Song: ‘Shake It Off’
Artist: Taylor Swift
US chart peak: 1
Release date: August 18, 2014
Writers: Taylor Swift, Max Martin, Shellback
Producers: Max Martin, Shellback
Quintessential Max moment: Layering hook upon hook in the pre-chorus and chorus
Video synopsis: ‘LOL, I’m a goofball’
Taylor Swift doesn’t really do messy. Or at least she didn’t before that tweet to Nicki Minaj that time. Even the controversy surrounding the video to ‘Shake It Off’ didn’t really stick, such was her sudden Teflon status as pop’s premiere practitioner. (That feels like a long time ago now, doesn’t it?). So while her peers were prone to drip feeding out snippets and ‘teasers’ of information about their forthcoming single or album, typically sucking out any of the excitement, Taylor organised a fancy fan-friendly online playback session thing with Yahoo. No massive build-up time, no leaks, all info coming directly from Taylor herself. It was simultaneously a statement of her own power and a further example of how important it was for Taylor to keep that direct conversation going with her fans.
If she was worried about jumping headlong into pop music (the accompanying ‘1989’ album was executive produced by Max and Shellback), after dipping her toes in with ‘Red’, then it wasn’t showing. ‘Shake It Off’, all blaring horns, handclaps and “hey, hey, hey” spoken word breakdowns, was a clear statement of intent, a song with an in-built defiance that could be used as a reaction to any criticisms the song or she might get. “I’ve learned a pretty tough lesson that people can say whatever they want about us at any time, and we cannot control that,” she mused during the live stream thingy. “The only thing we can control is our reaction to that.” For what felt like the first time, Swift was writing about herself as Taylor Swift: The Superstar, from the outside in, rather than Taylor Swift: The Young Woman With Boy Problems. Like Eminem had done years before with ‘The Way I Am’, she was almost pre-empting the tabloid frenzy that hadn’t actually fully hit at that point. I mean, obviously, it’s hit her full pelt since, but it feels like she’s okay with that now.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Swift elaborated on the song’s themes: “I’ve had every part of my life dissected – my choices, my actions, my words, my body, my style, my music. When you live your life under that kind of scrutiny, you can either let it break you, or you can get really good at dodging punches. And when one lands, you know how to deal with it. And I guess the way that I deal with it is to shake it off.” This idea of taking control of the narrative feels very Taylor Swift 2016, but back then it was kind of refreshing. While she’d approached this idea of people being mean about her on, er, ‘Mean’, that song displayed her more as the victim whereas ‘Shake It Off’ was about presenting her as being more self-aware. “I think it’s important to be self-aware about what people are saying about you,” she agreed in an interview with NPR, “but even more so, be very aware of who you actually are, and to have that be the main priority.” That little giggle after “go on too many dates” felt quite shocking at the time I seem to remember, and all that stuff about not being able to dance properly was catnip for people who bleated ‘she’s just like us! Such a goofball’.
As with ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and ‘Red’, ‘Shake It Off’ doesn’t represent the best of ‘1989’. It’s a statement song that could only have been the lead single, and while it feels very Taylor Swift in terms of how we perceive her now, it felt like the least Taylor Swift song at the time. Which was sort of the point. A lot of credit has to go to Max and Shellback for the production on it because in any other people’s hands the song could have ended up cloying, cheesy and a little too obvious. There’s exactly the right amount of joy running through it, from that skipping, percussive intro to the comical horn riff to that nagging chorus. It’s a cheerleader anthem for a generation of self-confessed kooks. It also has some perfectly placed handclaps and as everyone knows you can’t go wrong with some of those. Does it get away with the “this sick beat” bit? Not quite, but almost. What it did was confirm Taylor’s popstar status, gave her a song whose title could be associated with a popular phrase for years to come and cemented a much younger pop fanbase who had been brought on board with the singles from ‘Red’.
Just as an FYI, Max Martin is credited as producer, writer, keyboard player, programmer, clapper and shouter on the song. I’d love to shout and clap on a pop song.