Taylor Swift: “Shake It Off” (1989, 2014)
What to say about this that won’t be said over the next week?
1. As a song it pivots on clustering drums and a depthless horn synth which are both curiously inert and give the track the texture of a demo. The horns sound particularly hollow and disembodied, as if issuing sharply from an alarm clock. It’s a beat composed of allegorical blanks.
2. Swift considerably animates it. She weaves like a silvery thread in and out of the indifferent design of the beat to knit vivid subrhythms—for instance, her descending echoes in the chorus (“play play play,” “hate hate hate”). At one point in the video, Swift hopscotches through columns of frozen ballerinas, conveying her movement through the song.
3. The video is incidentally also an overgrown emptiness, against which varieties of dance materialize. Swift is unable to execute these dances with any fitness, so she eventually collapses into her own style, whether of a swiveling ballerina or an increasingly literal modern dancer who pounds the lunar floor in frustration.
4. She also fails to perform the coordinated blooms of cheerleaders, which some suggest is deeply relevant to her earlier single “You Belong with Me.” If it is, it’s Swift’s least sophisticated, most obvious textual mirror. I prefer the genetic coincidences of “I Almost Do” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” or “White Horse“‘s nimble inversion of “Love Story.”
5. “Shake It Off” is a video about dance that incorporates images of the slow motion, cellular drifts of twerking women. Of the scenes, Swift told Rolling Stone, “We had twerking, which was so funny. Those girls were trying to teach me how, and it’s just never gonna happen. I tried really hard. They were teaching me what they do, and there’s like a science to it—they’re like digging their heels into the floor without you seeing their legs move, but their butts [are] moving. It’s mind-blowing to me. They were explaining it all to me, and it’s so above my comprehension of how to understand your body.” So these women thread inelegantly into the plot of the video, which is:
6. The body is dissolved and reiterated through dance. Swift tries to simulate each form but fails. She encounters friction when she remembers her body. So she abandons them and dances finally in a kind of condensed and inanimate twist. It’s about respecting traditions but also shedding them when they no longer apply to the work, especially when the work is strange and inelastic and assembled entirely within the narrow dimensions of Max Martin’s keyboard.