Song: ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’
Artist: Taylor Swift
US chart peak: 1
Release date: August 13, 2012
Writers: Taylor Swift, Max Martin, Shellback
Producers: Max Martin, Shellback
Quintessential Max moment: The slight pause after the “weeeee” bit in the chorus
Video synopsis: Michel Gondry-style, cutesy one take contructed LOL fest
If you read some magazines and certain websites, or are old enough to remember the past, you’ll have heard about that time ‘Make You Feel My Love’ hitmaker Bob Dylan caused loads of controversy by plugging his guitar in. Or something. People were annoyed and started yelling at him because as you well know true authenticity doesn’t involve electricity. It was a bad time for Bob but he got over it and so did everyone else because actually he was still quite talented (I’d imagine) with or without electricity.
Anyway, the reason I mention this is because a similar (not really, but it was a nice hook to open with) furore was unleashed by Taylor Swift in 2012. At that point she was a mega-selling country ingenue who then seemingly turned her back on the twang in favour of some very electronic pop music. As with Bob, it all worked out in the end (‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ was her first US Number 1 single), but there was a moment there where some people probably thought it was a bit of a risk.
Having previously written her songs solo, Taylor decided she’d quite like to open up the songwriting for what would become the ‘Red’ album, and so thought she’d start by inviting Max Martin and Shellback round for a singsong. Why not. The story goes (and there are a lot of stories around Taylor Swift because sometimes they help cloud the truth and actually sometimes that’s fine) that the three of them were in a recording studio and a friend of Taylor’s came over. This friend (was it Selena?! Who knows) told Taylor about some rumours she’d heard that Taylor was back with an ex-boyfriend. After the friend left, being the good songwriters that they are, Max and Shellback asked Taylor to elaborate on the relationship, which she described as “break up, get back together, break up, get back together, just, ugh, the worst”. Ugh, absolutely. Taylor then grabbed a guitar – sacrilege! No, wait, hang on – and started singing “We are never ever…” etc etc and so on.
Look, maybe that never happened, but regardless Taylor had a huge hit on her hands and one that would sign-post her sidestep into the world of pop. Keen to keep the country folks happy, she did relent and create a country version (which you couldn’t actually buy) that basically strips out the synths and the drum beats and replaces them with things whittled out of wood.
Here it is:
In the end the country bumpkins needn’t have freaked out considering the single’s parent album ‘Red’ still had country moments and was full of guitars etc. In fact, ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ is pretty mild in its pop leanings considering what was to come (‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ would have been more of a shock as the first single). In that sense it’s the perfect placeholder of a song – pop enough to draw in a new crowd but just about storyteller-y enough to keep the younger country fans happy. As Robert Myers pointed out in The Village Voice, the pop format also offered up a fresh avenue for Swift’s lyrics: “Working in pop has some advantages, at least in this song, where she breaks away from the fairy-tale romanticism that threatened to become an even worse trap than any commercial format.” He also points out the brilliance of that spoken word middle eight bit, which draws the listener into the ‘private’ world of Taylor Swift (the way it sounds like it’s been recorded from a distance) and discovers that she – like all of us – has boy trouble too.
Lyrically, instead of love as fairytale, we get Swift in full high school clique mode, a place she’d visit more frequently on ‘1989’ and the subsequent videos/public appearances. While not her best song by miles, its role here was more to introduce Taylor Swift 2.0, a strategic move that’s enabled her to become the biggest popstar on the planet. Still, it’s a song with one of the best choruses of like, ever; a built-in chant-a-long rallying cry that works sober, drunk or as an internet meme.