One of Taylor Swiftâ€™s very best songs is â€œDelicate,â€ a meditation that swirls lust with apprehension, stains anticipation with doubt. Under the night lights of a thumping metropolis, she nurses a surfacing realization that a new relationship is not about to end well. 2012â€™s Red standout â€œTreacherousâ€ held a similar sentiment: She decides to dive in with a lover while acknowledging she must be wary. But five years later, on Reputation, maybe sheâ€™s the problem. â€œThis ainâ€™t for the best,â€ Swift concedes to them, to herself, and to us. â€œMy reputationâ€™s never been worse.â€
Even casual fans of this generationâ€™s greatest pop songwriter should note the shift; Swiftâ€™s monstrously successful records have increasingly declarative fusions of identity and artistry. Crushing ballads like â€œDear Johnâ€ and â€œBack to Decemberâ€ outline her history with very public breakups; anthems like â€œBlank Spaceâ€ and â€œLook What You Made Me Doâ€ are her wide-mouthed responses to collective public taunts, the assertions that Swift dates too much, says too much, says too little, is far too calculated to be genuine. With her 13-year evolution from crimp-haired, guitar-strumming prodigy to utter global phenomenon, the tendons that tie Swift to the masses have strained and twisted. In July of 2016, they nearly snapped completely: Kim Kardashian West leaked a phone recording in which Swift allegedly approved of controversial lyrics on notable frenemy Kanye Westâ€™s song â€œFamous,â€ which inspired a weeks-long viral shaming.
Victory against Swift was claimed in the name of her most earnest qualities mutated by detractors into despicable tropes. Ever malleable, she built Reputation, a master class on love in the face of spite, which bore â€œDelicate.â€ She killed every previous version of herself. And for two years, she mostly went quiet. But the question was never if Swift would ever return: With her life and music now inextricably linked, the wonder was, rather, what she would say when she did.
Taylor Swiftâ€™s seventh album, Lover, is a devoted effort to reckon with her current womanhood, as well as her own genius. If 1989 is Swiftâ€™s pop magnum opus, a high-pitched trumpeting into a newfound universe of freedom and independence, and Reputation reflects the scorn felt when the reality of the worldâ€™s cruelty drives her to distress, then Lover marks a trilogy complete. It is a pastel-hued compromise between the good and the bad â€” not in spite of who sheâ€™s been, but because of who sheâ€™s been. As a body of work (and, notably, as the first album that she owns), itâ€™s a dazzling, bursting compendium of pompous hope, modest love, and sobering grief, as well as a journey to make peace with the past.
The crux of Lover is the miserably somber â€œThe Archer,â€ which wades into the grief lingering in those three years of quiet, steadily building with self-inflicted punches to the gut. â€œI cut off my nose just to spite my face / Then I hate my reflection for years and years,â€ she explains over echoing synth, revisiting her pain and laying bare the moments in which she has played both victim and attacker (â€œI say I donâ€™t want [combat], but what if I do?â€). While the song crescendos with echoing repetitions of self-deprecation (â€œThey see right through me / I see right through meâ€), Swift has reached her point of no return. â€œWho could ever leave me, darling?â€ she screams. â€œBut who could stay?â€
The emotional pendulum of Lover sways powerfully from there. Swift is gleefully in love on the kitschy â€œPaper Ringsâ€ and â€œCruel Summer,â€ then enjoys a quirky lust on â€œI Think He Knows.â€ She confidently commands her critics on â€œYou Need to Calm Down.â€ And she is utterly broken on â€œSoon Youâ€™ll Get Better,â€ desperate to find faith and salvation in dealing with her motherâ€™s cancer. Where previous Swift tributes to sassy glee or bitter misery come with a deliberate finger-wag to the latest negative sentiment towards her (a notion that the bulk of Reputation was built on), thatâ€™s largely absent on Lover (the exception is â€œThe Man,â€ an open call-out of the patriarchy). Having gone through the worst, professionally and personally, what does she have left to prove?
But Loverâ€™s strongest moments sit in the middle of that pendulumâ€™s swings â€” Swiftâ€™s reflections on love feel more mature than ever, making them all the more stunning. The albumâ€™s title track is a modest promise to follow each other forever, jealousy and scars and dirty jokes and all, offering to recklessly leave their homeâ€™s Christmas lights up until January. In â€œDeath By a Thousand Cuts,â€ she laments the end of a relationship; while sheâ€™s wounded, drinking to quell the pain, itâ€™s also a subtle celebration for what was, a tacit confession that sheâ€™ll be OK. â€œI look through the windows of this love,â€ she admits, â€œeven though weâ€™ve boarded them up.â€
On â€œCornelia Streetâ€ â€” named for the Manhattan road where Swift once rented an apartment â€” she waxes poetic on a mystifying boy, fully in love. If he were to ever leave, she vows to never walk the block again, stating that his absence would bring about â€œthe kind of heartbreak time could never mend.â€ The songâ€™s stuttering synths sound a bit too somber for a love song, Swiftâ€™s delivery filled with more down notes than upbeat declarations. The songâ€™s magic is its truth: Swift rented that house in 2016 and 2017. She doesnâ€™t live on Cornelia Street anymore.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Swift admits that the one thing she regrets in her career up to this point is not allowing herself to proclaim her own genius. â€œIâ€™ve… tried very hard â€” and this is one thing I regret â€” to convince people that I wasnâ€™t the one holding the puppet strings of my marketing existence, or the fact that I sit in a conference room several times a week and come up with these ideas.â€
Much of Lover can be seen through the prism of three different relationships: Swift and love, Swift and fame, Swift and her audience. For fans, Lover is an undeniable reminder that, despite a seemingly never-ending cycle of broadcast drama, we are watching one of the biggest talents of our time eclipse her own greatness. For a woman brilliantly chronicling her life through song, Swift has realized that speaking your own truth, or trying to control your own narrative, wonâ€™t necessarily quash what others choose to believe of you. Thereâ€™s a hard road to the freedom that exists in surrendering to the best and worst this world has to offer, a path that Loverâ€™s 18 songs traverse with a peaceful grace.
Thatâ€™s never to say Swift, 30-year-old pop phenomenon and strategic mastermind of her own career, would shrink into demure humility. On the mid-tempo â€œFalse God,â€ Taylor yet again dotes on a complicated, lust-filled relationship moments from falling apart. Her smirking confession to the love trying to evade her presence? â€œIâ€™m New York City,â€ she boasts. â€œI still do it for you, baby.â€
Find all of MTV News’s 2019 Albums of the Year right here.
Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video
YouTube “We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.” That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic…
“We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.”
That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic refrain with clear gospel influences. It’s Monáe’s take on a contemporary protest song, a call for a political sea change, in the vein of, say, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Courtesy of Atlantic RecordsAnd on Tuesday (September), Monáe released a moving music video — or, as she calls it, an emotion picture — that solidified that message. The visual opens and closes with the singer walking along the beach in a beige trench coat and military cap. At times, she can be seen singing into a retro microphone before an American flag; in others, she moves through staged breakfast scenes, with a family reading through newspaper headlines as they mouth her lyrics. The visual flashes through archival and contemporary footage depicting inspirational figures past and present: Where one scene shows the model and activist Jillian Mercado at a photo shoot, another depicts a conversation with lifelong activist Angela Davis.
What rings true without is a hopeful cry for change and for equality, and a recognition of those who have been leading that fight for decades. Monáe wrote “Turntables” for the new Amazon Studios documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, that shines a light on voter suppression, particularly through the lens of Stacey Abrams’s failed bid for the Georgia governorship. “Right now, I am focused on turning the election in our favor,” Monáe told Entertainment Weekly, “and I hope this song can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work.”
Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love
Getty Images/April Blum The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new? Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by…
Getty Images/April Blum
The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new?
Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by genre and can include anything — it’s a snapshot of what’s on our minds and what sounds good. We’ll keep it fresh with the latest music, but expect a few oldies (but goodies) every once in a while, too. Get ready: The Bop Shop is now open for business.
St. Vincent ft. Yoshiki: “New York”
St. Vincent, the intuitive musical goddess that she is, must have sensed our collective need for another quarantine ballad. Enter “New York [Feat. Yoshiki],” a classical arrangement of the standout single from 2017’s Masseduction. An added string section courtesy of Yoshiki, a Japanese multi-instrumentalist, beautifully complements the song’s original piano instrumentals. What more can I say? “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love” just hits different in the middle of a pandemic. —Sam Manzella
Djo: “Keep Your Head Up”
Last year, Joe Keery (of Stranger Things fame) released a glossy solo album under the moniker Djo. It was titled Twenty Twenty, and its sparkling arrangements ended up being quite far removed from the overall vibe of 2020 the year, but who could fault him for his optimism? Keery has also long been a contributing member of Chicago psych band Post Animal, but Djo is simply Joe — and latest “Keep Your Head Up” feels like several Joes ripping open a vortex in the funk-time continuum. This is a groove, peppered with buzzy synths and icy falsetto and an honest-to-god sax part. It’s akin to Todd Terje doing Tame Impala, a lightheaded cocktail rush that feels both clubby and bedroom ambitious. Positively galactic. —Patrick Hosken
Mxmtoon ft. Carly Rae Jepsen: “OK On Your Own”
When Mxmtoon’s Maia said she recorded “OK On Your Own” for the girls and the gays, she wasn’t kidding. The mellow bedroom-pop bop soundtracks a journey of self-reflection after a breakup, complete with the soft ukulele instrumentals that put the 19-year-old singer-songwriter on the map. Is it revelatory? No, but with pop icon Carly Rae Jepsen lending her sugary-sweet vocals to the second verse, it doesn’t have to be. Now I’m just waiting for “Party for Two.” —Sam Manzella
Video Age: “Aerostar”
Pleasure Line, the third album from emerging indie pop quartet Video Age, delivers perfectly escapist ’80s new wave vibes for when you need to get outta 2020 for just a moment. “Aerostar” is its punchy center, a hip-twisting, shoulder-shuffling groove that delivers quirky robot dance commands (“Slide to the left, now! Shimmy to the right!”) over hoppin’ funk synths and a kickin’ drum machine. It all harkens to a simpler time, one where dance floors were actually a real thing. Oh, the ’80s! —Terron Moore
Ruel: “As Long As You Care”
About a year ago, Australian middle-part heartthrob Ruel told MTV News that for him, “songwriting is exaggerating to an extent.” On his latest, the technicolor, soulful “As Long As You Care,” his exaggeration is so seamless, you’d be forgiven for believing the 17-year-old is actually a time traveler. The neo-soul groove he rides propels everything upward, even as the sound cheekily looks backward. “As Long As You Care” has one amazing hook, coupled with sonic candy that makes his upcoming third EP, Bright Lights, Red Eyes (out October 23) one to watch. —Patrick Hosken
Alycia Bella ft. Boogie: “Cue the Sun”
Something magical happens two-and-a-half minutes into “Cue the Sun,” the exploratory new collab between striking R&B voice Alycia Bella and rapper Boogie. After piping in the aural equivalent of stage smoke via jazzy piano and gorgeous vocalizations — “It feel like being lost in the right direction” — Bella’s song enters a more sparkly realm for Boogie’s recitations. By the end, you’re lighter, like your mind’s been cleared of all the cobwebs. Cue the sun. —Patrick Hosken
Carly Rae Jepsen
Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors
Ross Days It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case…
It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case of the New York-based artist Michael Love Michael, who last month self-released their debut album XO, it’s simply not possible, in part because they do so much.
As the former culture editor at Paper magazine, the 32-year-old “Cancer-Leo cusp,” who grew up between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, crafted celebrated profiles of such disparate musicians as Paramore’s Hayley Williams and cyborg sensation Poppy, while also serving up weekly playlists packed with the best bops from Megan Thee Stallion, Yves Tumor, and beyond. One day, it seemed they were stomping a runway in New York in a leather tank top and a cherry pout for the queer designer Willie Norris; the next, they were escaping to a farm to study permaculture at an undisclosed location “out West.”
XO, by design, rejects easy categorization. The collection, which was produced in under a year in collaboration with Michael’s longtime creative partner Rich Dasilva, fluctuates dramatically between glittering power-pop — as on the synth-heavy “6 Jaguars,” which dissolves at the bridge into a biting rap (“They call me bitch if they don’t like me… Does that tell you who I’m voting for, honey?”) — and lush, emotional ballads. Michael’s voice boasts a similarly wide range, whether as a groaning whisper in a spoken-sung segment closing “The Hatred,” or as a looping, crystalline falsetto as they perform as their own backup singer on “Blueberry.”
Their first comprehensive artistic statement, Michael tells MTV News, was intended to dispel any notion of essentialization, particularly as a Black, nonbinary artist making their mark in the industry (in June, they left Paper, citing its treatment of its Black staffers). “I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way of me saying that I have multitudes,” they say. “I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person. And I’m also fierce.”
Ross DaysMTV News: Did you record XO while you were on the farm, or was that all done before?
Michael: I basically worked on it from April until late July, so there was part of it that was finished here, but most of it was done during quarantine in New York, four or five tracks. I started recording my vocals on my iPhone and my computer, and I’m really happy with how it all turned out, because, at least in my opinion, none of it sounds like it was done at home. It has a uniformity, and it sounds kind of expansive in a lot of ways.
MTV News: I really connected with the song “Blueberry,” and there was this sound on it that reminded me almost of a dulcimer, though I couldn’t quite make it out. Given that much of it was produced at home, was there a lot of live instrumentation on this?
Michael: So there’s acoustic guitar, there’s whistling, there are actual finger snaps, and then the rest is electronic. So then there’s kind of the 808 bass drone and there’s that sound, which is like a fake electronic guitar. But I’m glad you like “Blueberry.” “Blueberry” is very, very sweet and comes from a sad place.
MTV News: Would you tell me about it?
Michael: OK, so “Blueberry” is about an unrequited love. When I was a teenager, I had this really intense crush on this guy who was closeted and involved with this girl as a way to kind of conceal, as we all do when we’re going through that journey. But we always had a connection, and it was very kind of the teenage lust kind of factor. And then, after high school, he went to the Iraq War and died.
There are lines about going off to war but also being brave and being who you are. There’s this line about purple hearts beating wild with red, red blood — the idea of a Purple Heart for bravery, while also referencing the bravery it requires to be out as yourself. There’s also the idea that both of us are sacrificing something, my jealousy and my self-reflection, and the blueberry gates became a place I would go in my mind when I would think of him. I wanted to find a way to talk about having a closeted relationship full of young lust and love, and to speak about what’s involved when two people sacrifice parts of themselves to make things work that can’t work, ultimately.
MTV News: What are some other songs on the album that feel special for you?
Michael: This is almost like my second coming out, as an artist and sharing my music with everybody. Even though I’ve been making music since I was 16, I’ve never actually had the courage until now to release anything. “XO” is my favorite track, because that’s the thesis of the project. It’s about overcoming some of my own personal demons to love myself enough to realize I had something to share and something to say, like a love letter to a damaged former self.
“Mother’s Day” is another one that I really love, because it’s kind of strange and cryptic. This one is more about people’s relationship to all things maternal, how you have to be a reciprocal give-and-take dynamic with whatever those things are, whether that’s the earth, someone you look up to who is a femme person or a mother figure. It has echoes of my own relationship with my mother and my grandmother. There’s a line about planting a garden — “Every Mother’s Day, I plant a garden for you / Every Mother’s Day, I water your flowers that bloom” — and that was something I used to do for my grandmother as a kid.
MTV News: Do you have a good relationship with your mom and your grandmother?
Michael: With my grandmother, yes. With my mother, that’s something that’s very much in process. It’s a tricky song. It’s really complex, obviously. But I love it for that reason, and I love that I feel like I’m learning how to be really good at writing about things that are personal broader and nuanced ways. I can be descriptive and I can also not be descriptive, and all of it’s intentional. It kind of reminds me of a St. Vincent, Brian Eno vibe. It feels kind of stompy, crunchy, stadium rock or something.
MTV News: What made now feel like a good time to release an album and share this project?
Michael: It was something that I didn’t intend to happen. I was happy with just having some demo recordings and maybe an EP released on SoundCloud, and then I had friends who really encouraged me to think bigger. Also, I had my own aspirations that I buried because I was trying to be realistic and I was trying to hold down full-time jobs and I was trying to be sort of a traditional careerist, and it’s just like, no bitch. Don’t dull your own shine, don’t gaslight yourself just because society gaslights you.
And so, that’s what kind of really motivated me to kind of come out with it all, and I just feel really grateful for the ability to have unlocked this avenue of creativity. Even for this to happening, for us to be talking about my album for MTV is fucking cool. Everything is luxury now, I just get so excited about everything else because creativity begets more creativity. So I don’t take any of it for granted, it’s so fucking cool.
MTV News: Yeah, I can really relate with feeling vulnerable in sharing something creative.
Michael: This is an exercise in proving something to myself. I really do believe, if you see something missing and you have the capacity to provide or be that missing link, then do that. If you feel empowered and you feel like you can and you have the resources and the energy, do that. Where queer voices are sort of becoming less and less marginalized, people want to hear what it is we have to say. Remember that there are so many people who fought and died for so much of the freedom that I and many of us take for granted. Part of being a person with a voice and sharing it is also being in service to your ancestors who came before you.
MTV News: In listening to XO as a whole, there are songs that are very soft and almost indie-leaning in a way, and then you also have these songs that are very fierce and very hard. I wondered what your intention was, or were you expressing different sides of yourself?
Michael: Well, I love that you picked up on the contrast, because that was the exact point. I definitely wanted to present duality. It’s an introduction to me as a musician and, hopefully, if there ever were any expectations, it surprises, maybe it shocks. Maybe it’s exactly what people expect — I have no fucking idea. I called it XO because I thought of X-O as sort of an expression of contrast, because it’s like hugs and kisses are sort of opposite things, but then so is the idea of being open and being closed.
I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way saying that I have multitudes. I’m a complex, fully realized human being. So it was important for me to show a hard edge and a softer, gentler side, because at the end of the day, I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person, and I’m also fierce. The Cancer-Leo cusp is really that, it’s very that.