Following on from my piece on repeition and quotation in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop“, I’m taking a look at Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”.
This is less obviously enmeshed in the tentacles of postmodernism, but it still sounds to me like a song quoting itself. More specifically, it sounds like a country record which is actually a dance record quoting that same country record. To quote Baudrillard and Deleuze, Taylor Swift done a simulacrum. She has recorded a record which is a quotation of something which did not exist prior to that record. It’s not simply that “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (henceforth WANEGBT) sounds highly-produced, it sounds like a collage. It sounds like hip-hop or dance. Possibly it’s a side-effect of recording studio techniques, possibly it’s the fact that our music is riddled with citation, but the way that initial guitar riff is clipped off cleanly sounds like a sample to me. It reminds me of the way Alabama Three, or The Streets, or even Moby and Skrillex snip sounds to emphasize their status as quotations. They’re sounds which cannot continue to ring organically and die away because they don’t originate in the space we’re listening to them in.
That very slight pause in the string loop of “Turn the Page”, for example, which jolts us out of hearing the string section of an orchestra, and into hearing a record being reset on a deck. Or the diminishing sounds of the other voices in the vocal hook on “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad” which clash with the harmony. Returning to Swift’s track, the drum roll leading up to the last chorus also sounds vaguely like a dance record to me, though more jungle or drum n bass. It also sounds as if it originates elsewhere, as if it’s been skilfully introduced into the mix. The art that conceals art, but does so with enough small clues or flaws to let us peek at the virtuoso skill producing the illusion. This is sprezzatura, the nonchalance of the rules of courtly life laid down by the sixteenth-century nobleman Baldassare Castiglione: the prince playing dress-up whose shepherd costume is perfect apart from riding too smart a horse. It’s skill that deceives and then lets us in on enough of the trick to appreciate how well it’s been done, so we get a double enjoyment from seeing it done.
It’s worth noticing in Swift’s case, because of the emphasis country music puts on authenticity, something it ironically has in common with hip-hop, a style more at home with citation and repetition. Alabama Three used to talk early in their career about how the attraction of blending dance, gospel and country into a sort of “postmodern country” stemmed from the fact that country was “opaque”. It was uncool enough, unslick enough, that there was no cheap stealable chic to be had from it. It was authentic by the lumpen virtue of no-one ever wanting to rip it off. Taylor Swift is also unusually keen on authentication in her songs: citing ages and names as part of her implicit claim to have been a “real” teenage girl like her listeners. A different approach from that of Miley Cyrus, for example, who more readily embraces and plays on the idea of an artistic persona which may potentially slide away from, or sit awkwardly with, her “real” identity. Citation serves Alabama Three and Taylor Swift in very different ways, perhaps suggesting that country is much more amenable to being produced and marketed as glamorous than it was in the past. Hardly a staggeringly insight, but interesting to see it playing out on the technical level of the songs’ construction. Is there a discrepancy between the claims to authenticity which Swift makes, and the radio-ready sample-inflected sound of her music, or is she (along with her listeners) just as comfortable in the postmodern song market as Macklemore?
In fact repetition and citation are as important to the theme of WANEGBT as they are to “Thrift Shop”. The opening line (“I remember when we broke up…[beat]…The first time”) and the chorus (“W…A…never, ever, ever, ever…G…B…T [repeat]”) structure the song around the idea of repetition. The emotional centre of the song is the sense of being unable to escape of a repeating pattern, that what should be the most individual and personal relationship is turning into a mechanical cycle. Though the very effective way which the song’s structure sketches this in calls into question its ability to end that cycle. It is supposedly addressed to the lover with whom Swift is totes NEGBT (like ever) but is obviously “overheard” by the audience. Thus the continual reiteration of “never, ever, ever” evokes the situation she finds herself in, but casts doubt on the ability of this song to break out of it. The repetition undermines the efficacy of the words to enact what they claim they’re doing, and – just with “Thrift Shop” – the structure of citation and reiteration subverts the apparent meaning of the lyrics.
 To quote Rev, D. Wayne Love of the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine, “spread my word through music, sweet pretty gospel acid-house music”