The writer James Dickey once described a poet as ”someone who stands outside in the rain, hoping to be struck by lightning.” He could’ve been talking about Taylor Swift. When the Dean of Tween isn’t inviting guys to meet her in the pouring rain, she’s courting danger any other way she can, just for the drama of it all. Her new album is called Red — as in red light or red alert — and it finds her singing about walking directly into traffic, wading into quicksand, and flirting with the kinds of jerks Kanye West might toast to. ”You look like bad news,” she purrs on ”22.” ”I gotta have you.” One gets the feeling that it’s not this guy’s love she’s after. She’s just using him for the breakup songs.
This time around, it’s getting harder to feel sorry for Swift. Whether she’s plucking her mandolin, belting out U2-inspired arena rock, or harmonizing with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol or Ed Sheeran, she never sounds happier than when she’s getting dumped hard enough to justify a good revenge anthem.
Luckily, she’s recruited the world’s greatest boy-shaming pop team — Max Martin, the Swede behind Kelly Clarkson’s ”Since U Been Gone” and Pink’s ”So What,” and his partner Shellback — to produce three of her best tell-offs yet. The smash ”We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is such a sublime explosion of Euro-pop glee, robots will still pillow-fight to it in 2035. And between the dubstep-lite chorus of ”I Knew You Were Trouble” and gooey-sweet synths of ”22,” Red should be required listening at the EDM Camp for Girls, if such a thing existed. (In Swift’s polka-dot world, it totally would.)
”22” also shows how savvy Swift is about uniting guy haters of all ages. After enlisting her girlfriends to ”make fun of our exes,” she invites them to dance ”like we’re 22.” She is 22, but this song belongs just as much to the preteens and power moms who pretend to be that age.
At times, Swift sounds too eager to TMZ-ify her own life. ”Starlight” seems to nod to her recent Kennedy wedding-crasher scandal (”We snuck into a yacht-club party/Pretending to be a duchess and a prince”). And ”Treacherous” is nearly NC-17. (When she sighs, ”I’ll do anything you say, if you say it with your hands,” it’s safe to assume she’s not dating an ASL interpreter.) But the dishiest track is also one of the best. Over plaintive acoustic strumming, ”All Too Well” recalls a trip to meet an old boyfriend’s family (Thanksgiving with the Gyllenhaals, perhaps?), and goes into heartbreaking detail about nights spent singing to the radio or flipping through photos of her ex as a ”little kid with glasses in a twin-size bed.” She leaves her scarf at his sister’s place, and he keeps it long after they’ve split, which makes you wonder. Red might be about flirting with danger, but who’s risking more here: Swift, or the guy whose baby photos are now public domain? For him, it’s not such a fair trade. He walks away with a scarf. And she gets the rights to the memory. B+