TV viewership down, social media up for VMAs

Taylor Swift performs a medley at the MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 26 in Newark, N.J.

Guess the old Taylor Swift isn’t dead after all.

Despite her last album’s efforts to literally bury her old self (see the video for Look What You Made Me Do), “Lover” is a return to the colors, optimism, and soft Americana that Taylor Swift represented until “Reputation.”

While perhaps disappointing to anyone hoping that Swift would follow through with any promises made on her previous album, “Lover” is probably a welcome change of course for fans of her previous decade-plus of work.

The 18-track behemoth released Aug. 23 has it all: romance, heartbreak, grief, maturity, immaturity, nostalgia, and (some) political commentary. And it has the blessing of the songwriting brilliance behind Bleachers: Jack Antonoff.

The first singles from “Lover,” “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” respectively, were irritatingly catchy and lyrically flat. It wasn’t until “Archer” that I had hope that “Lover” would be worth enduring once it was released.

“ME!,” while colorful and a very cute, kindergarten-level sort of empowerment anthem, was downright disappointing after the high bar Swift set with 2014’s 1989. “You Need to Calm Down” was just barely a net win for progressive values.

The album version of ME! omits its worst line: “Hey kids, spelling is fun!”

I can only imagine that’s due to the line’s poor reception after the single’s release, but now that we’ve heard it and it’s missing, it’s even weirder.

Bizarre, too, that Taylor went to quietly erase her handiwork on an album that’s been described as self-assured.

Yeah, we’re all happy that Swift is fine with people being gay, but her video’s depiction of America’s problem with homophobia was ill-researched at best and ignorant and classist at worst — “Stop stepping on my gown you filthy cretins”. The anti-gay signs were misspelled and the homophobic characters were literally dirty and fat. Not a subtle message, and not one compelling or novel in any way.

The virtue signals continue with “The Man.” Yeah, Swift is a woman, so she understands sexism. Kind of. She’s an incredibly successful, wealthy, beautiful, and thin (and white) woman, so she does experience the sort of sexism even the most privileged experience. That said, though, the song was frustratingly shallow. She doesn’t seem to even dwell on her widely publicized sexual harassment case involving a radio DJ — she seems to focus the entire song on how it’s harder for her to get ahead. Sure, that’s true … but really? After a decade of fame and more money than I could ever imagine? That’s your big political statement about patriarchy at large? OK.

While it’s tempting to continue listing the album’s flaws (see: “I Think He Knows,” “London Boy” for example), it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due. “The Archer,” the promotional single released July 23, is arguably the strongest track on the album. “The Archer” sounds like a dream that slips from your memory once you wake, or the dusty memory of a school dance years ago when you saw your first love illuminated under the brilliant, shiny disco lights above. It’s lyrically disturbing for a Swift song — “I cut off my nose just to spite my face,” “all of my heroes die all alone” — but it’s both calming and exhilarating.

If you listen to nothing else on this 18-track, “Lord of the Rings” extended version-length album, please just listen to “The Archer.” And then re-evaluate your take on hearing the rest. About 10 seconds of scanning Wikipedia tells me it’s not expected to have a music video, but I refuse to research further because I will burst into tears if this is true.

“Lover,” which Swift performed at the VMAs and released a video for Aug. 16, has a wide appeal musically, if not thematically. It sounds like every “Of Monsters and Men” song, and its intentionally amateur-sounding bridge frames Swift as human (we know she’s not, but it’s almost convincing).

The video is the first one from “Lover” that has any level of emotional depth, and it’s really the only stance Swift took on politics that had any amount of backbone — it features an interracial couple. (“If You Need to Calm Down’s” explicitly pro-gay agenda wasn’t enough to shed any white nationalists trying to hold onto any space in her fandom).

If you like high-energy pop anthems, you’ll love “Cruel Summer.” If you like Lana Del Rey, you’ll love “Miss Americana” and “The Heartbreak Prince.” If you like Paramore, you’ll love “Paper Rings.” If you liked any sad song Swift ever wrote, pre-”Reputation” (or even pre-1989), you’ll love “Cornelia Street,” a song that almost has me believing there really are heartbreaks Swift can’t recover from. If you liked Safe & Sound featuring the Civil Wars (you may remember it from the Hunger Games soundtrack), you’ll love the heartwrenching “Soon You’ll Get Better” featuring the Dixie Chicks.

There are so many good songs on “Lover” that it’s hard to even mention them all. I can barely count to 18, let alone write about 18 songs that I’ve been listening to less than a week. As an album, “Lover” is composed of the vibrant, life-force that Swift wanted to extinguish in “Reputation,” but realized she couldn’t. Maybe the sale of the rights to her life’s work to an enemy (just Google “Swift” and “Scooter”) served as some sort of a clarifying moment. Or maybe she never wanted to kill the old Swift anyway (conspiracy theories on the reordering of albums abound). But it’s clear from songs like “Daylight” that Swift can’t walk away from her shadow: “I once believed love was burning red, but it’s golden.”

Rating: 8/10, could have been a 9 if she’d cut a couple of songs (18 tracks? Why?) and tweaked some of those weak bridges (Paper Rings is so close). Must-hear: “The Archer,” “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” “Soon You’ll Get Better.” Skip: “I Think He Knows,” ‘London Boy.” Must-watch: “Lover.”

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