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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Earworm Weekly: Taylor Swift's “Shake It Off” Is My Divorce Anthem

Posted By on Wed, Sep 2, 2015 at 3:01 PM

  • Christopher Victorio
I'm in the middle of getting a divorce. The details aren't important; they manage to be simultaneously lurid and boring to anyone not immediately affected (hint: taxes are involved). But I know I am not alone in having a tendency to construct “soundtracks” for major life events. And so it is that Taylor Swift's “Shake It Off” has become my official divorce anthem. For a while, I deliberately inoculated myself with the song's mildly manic peppiness whenever I got annoyed at one of the endless tiny snags that come with carefully unraveling a 25-year relationship. After a while, I didn't have to actually queue it up on my musical device of choice; my inner ear radio would do it for me. After every mediation session, the ridiculously catchy chorus would repeat itself in my head for hours at a time. Which should have been annoying after a while, but it wasn't. If “Shake It Off” was a person I could date, we would be in rebound relationship heaven right now.

Before my pending divorce, Taylor Swift was not really on my radar except in the most superficial pop-culture literacy sense. She was that ex-country singer who got interrupted by Kanye West and sang pointedly catchy songs about her exes, right? One of a crop of young, white, girly pop stars that appealed more to my kids' demographic than mine.

Until I discovered that several other folks in my age bracket also harbored a soft spot for Swift. Parents like her, it seems, because she comes off as wholesome and girl-next-doorsy – or, as a friend of mine put it, “I'm not absolutely horrified when I hear my almost-6-year-old sing her songs while playing with Legos.” Frankly, under normal circumstances this might make me simply revile her more; niceness just isn't my forte. But there's another aspect to consider. Local musician and pop culture nerd Emchy put it to me this way: “I think people of our age respond to analog and things that are crafted by hand and less produced. Also because she tends to write most of the songs herself, there's an authenticity that comes through. Plus the lyrics are smart.” Taylor Swift's music might be sugary pop confection, but it's substantial and satisfying, “like cake from a really good bakery.”

I've always had a fraught relationship with pop music. I started out as a goth-punk-alterna-chick and I scorned anything trendy on principle. But at the same time, the punk songs I loved were the ones laden with musical hooks and catchy if simple choruses. Worse, I had a secret weakness for the harmonies of 1960s acts like the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Shirelles. Oh, the Shirelles.

I truly made my peace with my repressed love of pop music only after reading Charlotte Grieg's book Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, which looked at the history of girl groups through a feminist lens and argued that pop music is routinely disparaged precisely because its biggest fans are teen girls. Thus it is never seen as valuable or as artistically worthy of attention as rock or, indeed, any other male-coded musical genre. At the same time, Grieg argues, pop music speaks an emotional language by girls, for girls, that is worthy of serious critical consideration in its own right. I was sold.

Which leads us back to Taylor Swift. She records a song that explicitly calls out people for slut-shaming her (“I go on too many dates/but I can't make them stay”) before dismissing liars, fakers, and heartbreakers with a little hip shimmy and a pantomimed brush-off. Could there be a better musical pick-me-up when going through a breakup? Not one that was all over the charts at the precise time I needed it, no.

There's just one twist to this story. This summer, Screaming Females covered “Shake It Off” for the AV Club's Undercover series, and it was an instant social media hit. (Swift's signature song seems particularly amenable to reinterpretation; see also this mash-up with Nine Inch Nails' “The Perfect Drug"). Of course I adore such a punk-ass take on a song that's already wormed its way into my consciousness. But it didn't exactly supplant the original. Instead the two versions have fused into my own custom earworm, a personal mash-up. Now, in my mind, whenever I need that little inspirational lift, Taylor Swift launches the chorus with her sweet and perky original-flavor version of “Haters gonna hate, Players gonna play, I'm just gonna shake, shake shake…” Then, Marissa Paternoster cuts in for the knock-out punch with her inimitable bellow: “Shake it oooooooff!” Pow. Shake that off, sucker. Because, earworm-wise, I sure can't.

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Lori Selke


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