The old Taylor Swift, from those dark and dreary reputation days, can't come to the phone right now. Why? 'Cause she's dead. And she's been replaced by a woman who absolutely loves Busby Berkeley musicals and marching bands. Oh, and spelling.
Those large scale, choreographed, and colorful musical numbers that became the signature Busby Berkeley style in the '30s and '40s would influence the style of performances ranging from Disney live action musicals to the Rockettes to the stage design and choreography at Beychella. But what they all have in common is the music holding them together — and for that, Swift pulls from a more '60s, camp revival influence.
If you think the first single from Swift's forthcoming seventh album, "ME!" sounds different, start by looking to her collaborators. Swift wrote the song, along with her duet partner Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco. It's their first time collaborating and she definitely takes a step into Urie's world and aesthetic, while pushing him towards hers. He brings the theatrics and '60s-inspired pop hooks while she brings a gentler vocal style and more classic pop song structure. The heavy percussion and brass instruments (those trumpets that ring over the chorus) are hallmarks of Urie's style, which owes a debt to the Beatles in the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band era, as well as musicals like Hello Dolly! (which featured one of the world's most famous trumpet players, Louis Armstrong). But, by pushing those snare drums towards the front of the song (which is unusual for Swift), "ME!" will sooner remind you of a marching band than a Broadway moment.
We've never heard a song from Swift before with snare and trumpet at the heart of them, setting it apart from all of the rest of her catalog to date. The drums become the driving heart of the song, making it feel like Swift and Urie are always moving forward with a pep in their step, while the brash trumpets keep the vibe upbeat, putting a sheen of a smile over the music.
They worked with producer Joel Little, the man behind some of Swift's pal Lorde's early work, including "Royals" and "Tennis Court," as well as smooth records for Khalid, Sam Smith, and Shawn Mendes (who recently wrote about his friend, Swift, for Time's 100). Swift has amassed a vast catalog of work with more electronic-pop producers like Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff, but this is her first time working with Little, who clearly brought a different bag of tricks to the studio party. Midway through, before the spoken word breakdown happens ("spelling is fun!"), the keyboard takes over the melody: a moment has Little's fingerprints all over it.
"ME!" is also the first time Swift has dropped a lead single that's a duet. It's an unusual move and, given the influences from Broadway she's referencing in the video, there's a chance it's not the only collaborative track on her next album. Those big numbers are rarely solos! But, when they are, they're huge and character defining.
With "ME!," Swift is announcing that she's bringing us a rebirth; she's hinting that she's ready to try new things and break out of her old patterns. There's enough in the way of modern textures to keep it sounding fresh against other current songs, but she's carefully tapping into song structures that are less SoundCloud rap-inspired pop (like many of her contemporaries are doing) and more traditional pop song.
"ME!" is old school, truly, but feels fresh coming off of reputation.