Taylor Swift's new single "Look What You Made Me Do" has been divisive, to say the least.Swift has always been a polarizing figure, and her music equally so. "LWYMMD" is a semi-bop, an electroclash revenge monologue peppered with seemingly self-referential content. It's hard to know what to do with it. Do we dance, bobbing our heads as we did to the full-bop "Shake It Off"? Or do we don a black cloak and do our best impression of Maleficent? And then there's the very valid criticism that in her "comeback," Swift once again capitalizes on her white fragility.
But none of this negates the fact that Taylor Swift has produced some very, very good music. "Look What You Made Me Do" may be a dissonant, useless track, but Swift has more than a few gems in her repertoire. Namely, there's "All Too Well," the definitive Best Taylor Swift Song Of All Time.
Post-"LWYMMD," fans on social media spoke up to voice their disappointment in the new single. As they did, many returned to "All Too Well," proof that Swift can do Very Good Things.
"All Too Well" is about a breakup, like most of Taylor Swift's music. Swift wrote it with her frequent collaborator Liz Rose, who won a Grammy Award for her work on "You Belong With Me." The theme of this particular breakup track is the indelibility of romance, though. This one lacks the angst of her other music — where "Forever and Always" and "The Story of Us" focus on the breakup blame game, "All Too Well" focuses on how difficult it is to move on. The motif is: "I was there. I remember it all too well." It's about the relationship more than anything else, which makes it all the more heartbreaking. The song details the memories associated with the breakup and then insists: "I remember it all."
Really, it's about the lyrics. When "Look What You Made Me Do" came out, I quietly slacked a co-worker, asking for their favorite Taylor Swift lyric as consolation for my disappointment in the newest single. They responded with a line from "All Too Well." Later over drinks, I asked a group of working professionals the same question. They also cited lines from "All Too Well."
There's this stretch:
"You keep my old scarf, from that very first week/Cause it reminds you of innocence and smells like me"
And then there's the song's bridge:
"You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest"
I personally prefer the lyric, "We're singing in the car, getting lost upstate," which appears in the first verse of the song.
The lyrics win because they're specific. Swift is always exacting with her words, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, the details in her songs feel forced, e.g., in "Ours," she sings about "elevator buttons and morning air," which sound like excerpts from a freshman poetry seminar. In this song, though, the details fall in step with a clear narrative. "All Too Well" takes the country tradition in that way. It's about a visit to the family of a significant other. In the first verse, the narrator leaves a scarf at "your sister's house." Then, she leafs through a "photo album on the counter" and recalls "dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light." Later in the song, the narrator explains that the ex-significant other kept the scarf. Because, you know, it smells like innocence and all that. (And it reminds you of me! I have chills!)
And then it's weirdly blameless. The narrator can't decide what destroyed the relationship — "Maybe we got lost in translation, maybe I asked for too much," she muses. This is Taylor Swift at her best: creating lurid imagery about a banal relationship somewhere in upstate New York. It's her lane, and she's very good at it. (Allegedly, the song is about her brief relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal. Do with that information what you will.)
Music-wise, "All Too Well" is too much a ballad to have been a radio hit. It debuted at number 80 on the Billboard Hot 100, although it made its way to number 17 on Billboard's US Hot Country Songs. The song is mainly Taylor and an electric guitar; at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, Swift played her own piano accompaniment for the song. (Halfway through the performance, a band joined Swift onstage.) It's a soft-rock tune in the style of Alison Krauss or Stevie Nicks, and it builds to the ultimate head-banging crescendo. (You call me up again just to break me like a promise!) Swift herself head-banged at her Grammy Awards performance, and the moment is probably a career highlight for Swift.
There's a rumor that Taylor Swift has an extended version of "All Too Well." It's ten minutes long, and fans want to listen to it. In fact, they'd prefer to listen to the ten-minute version of this song than to "Look What You Made Me Do."
Swift's new album comes out at November 10. It might have a ten-minute version of "All Too Well." It might not. It might have a similar soft-rock ballad like 1989's "Wildest Dreams" or "This Love."
But no matter what happens, we'll always have "All Too Well," the best T. Swift song of all time. Please do @ me on Twitter!
Update: reputation is out, and this argument still stands.
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