Song: ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’
Artist: Taylor Swift
US chart peak: 2
Release date: November 27, 2012
Writers: Taylor Swift, Max Martin, Shellback
Producers: Max Martin, Shellback
Quintessential Max moment: “and now I see, see-e-e-e-e-eee”
Video synopsis: Taylor wakes up at a festival with dip-dyed hair and a hangover
While ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was ostensibly Taylor Swift’s big pop coming out party, the country-tinged version that was sent to some radio stations signalled an only partial pop parade. The full exposure happened on second single, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, which flirted with dubstep and provided that proper pop rush. More than ‘WANEGBT’, it felt like a proper meeting of Swift and Max Martin (and Shellback of course); the perfect fusion of Swift’s fairy tale, faux-idealistic songwriting (it opens with the line, “once upon a time, a few mistakes ago”) and Max’s streamlined, ludicrously melodic sensibilities.
Lyrically, Swift has said ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ was about the first time she tried A-class drugs…lol, no, of course it isn’t but when you read some of the quotes about the song’s inspiration that’s what springs to mind. “I had just gone through an experience that made me write this song about like knowing the second you see someone like, ‘Oh, this is going to be interesting. It’s going to be dangerous, but look at me going in there anyway,” she told MTV. “I think that for me, it was the first time I ever kind of noticed that in myself, like when you are curious about something you know might be bad for you, but you know that you are going to go for it anyway because if you don’t, you’ll have greater regrets about not seeing where that would go, but I think that for me it all went along with this record that was pushing boundaries, like the sound of this record pushes boundaries, it was writing about something I hadn’t written before.”
Obviously these sorts of quotes sent the tabloid press into a frenzy, with every male actor she’d ever been photographed near being put in the frame. Like a lot of Swift’s songs pre-‘1989’, it reads more like an amalgamation of fact and fiction; as if it was written about a character in a rom-com about a group of female friends then Taylor herself. AND YET, and this is Swift’s brilliant skill, it all works perfectly, the song’s core theme being instantly recognisable and deeply relatable.
So, how did this bonafide bop come to be? Well, in an interview with Time, Swift explained how the song’s melody was started on the piano and then brought to Max and Shellback. Swift’s instructions to the pair of them was “to make it sound as chaotic as that emotion felt”. Apparently she then sang the bassline at them, which to them somehow meant dubstep. “And they’re like, maybe we can infuse a little bit of dubstep. It’s one of the most adventurous songs on the record, soundwise. I love it.”
Now, how Swift came to know it was dubstep is beautiful and I will include her entire quote below because it’s exquisite in all the wrong ways and I just know some muso will read it and have a breakdown.
“I have listened to some of it, ’cause I’m friends with Ed Sheeran and he would always kind of play me stuff that he listened to, what they play in the clubs in the UK. That’s all I’ve really ever heard of dubstep. I can’t really say I’ve studied it or anything. I didn’t even know that that’s really what we were doing with the track—I just knew I wanted it to sound a certain way. And that’s what people have been calling it.”
I love that a lot.
The key with ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ is that it doesn’t scare old Taylor fans off straight away. The opening guitar riff is jaunty and light, the song skipping along like Taylor in a meadow. In fact, it’s over a minute until that thunderous (yet polite) ‘dubstep’ squiggle thing lurches into view, by which point the song’s melodic majesty has hypnotised everyone. Once it properly gets going, the early guitar bits are slowly phased out, so that by the end it’s just this big careening juggernaut thing, spewing beats and zipping synths. Also the “OH! Oh Oh” bits are so perfect I want to marry them, divorce them and then re-marry them again.