Taylor Swift, Your Songs Give Me Earworms!

From Wikipedia: “Earworm, a loan translation of the German Ohrwurm, is a portion of a song or other music that repeats compulsively within one’s mind, put colloquially as ‘music being stuck in one’s head.’ ”

Taylor Swift performing at the Cavendish Beach...
Image via Wikipedia

According to statistics, 98% of us get earworms at one point or another. They apparently last longer in women, and annoy them more :-). I would have to say that I suffer from earworms moreso because I’m always listening to music more intensively when trying to figure out chords, licks and lyrics for my guitar students. And I’d have to say that Taylor Swift tops my list of earworm-causing songs. Bad, you say? Actually, not at all.

If you’re a songwriter, the earworm is your friend! You want parts of your song to stick in people’s heads, the longer the better. Hooks are often a cause of earworms. Do you remember James Blunt’s song “You’re Beautiful”? That earworm drove me nuts for days after I worked it out for a student. Blunt repeats that phrase over and over in the chorus and it was a huge hit for him. No wonder!

A lot of my students are young girls and many of them love Taylor Swift. Her latest album, “Speak Now” is an evolution of sorts for her because she wrote every song on her own, whereas in previous albums she occasionally had co-writers. “Speak Now” and “The Story of Us” are examples of solid songwriting, and given that she is only 22, she’s got a lot more potential hits in her yet. I especially like the song “Mean”, which I will explain later in this article.

So what is it about Swift’s songs that make her so successful? Well, first of all, they are pretty much all about love or overcoming adversity, which is what young girls especially want to hear. Her songs are totally autobiographical and she freely admits that fact. Write what you know 🙂 I don’t always advise making your songs autobiographical only because sometimes it can get you into trouble! But the fact is that most young songwriters (and yes, I did this too when I first started writing) are really just trying to get something off their chest, trying to express their angst or desires and songwriting is the vehicle to do that. Her style of writing, Country Pop, is for the most part upbeat and engaging and most of all, she sounds fresh and real. One thing I really admire about her is that when she sings live, she doesn’t rely on autotune to keep her on pitch. Some have critisized her for being a bad singer when they hear her live, but listen up folks! The rest of your idols “can’t sing” either! They all use autotune and would probably sound like Swift, or worse, if they didn’t have it.

Back to her songwriting: I’m going to take a look at Taylor’s song “Mean”. The story behind the lyric is basically Taylor’s response to all of her critics, but when I first heard the song and read the lyrics, it seemed to have a much more universal message. This is a key point in songwriting…if you are writing an autobiographical song, make sure you don’t give too many specific details! Why? Because you have to allow enough room for your listener to make the song their own. That’s what a universal message is; something that has meaning for everyone.

So here are the lyrics to “Mean”, with my comments included in red:

You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me,
You, have knocked me off my feet again,
Got me feeling like I’m nothing.
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Calling me out when I’m wounded.
You, pickin’ on the weaker man.

The best thing about this verse is the first word “You”. If you listen to the song, it’s singled out and pointed: YOU! followed by her accusatory statements. I like the “voice like nails on a chalkboard” and “words like knives and swords” demonstrating her pain.

PRE-CHORUS:
Well you can take me down,
With just one single blow.
But you don’t know, what you don’t know,

CHORUS:
Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Why you gotta be so mean?

I think the brilliance in this chorus is the phrase “all you’re ever gonna be is mean” as if to say that being mean overwhelms anything else a mean person might accomplish, whereas the singer is going to move on and do many things in comparison. I also love how the melody goes into a lower range when she sings the phrase “why you gotta be so mean?” It’s almost as if she’s speaking it in a defensive and vulnerable way.

You, with your switching sides,
And your walk by lies and your humiliation”
You, have pointed out my flaws again,
As if I don’t already see them.
I walk with my head down,
Trying to block you out cause I’ll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again.

The first two lines in this verse are the weakest…”you with your switching sides” just doesn’t work as well meter-wise and she seems to be trying to find a rhyme in the phrase “walk by lies”, which may be an expression of some sort but doesn’t really work either. I almost feel as if she’s repeating herself lyrically here, instead of moving the “story” along.

2ND PRE-CHORUS:
I bet you got pushed around,
Somebody made you cold,
But the cycle ends right now,
You can’t lead me down that road,
You don’t know, what you don’t know

Now we’re progressing…now she starts to analyze this “mean” person’s personality and where it might come from.

CHORUS:
Someday, I’ll be, living in a big old city,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Why you gotta be so mean?

BRIDGE:
And I can see you years from now in a bar,
Talking over a football game,
With that same big loud opinion but,
Nobody’s listening,
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things,
Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing.
But all you are is mean,
All you are is mean.
And a liar, and pathetic, and alone in life,
And mean, and mean, and mean, and mean

Musically, the bridge seems to start out the same as the pre-chorus, but then it builds and turns into a kind of mini-rampage as she throws out the phrases one by one; a liar, and pathetic, and alone in life and mean, and mean, and mean. She’s firing back on all cylinders here.

But someday, I’ll be, living in a big old city,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean. Yeah,
Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Why you gotta be so ?
Someday, I’ll be, living in a big old city,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean. Yeah,
Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Why you gotta be so mean?

Mean is a really powerful song in its emotional impact, along with a sweet and innocent delivery that only Taylor Swift can bring.

IJ

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