August 27, 2014

Test Spins | Taylor Swift and The New Pornographers

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“Shake it Off” – Taylor Swift

If Taylor Swift’s latest bubblegummy single seemed to come out of nowhere, it’s probably because it made its debut on the Billboard Hot 100 and immediately shot up to number 12 on the Adult Pop Songs charts — making it the highest debuting single ever since the Billboard chart’s creation in 1996 (in comparison, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” started out at merely number 14). Of course, there are a few possible reasons for this earworm’s quick ascension: Great planning on the part of her management team, sure, but also its seemingly-positive message (“You do you!”) and its sparklingly bright backbeat and hum-inducing hook, all of which are aided by Swift’s universe of connections and her rabid fanbase. Like “Born This Way,” “Shake It Off” features lyrics about doing your own thing, because “the haters gonna hate,” but you can just “shake it off” like T-Swift, since “they don’t see” the real you. Seems like some nice, squeaky-clean, inspirational yearbook quote-material fun, right?

Which is why the creative choices behind the single’s music video seem, at best, ironic, considering the lyrics’ attempt at making people feel empowered to be themselves, and, at worst, down-right offensive. Featuring Swift all dolled up in stereotype-affirming costumes (your classic white-girl ballerina, a leather-pantsed, baggy-jacketed, sideways-snapback-wearing break-dancer shouldering a giant boombox and a booty-shaking “ghetto” girl with gold chains, hoop earrings, short jean cut-offs and a leopard-print mid-drift track jacket, to name a few), “Shake It Off,” the video, actually does the opposite of what it seems the song was supposed to do: Rather than encourage viewers’ individuality, all it really shows is Taylor Swift dressed up in the style of various cultural tropes. Sure, one could argue that she’s expressing the idea of “breaking from the mold” through her ridiculous dance moves, but that still doesn’t excuse the blatantly stereotypical (and, honestly, offensive) costuming. Was the video purposefully hurtful? Likely not, although the controversy probably did anything but hurt its VEVO view ticker. Was it a product of some boneheaded decision-making and a lot of heavily privileged cultural insensitivity? Yes.

— Anna Brenner

Brill Bruisers – The New Pornographers

Sometimes, a lack of context can be a good thing. Many of the reviews for the New Pornographer’s latest LP, Brill Bruisers, have tried to place this album in the schema of the group’s past work, of which there is a whole lot. The consensus seems to be that while much on this album is laudable, it fails to fully live up to the heights the band reached on their 2005 masterwork Twin Cinema, a legendary assembly of power-pop that, apparently, channeled the group’s indie songwriting prowess into a modern classic.

Now, I use apparently because before this album’s release, there was a gaping New Pornographers-shaped hole in my brain. I had heard about this band over and over again — but somehow refused to ever actually listen. So, I must ashamedly admit that when I sat down and heard Brill Bruisers, I was as innocent as a feral child using a flush toilet for the first time. Like this metaphorical feral child, I was not disappointed. And I shat myself. Not really. Anyway, aside from a few well-meaning but ultimately forgettable tracks, the album is a laid-back collection of pop songs that accomplish exactly what pop songs should do: Make you feel like everything is going to be a-okay.

With drunken-sailor chanting and vocals that will make you say, “Hey, this sort of sounds like the Shins!” the opening title-track feels like a celebration. Cue the press release, where A.C. Newman — whose name sounds like the mascot of an electrical company from the ’40s — describes the album as a “celebration record.” That’s right: after “periods of difficulty” of which I knew nothing about, “nothing is dragging [A.C.] down.” Woo!

Some other highlights include the synthesized arpeggios and power chord strumming of “Champions of Red Wine; the new wave-inspired ode to not giving a damn that is “War on the East Coast”; the short-but-sweet “Another Drug Deal of the Heart”; and “Dancehall Domine,” which may well be the catchiest song ever written about dancing — here’s looking at you, every other artist ever.

So go ahead: Listen to Twin Cinema or Modern Romantic, if you haven’t already (you proabably have). Brill Bruisers can hold its own, and have fun doing so.

— Sam Bromer