Last night at midnight, Taylor Swift officially closed out the Reputation era and rang in the new. She debuted “ME!,” her tantalizing first tease of the TS7 metamorphosis, a duet with Brendon Urie from Panic! At the Disco. So much going on. The pastels. The rainbows. The French dialogue. The lovingly framed portrait of the Dixie Chicks on the wall. Her yee-haw go-go boots. Her Pattie Boyd bouffant. The “Delicate”-style vocoder vocals. The Jacques Demy umbrellas. So much disco, so much panic. Her new third cat. Happy New Era’s Day.
At this point, she’s been teasing her new albums with lead singles long enough to show how she likes to do these things. The Taylor Lead Single is a genre unto itself, and “ME!” has all the signs: It’s campy, it’s bubbly, it’s got a spoken-word interlude (“hey kids, spelling is fun!”) and a video loaded with in-jokes. It’s a totally canonical Taylor Lead Single. But the question is: What does it really tell us about the album to come and the new music she’s got up her sleeve?
Keep in mind: The first song Swift debuts is always an outlier. She doesn’t like to give the album’s secrets away too fast. She prefers to throw people off the scent. Why does she like to mess with fans’ minds this way? She just does. “Innocent” from Speak Now (which she debuted at the 2010 VMAs), “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” from Red, “Shake It Off” from 1989, “Look What You Made Me Do” from Reputation—what these songs have in common is that they’re musically far afield from their albums. They’re big thematic statements addressing her public image; they talk about the celebrity Taylor, rather than the personal one. But they usually don’t end up sounding much like the other songs on the album.
“Look What You Made Me Do” was the most cleverly misleading head-fake of her career—everybody thought Reputation was going to be a whole album of celebrity shade, which turned out to be just 2 of the 15 songs. (Whew!) But arguably it did the job too well—it created a false narrative for Reputation that was hard for people to shake, even after they heard what was (pretty damn explicitly) an album of love songs. “ME!” is far more playful, but it still pokes fun at her image, with lines like, “I know that I went psycho on the phone.” You know she’s swerving hard back into Old Tay mode when she includes a line about a boy running after her in the rain calling her name. (But did he throw pebbles at her window?)
Her obvious role model for lead-single-izing: Thriller. Strange as it seems now, when Michael Jackson was preparing to drop Thriller on the world in 1982, the first song he released was…. “The Girl Is Mine.” So everybody thought Thriller was going to be a whole album of corny ballads using the word “doggone.” Even his duet partner Paul McCartney found it baffling — as he admitted, “You could say it’s shallow.” (And this from the ex-Beatle who released a 1972 solo single of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”) That’s part of why “Billie Jean” stunned the world — nobody was ready for it, because he’d fooled us all with “The Girl Is Mine.” That’s how MJ wanted it. And that’s how Taylor likes to do it, too.
Every Taylor Lead Single is required to have a spoken-word moment: “Spelling is fun” joins the tradition of “I mean, this is ex-HAUS-ting,” “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now” and “the fella over there with the hella cool hair.” That’s another way she follows the strategy of “The Girl Is Mine,” since the highlight of that song was the Michael/Macca dialogue, e.g. “Paul, I think I told you I’m a lover, not a fighter!” (The “ME!” video has a neon sign that reads “Lover.”)
Taylor’s spent this whole week teasing the still-unnamed TS7 project — she’s now heavily into butterflies and rainbows and moonbeams and roses, like a flower child in a Jimi Hendrix ballad. Her fab looks all week have evoked Prince in his psychedelic pastel phase circa “Raspberry Beret” and Around the World in A Day — which happened to be his seventh album. She posted a photo yesterday sporting a giant rose, under 22 stars. She’s been striking Speak Now-era fashion poses all week, like her dress at the Time 100 gala. And she brought her longtime bestie Abigail of “Fifteen” fame, a callback to Fearless. Is TS7 going to be All the Taylor Eras, All the Time?
“ME!” is a song full of her favorite tropes — Joel Little, who co-wrote Lorde’s “Green Light” and “Supercut,” sounds right in her zone. The video opens with the Reputation snakes turning into butterflies. (Just like the jet fighters in Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”?) Also note how the butterflies rise up to her open window, a callback to the video for “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” which is still the best Taylor Lead Single in history. (It would also be her best video ever, if not for the brilliance that is “Blank Space.”) “ME!” debuts the new cat who has secretly joined Meredith and Olivia. Also, this video has a unicorn—if I’m not mistaken, that’s a Taylor first, which is weird if you think about it.
Nobody enjoys a strategically elaborate album reveal like our girl — no pop star in history has ever made it such an integral part of her artistic evolution. Every album is a huge musical departure, and trying to guess her next move is a sucker’s game. She is never going to make the same album she made last time, and the lead single is never going to spill the tea on where she’s speeding now. A hint, yes; some clues, bien sur; the full story, never.
As they say in France, “Je suis calme,” which translates roughly as “I might be OK but I’m not fine at all,” and the morning after a new Swift song drops is always a mess. Like any Taylor Lead Single, “ME!” is a lot. But there are still a million things we don’t know about this album. And make no mistake, that’s how Taylor wants it.