archer.”
The middle section of the album—from “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” to “False God”—is the strongest part, though it is interrupted by the garbage that is “London Boy,” a song that is the across-the-pond equivalent of “Welcome to New York”: highly unnecessary tat that we do not need. I am not quite a fan, but I am starting to care less about hating things for the point of hating them.
Hazel: Rich’s note here—“she augments her choruses with shouty punctuations”—something that is jarring is that Swift is borrowing a lot of her vocal affectations and even songwriting structure from Reputation on this album, those kind of fast, punchy choruses or refrains a la “Look What You Made Me Do,” like there’s a period after every word. You hear it most on “I Think He Knows” and “London Boy,” and it just makes so many of her songs sound like she’s a second away from beatboxing. Like on “Cruel Summer” when she sings, “The devils roll the DIIIICEEE.”
Clover: I think that’s the abcdE style of singing she’s been doing that I dislike.
Hazel: Yes! It doesn’t suit her.
Clover: I should say I mostly like the album.
Megan: I listened to it a lot over the weekend and felt like I didn’t want to scream, so that means I liked it, too. Aside from the cloying and bad “ME!!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” both of which I think were universally recognized as bad (fight me, I’ll probably lose), there are more than a few clunkers here that did not quite work for me. Enough chatter about “London Boy,” can we please focus on “I Forgot That You Existed”? A song that makes me want to take back anything nice I’ve ever said about Taylor Swift the person and scream all the bad out at top volume. “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” is a nice sentiment wrapped in a bad song.
Rich: “Cornelia Street” has a lovely, fluttering hook, but the titular road could be literally any in the world for as much as she describes. She’s really swinging for the fences to create something timeless with “Lover,” an Ed Sheeran-style wedding-staple, but wow does it underwhelm when it isn’t reiterating, “I love you.” The first line is: “We could leave the Christmas lights up ‘til January/This is our place, we make the rules.” Leave the Christmas lights up ‘til January… like EVERYONE??? Does this imply a tyranny that has her ordering her staff break down her display on the 26th? “And you’ll save all your dirtiest jokes for me”???? “And at every table, I’ll save you a seat, lover.” Oh, so you’ll do the BARE MINIMUM??? Beauty is a coat draped over a chair, a curt, “Someone’s sitting here!” What is that song even?
Julianne: I like “Cornelia Street” because it is supposedly about her friend divorce from Karlie, according to stans! It sounds much closer to her country stuff, which was frankly better overall.
Rich: I still have no idea what Cornelia Street looks like or is through her lens, but that’s okay. I can just go there myself.
Clover: I know her boyfriend is British (and her previous boyfriend), so she would pick up the accent anyway, but I think we can confirm she watches Love Island. That’s my read on the “fancy” slang in “London Boy.”
Hazel: When Taylor said this was an album dedicated to love, what she meant was it’s dedicated to Love Island.
Clover: That’s what I think, and I’m sticking to it.
Hazel: The funny thing is, she has dated two Brits. Harry Styles and Tom Hiddleston. What changed?
Megan: “London Boy” is a very hilarious song to me, personally.
Rich: The fookin’ slang!!!
Absolutely no one:
Rich: I know Clover covered it, but I’d also like to meditate on “The Man” for a moment. I don’t really understand what she wants, if I’m taking this as autobiography.
Megan: Technically, isn’t she The Man. She’s both a fearless leader, and also definitely an alpha type?
Rich: “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can/Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.” Where is she trying to get? What more could she possibly want?
Megan: Imagine Taylor Swift identifying as anything other than an alpha.
Rich: I mean, in terms of fame and stature, pop stars don’t really get bigger. Is she talking about business ventures?
Clover: “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can (to Popeyes for the chicken sandwich)/Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.”
Rich: I’m not really of the opinion that famous people are entitled to more fame and money. I don’t really know if Taylor Swift should have a clothing line or hedge fund in her name? There’s some assumption in this song that men aren’t criticized. Quite the contrary, especially in a MeToo era! I don’t think Justin Bieber, for example, faces less scrutiny? Timberlake?
Megan: Yeah, I mean, I understand writing this broadly and not being so autobiographical here. Would it be inaccurate to suggest that a Taylor Swift album isn’t a Taylor Swift album if there wasn’t a vague girl power feminist anthem on it?
Rich: But she’s kind of a bad example of someone who isn’t getting far enough for her hard work? Did you see the CBS interview? The interviewer asked her for examples to back up the song and she just gave more generalizations.
Hazel: I feel like, I heard it as less about her accumulation of wealth and more about what the press pays attention to more, not that she’s right.
Rich: She has a lot of champions in the press, though.
Hazel: She does! But she doesn’t see it that way.
Rich: I think she thinks she’s entitled to no criticism at all. Which is bonkers.
Hazel: Yes, but see, I think again, that’s her talking about her relationships. But we’re way beyond the discourse that she’s a “maneater,” right.
Rich: Yeah, I mean, but that was always bullshit. She’s always focused on these petty digs, which I think most celebrities face to some extent. It comes with the territory. She said something during that interview like she’s always going to call out haters as long as they call her out. I guess we’ll be here for a while. There’s a certain amount of power that she’s giving the bullshit. And really underlining it is so egocentric. I mean, everyone in public faces nasty, wrong comments.
Hazel: But don’t all pop stars do that?
Rich: Well, the ones who do do that, I’m just never gonna, ya know, feel sympathy for that specifically. I’m never going to wring my hands over her reputation. Her reputation is primarily of someone worth listening and giving your money to—that has only intensified.
Hazel: I think her “reputation” definitely has changed since the Kanye/Kim thing. Has her success as an artist and wealth diminished? No.
Megan: Taylor’s personal hand-wringing over her own reputation has always been the least interesting thing to me about her, because it’s so predictable.
Clover: There are some nice songs here that I’ll return to: I love the sweetness of “Soon You’ll Get Better” and the vocal sheen on “Cruel Summer” and wish it was released as an earlier single. I’m also tired of having to say albums are too long—I accept it’s the way of the world, but yeah, this could be slashed by about five. “The Man” (where she sings, “If I was a man, I’d be the ma-an”) is a painful “If I Were a Boy” or “Like a Boy” redux. It perplexes me. Let a lesser artist have that single, Taylor! How do we feel about the Jack Antonoff footprints?
Hazel: I am frankly willing to un-cancel (just kidding, I never cancelled him) Jack because of his work with Lana, but here it’s a bit boring. Jack, if you’re reading this, good job with “Death By a Thousand Cuts.”
Rich: The only one that super impressed me was “I Think He Knows,” but I do love the build of “The Archer,” too.
Hazel: When “The Archer” first came out, I thought it was a cheap strategy to remind people her album would have other sounds beyond the trollz schtick of the first two singles, and i’m not sure if I like it any more in context of the album. “Paper Rings” is the most surprising to me; it sounds like Kate Nash.
Megan: Unfortunately, I love “The Archer,” but it was the first song on the album that made me feel like Carly Rae Jepsen should’ve done it first, if she wanted to.
Hazel: It’s funny because I don’t hear any parallels to CRJ except for “I Want You in my Room” and “Cruel Summer,” which is egregious. I mean, did Jack record those at the same time? It’s like the same fake Daft Punk sample.
Rich: Oh yeah. Or like “Nightcall.” Gotta get ahead of the Drive retroism while it’s still early.
Hazel: Oh yes, I thought of “Chromatics,” too, with “The Archer.”
Rich: I really hate the first two singles—“ME!” because it’s bad Sesame Street drag, and “You Need to Calm Down” because the production such a flagrant rip of the Knife’s “Heartbeats.” I can imagine tolerating “Cruel Summer,” “False God,” “Soon You’ll Get Better,” “The Archer,” “I Think He Knows” (of course), and “Lover,” in the event that I am subjected to them in the future. But I won’t be listening to this again on purpose.
Julianne: I’m late here on the “London Boy” discourse, but I would like to say that Joe Alwyn sounds like a really bad travel planner. There are a zillion things to do in London and she named seven of the most boring. “Go to a pub, mate!”
Maria: The song should be renamed “thrillist dot com.”
Megan: High tea, stories from uni, rugby.
Clover: Listen to me, it’s her ode to Love Island.
Maria: I can’t ignore the fact that the image/aesthetic of the album is indisputably corny, borderline childish save for the pub references, but when has Swift ever really worried about appearing cool? I watched an interview with her at Z100 and one of the hosts (who is not Elvis Durant) asked her why the word “lover,” which sounds like a “1920s flapper with a long cigarette,” announcing that she’s taken on a lover. I kind of agree. And I imagine that host was poking fun at her a little bit. I agree with Rich when he says Lover veers on Kidz Bop territory in moments, but maybe that’s a wise marketing decision on her end. With Katy Perry long since down and out, she is queen of the babies.
Clover: I agree with Hazel on the pulled back, “lived in” moments being the strongest, like “Cornelia Street” and the slow-dance-prom pace of “The Archer” and the title track... The album is no Katy Perry flop but also doesn’t change Taylor’s position in pop much at a time when people seem to be questioning if the big pop stars who used to dominate the charts (Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber) have lost a certain verve and element of surprise. This feels like Taylor Swift as a contestant on Project Runway who’s great but decides to make a perfectly safe garment just to stay in the competition.
Megan: Taylor Swift, the person, is a nightmare woman, but there are at least five songs on this 18-song album that I enjoy. She won, but she always does. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the heft of this album, which, at 18 songs, broadcasts itself as an Event, based solely on its size. It’s like catching a glimpse of what you think might be a sizable package on a man in a pair of pants, but realize later that what you thought you saw was just a clever arrangement of both twig and berries: promising, but ultimately sort of lame.
Rich: Should we do an oral history of Megan’s dick analogy as a companion blog?
Hazel: This is definitely in the worst end of her catalog, along with Reputation and her first album. If anything, I think this is a transitional album. I get the sense she wanted to wipe the slate clean with Lover (“I Forgot That You Existed”), return to a well-worn sound for her, not rock the boat much.
Rich: Swift, like any pop star who really understands the craft, has a well-honed persona. It shouldn’t be, but this is something increasingly extraordinary as the pantheon turns over more and more completely blank very popular people who sing and dance in public for a few years before disappearing. I appreciate that about Swift. I understand that anyone working within such a broad medium as pop music is bound to have their idiosyncrasies that fans find endearing regardless of their quality. I’m not a fan, though, it’s just not in my makeup, so I remain, for the most part, not charmed.