December 8, 2014
A few weeks ago, “Blank Space” supplanted Taylor Swift’s other hit “Shake it off” for the number one slot on Billboard. Here are some thoughts on why and how the new chart-topper appeals to the masses.
“Blank Space” uses a harmonic cycle made famous in the 1950s : I-vi-IV-V, along with a melody that repeats with each chord change. The song is a story of the subject—Swift—meeting a boy and the possibility of either extreme pleasure or pain that might descend upon him as a result. Meanwhile she remains, as usual, immune to disaster whatever may ensue.
Swift’s vocals open like pugilist jabs. You have to listen closely to catch them. No one listens to them until they slow down with lines like, “you look like my next mistake.”
As usual, Swift exudes high self-confidence. “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend…” she chants knowingly at the end of the first verse.
The transition melody to the chorus is sweet and comely. Everything before was barely a melody at all, a bare minimum of notes to carry the fast-proceeding text while the rhythm and harmony kept listeners happy. The transition melody to “let’s be friends…” is the hook. When it comes, there’s excitement. Like a high school dance.
The chorus is double-length. The poetic variety there is exceptional for pop-songs. As with the opening verse, you have to listen attentively to get all the words on the first hearing—which, again, nobody does. To most listeners, it’s not about that. You can always hit repeat anyway.
The acoustic guitar in the chorus, which is along with everything else is highly-mastered, offers warmth. And the sweet high-register melody that proceeds is like an enchantment, especially with the portamento at “they’ll tell you I’m insane,” with the chord change to V. Of course it’s all highly sardonic. She shouts at end of chorus: “and you love the game,” to a deliberate, assertive rhythm, with reverb. It all communicates power, specifically sexual power. The message is clear even without an assiduous comprehension of every word: handsome boy, I am your doom.
For a more explicit sexual innuendo, listen to the breathy vocal-trail at 0:27. This is a common technique now for female pop vocalists, and it sells.
The bridge is very dark, musing on boys, love, and torture. The parallelism of the lyric is mediocre (“say I didn’t, say I didn’t”), but she gets away with it. The whole phrase repeats verbatim, and would have been intolerably boring if she didn’t harmonize with herself each time the melody repeats, gradually expanding to four-part harmony. The dramatic point here, incidentally, is self-justification: boys really love the game of being tortured with infatuation, so there is no sin in toying with them like a cat does with a mouse.
The song follows the traditional formula: the chorus repeats after the bridge. The harmony is all diatonic too. The music is very conventional in this sense. The spoken lines are the most innovative feature. The beat, also, was manufactured to be “new” without straying from marketability.
Overall, I think the song is famous because it has a cool beat and sweet melody—when it blossoms forth as a pink rose in the sunshine—and exudes a self-confidence empowered by feminism. There’s also a freedom in it: freedom from pathetic moral restrictions such as “thou shalt give a shit about thy boyfriend’s heart.” Taylor, in this song, relishes the feeling of power, both in seducing her boy and in her immunity to any potential heartbreak (which in the video is more than evident; I recommend, however, listening to the song without watching the video since video can distract). Your fate is in my hands she revels throughout the sweet progressions. The song appeals to the need to feel this way. Or it simply appeals to those who like new music and don’t care to listen to it closely, but dance to it affectionately with their boyfriends.