An in-depth music theory breakdown of ‘ME!’ by Taylor Swift
29 April 2019, 17:35 | Updated: 29 April 2019, 18:16
Taylor Swift’s new single is one of her most musically predictable yet: but has she done enough to keep it interesting? We’ve taken a closer look…
Taylor’s back with the most Taylor song ever: but what’s going on with the music?
Taylor Swift is very purposefully one of the most approachable pop stars of her generation. Her music is inclusive and conversational, it’s micro-emotional drama told in the broadest strokes possible.
Musically, up until 2017’s Reputation album, this was accompanied by an almost public service level of accessibility – if you couldn’t sing a Taylor Swift song at the top of your voice after one single listen, then it probably wasn’t a Taylor Swift song.
But when she dropped ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, it was clear she was bored of perfect pop and eager to try something else because it was and remains one of the strangest mainstream pop songs of the last decade. People were weirded out by it. So yeah, that didn’t last long.
From the instant it begins, ‘ME!’ is a return to those broad strokes and gives her fans literally everything they think they’d want from a Taylor Swift song. A short vocoded homophonic introduction sets the tone for the verse, at which point Taylor acquiesces to one of the most conventional chord structures in all of pop music: chord I, relative minor, chord IV, chord V (on this occasion in the extremely approachable key of C major).
Want to know just how conventional this progression is? Here’s a long list of songs that also use it: ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Every Breath You Take’, ‘Crocodile Rock’, ‘Unchained Melody’, ‘Let’s Twist Again’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, Octopus’s Garden’, ‘Please Mr. Postman’… we could go on. You can literally sing all of those songs over the top of ‘ME!’.
In effect, a songwriter makes an unwritten bargain when using this exceptionally common chord progression. They’re allowed to use the progression, but it must be decorated with enough elements of musical interest to make it worthwhile. For ‘ME!’, Swift has drafted in some military percussion, a rolling snare that Beyoncé would’ve considered passé in 2014, and the same quietly anthemic trumpet sound she used on ‘Shake It Off’. In short: not much has changed.
The musical interest, then, has to come from the vocal performances. Swift’s penchant for colloquialisms and breathy utterances is present and diverting as ever: when the song opens with “I know that I’m a handful baby, Oh!” it occupies a space between song and overwrought recitative. She does the same thing in the pre-chorus on words like “others” and “colours” and “lover”, making the tone of her performance much more conversational than her contemporaries (something she took to an uncomfortable extreme on the chorus of ‘Look What You Made Me Do’).
When it comes to Brandon Urie’s contribution (he of Panic! At The Disco Fame), the Taylor-isms are suddenly ironed out. Instead of clipped non-words and syllabic delivery, they harmonise conventionally and sweetly, cramming all the vocal interest into the verses so that the essentially wordless chorus (“Me-e-eeee! Woo-oo-oooh!”) can be as simplistic as possible. And ultimately it’s the chorus that crystallises everything about this song.
Swift knows she wants to rally her listeners after her ‘difficult’ sixth album, so she’s given them a musical flavour they’ve already tried and loved.