November 16, 2014
Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” currently holds the title of #1 Song on Billboard. Such status merits the attention of a music analyst. I therefore offer the following thoughts on the current reigning champion of recorded tracks in the hope of better understanding why it is successful and how it appeals to popular taste.
The song begins with a confident drumset rhythm, and vocals that open with: “I stay out too late…” followed by a list of other subjectively internalized rebukes. But then she continues: “that’s what people say….mm, mm.” Immediately, the song’s essence is laid out: she doesn’t give a f**k what her critics think. This may already have been obvious, but the analytical details work together to convey the overall meaning:
First “mm, mm,” is something you do when you taste good food. The fact that she does it here communicates that she is in no way displeased by the list of criticisms, but in fact rather enjoys being immune to them. Also, the drum-beat is telling. It’s syncopated, upbeat, multi-timbral; the bass drum is deep and resonant. It represents her confidence in the face of criticism. She “never misses a beat”—a boast from the second verse punctuated with a vocal effect that sounds like she just took a draught of Mountain Dew…more taste imagery that reinforces the sense defiant satisfaction in the face of her lemon-sucking enemies.
Next, the harmonic progression, sketched by the sax and vocal, is not the usual ii-V-I, but ii-IV-I. Why? Because she feels likes it. The first couple of times it cycles, the resolution on the tonic G is unexpected, but once it’s there, it’s obvious—a sprightly 3-2-1 line with mm, mm outlining a pentatonic set below: happy stuff.
The “sub-verse” that transitions to the chorus, in contrast to the aggressively declaimed “critical” lyrics, starts “but I keep on cruising…” Her tone here is sweeter and slightly softer. This is who she is. Unaffected. Unperturbed. Happy in fact.
All this happens before full instrumentation is unleashed. With the arrival of the chorus, we get the bass, brass, synth strings, and even some choral oohs and other percussive effects. Leading the festivities, Taylor exults in long-breathed descending lines, vamping on what the “players,” “haters” and “breakers” do in direct comparison to what she does in response: “shake it off.” Commendably, she uses different words to the same melodic pattern, a forgotten skill among all-too-many popular songwriters.
The long descending lines of the chorus, furthermore, contrast with the short, aggressive jabs of the opening verse. That contrast keeps the song interesting. There is imaginative variety, despite the repetition of the underlying drum-beat. Also, the descending vamp on the verbs: “hate, hate, hate,” etc. is like a derisive hand-gesture of babbling. She fully comprehends but is bored. When Taylor “shakes” such things off, it’s to the same melody, as if meeting force with force—mildly but effectively.
After the second chorus, Taylor addresses her listeners with the spoken word using a ‘telephone’ vocal effect. At first, I thought this address would be a challenge to her detractors, but it turns out to be an invitation to people to follow in her footsteps—or dance-steps—in getting down to the “sick beat.” She proceeds to rap an example of how she shakes things, in demonstration for her teenage fans.
As the chorus repeats to close the song, she improvises, overdubbing vocals, and at one point throwing “you got to” in-between repetitions of “shake it off.” Again the message of empowerment is issued to those who feel intimidated by the cool kids.
The music ends with octaves on the submediant—i.e., not where it’s supposed to—yet another defiant jest that eschews any need to conform to expectations for fear of judgment.
Overall, the songs reflects that highly-esteemed value of social confidence, the ability to express oneself without fear of repudiation by “mean” people. The song affords her fans the opportunity to share in her sense of liberation. Beyond this, I see it as a not uncommon response among celebrities to the vicious public scrutiny to which they are subject and with which they must cope. As a pop song, it is undeniably a success.