STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
Last week, pop superstar Taylor Swift returned with her 10th album called "Midnights." It's a concept record inspired by sleeplessness and the feelings that creep in when the hour is late. I'm Stephen Thompson. Today we are talking about Taylor Swift's "Midnights" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Joining me today is Margaret H. Willison, communications manager of Not Sorry Productions. Hey, Margaret.
MARGARET H WILLISON: Hi, Stephen.
THOMPSON: Also with us is NPR music contributor Cyrena Touros. Hey, Cyrena.
CYRENA TOUROS, BYLINE: It's me. Hi. I'm the problem.
THOMPSON: I see what you did there. So as I said, at the top, "Midnights" is Taylor Swift's 10th studio album. It follows the two enormously successful records she released in 2020, titled "Folklore" and "Evermore." Those albums found the singer softening her sound with kind of rich, vibrant folk-pop arrangements. But "Midnights" once again reshapes Taylor Swift's music in unexpected ways. Along with producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff, she's working with a palette of buzzy electro-pop. Some of these songs incorporate vocal effects, but "Midnights" also leans into the singer's gift for a very specific kind of lyrical directness. There are love songs. There are confessions. There are anthems. All of them are rendered in the singer's distinct songwriting voice. Margaret H. Willison, I'm going to start with you. Where have you stood on Taylor Swift up to this point, and where did you come down on "Midnights"?
WILLISON: So I would say that my journey with Taylor Swift is complicated. Her self-titled debut released while I was still in college in Ohio, and I vividly remember driving around with my friend and listening to her on the radio, and we both agreed that "Tim McGraw" didn't feel like a real country song because the little black dress metaphor wasn't country. And over time I actually kind of think, like, Taylor has shown that she is bigger than just country. You know, she's aiming for something larger, a greater metaphor. And it wasn't until she started doing really poppy pop stuff that I came to open my heart to her because I just kind of have a different standard there. She's never been great at choosing singles off her albums, and so the stuff that I would hear on the radio, I'd be like, well, this isn't special. And then "1989" came out, and I really, really dug into that. I thought "Blank Space" - I still think "Blank Space" is kind of a masterpiece.
THOMPSON: Such a great song.
WILLISON: Such a great song. And that's when I started to sort of pay attention to her larger work, started to go back to earlier albums. And then I love "Folklore," and I liked "Evermore" or some songs off it. I guess I've left out "Lover" and "Reputation," and I guess that that's probably on purpose. And this one falls somewhere in the middle.
THOMPSON: So that's where you are on her discography up to this point.
THOMPSON: What did you think of this one?
WILLISON: I wanted to love it a little bit more than I did. There are some songs on here that I think are remarkable. I mean, she says that "Anti-Hero" is one of her favorite songs of all time, and I think it's one of my favorites of hers. But a lot of the other stuff is still, for me, a little undifferentiated. There are a couple of songs that are really popping. And the whole album - I was so excited by the conceit. I was so excited by the cohesion she was putting forward. And I just didn't quite feel it delivered on the promise it evoked for me in that, she is such a ruminative singer and artist that I really felt like this sleeplessness metaphor was going to be great for her. And in the songs where it hits, it's amazing. But in some of the others, it's just a little bit indistinct for me still.
THOMPSON: All right. How about you, Cyrena?
TOUROS: I've had the opposite journey of Margaret. I was - her first three albums are, like, unimpeachable to me. Like, I grew up with those albums, bought them at Target with my sister. Like Margaret said, her team has never been good at choosing singles. I fell off of Taylor in the "Red" era because of these singles, like "I Knew You Were Trouble" and "We Are Never, Ever, Ever Getting Back Together." That wasn't really for me, and it is a shame because going back and relistening to the rereleased "Red" version - like, that is, I think, the best Taylor Swift album. I think a lot of fans feel that way.
And so I was really hoping that she would take some lessons from rerecording "Fearless" and "Red" and move back into territory that was, like, hypermelodic, big vocal moments, incisive writing. And I don't know that we necessarily got that here. You know, she said that the five things that helped inspire "Midnights" were self-loathing, fantasizing about revenge, wondering what might have been, falling in love and falling apart. And to be honest, only two of those things are all that interesting to me. And I think "Midnights"...
TOUROS: No, not at all.
TOUROS: I think "Midnights" really succeeds when it leans into the what-ifs, the what might have been and the falling apart, where she kind of pulls back that curtain a little bit and says - she's one of those people where you can see the forks in the path at a lot of big moments in her career. And I wanted her to sit in that space at the fork in the road more. So songs like "Midnight Rain" were really compelling to me. I love this lyric here of, like, he wanted a bride. I was making my own name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT RAIN")
TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) He wanted it comfortable. I wanted that pain. He wanted a bride. I was making my own name, chasing that fame.
TOUROS: She's choosing between fame and a relationship, and then she goes on to say, and I never think of him except on midnights like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT RAIN")
SWIFT: (Singing) When I'm on TV. I guess sometimes we all get some kind of haunted, some kind of haunted. And I never think of him except on midnights like this, midnights like this.
TOUROS: So when she sits in that indecision and those regrets, I love it. You know, when she's kind of, like, retreading some of this, like, break up, boyfriends, people hate me thing like, that's, like, not really for me.
THOMPSON: Yeah, that's a really good point. I have some strong co-signs there. I've got a much, much longer take on this record that I'm about to give you. We're going to call it "Midnights (Stephen's Version)."
THOMPSON: But just - to give you just a quick sense, I mean, I have, like, kind of sporadically loved her songs as I've found them. "All Too Well" is just a fantastic song. I really love "Trouble" and "We Are Never, Ever, Ever, Ever, Ever, Ever Getting Back Together" (ph), whatever. It wasn't really until "Folklore" and "Evermore" that, like, a complete album-length picture snapped into focus. And then I was able to go back, especially to listen to these remade records, and really sink in to just how good she is at crafting a song. Every once in a while, she will always serve up a lyric that will make you gag a little.
THOMPSON: But I think that's part of being a distinct, and in some ways, fearless - not - you know, no reference intended - songwriter. And so this record, for me, was interesting. I started out a little bit lukewarm on it, especially because I think the worst song on the record is the first song on the record. You talk about not necessarily having a sense of what foot to put forward. I think "Lavender Haze" is really swimming around in what Cyrena was talking about with the - like, the perils of being Taylor Swift. Like, one of the first lines in the song is, I've been under scrutiny. To me, like, that isn't interesting. I'm not interested in the perils of being Taylor Swift. I'm just not. I'm not Taylor Swift. She has a real gift for specificity in ways that feel universal.
THOMPSON: And singing...
THOMPSON: ...About being a superstar is not the same as singing about having your heart broken or the same as the feelings of, like, going back to your hometown and feeling conflicted opinions. Like, when she taps into specific and universal feelings, she is a phenomenal songwriter. And she hits that mark on and off throughout this record. You know, you mentioned, Cyrena, "Midnight Rain". That is a great song. There's a song on this record called "You're On Your Own, Kid".
TOUROS: The legendary Taylor Swift track five.
THOMPSON: Track five.
WILLISON: I don't know - what is the legendary Taylor Swift track five? What is that?
TOUROS: Oh, in her discography, people have come to realize that her fifth track is always her most emotionally vulnerable one on the album...
TOUROS: ...To the point where she started to, like, intentionally sequence, you know, the most open song at No. 5.
THOMPSON: Man, if you're looking at adjectives to attach to Taylor Swift, intentional...
THOMPSON: ...Is about as on the nose as you're going to get. But that song is really phenomenal. Actually, let's hear a little bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN, KID")
SWIFT: (Singing) From sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes, I waited ages to see you there. I search the party of better bodies just to learn that you never cared. You're on your own, kid. You always have been.
THOMPSON: That's great. There's a bunch of specificity, a bunch of painting pictures with words. That gorgeous melody where she kind of sighs into the central conceit of the song. She is a great songwriter. At the same time, she will drop these clankers (ph).
THOMPSON: (Laughter) You know, where you're just like, did you think that was a good idea? But then at the same time, I'm like, God, she's a really - it's distinct. It's her. It could only be written by her. All right, give me your favorite songs on this record.
WILLISON: Well, I've already mentioned "Anti-Hero". So for once, she's chosen a single that I support with my whole heart. But the moment for me where she gets something so specific that just feels like a moment I'm inside with her - it's her space, but it becomes big enough for both of us to inhabit - is in track two, "Maroon," where there's just - the very first chorus has this section that Jessica will play for us right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAROON")
SWIFT: (Singing) Laughing with my feet in your lap like you were my closest friend. How'd we end up on the floor anyway, you say. Your roommate's cheap-ass, screw-top rose - that's how.
WILLISON: Like, those details just feel so completely lived in. It's such a vivid image that I feel very much inside that moment with her. And the whole song is about someone you loved very dearly and had a deep relationship with who isn't really in your life anymore and the pain of reliving that. And so I'd say, like, that and "Anti-Hero" is great because in the tradition of "Blank Space," and then in the tradition of "Mirrorball" off of "Folklore," it is a moment where you really see Taylor expressing somewhat lacerating self-insight and, like, kind of hitting the nail right on the head with a bunch of different things.
And I think one thing that I think about differently as I listen to music now is I'm like, what's going to be the TikTok viral trend? And I will say, you know, Cyrena, your joke of, hi, it's me. I'm the problem. It's me. I was like - well, that's - I'm going to spend the next six months hearing that in Instagram stories that some braver 30-something has imported back for me from TikTok.
THOMPSON: For sure. How about you, Cyrena? What are - give me favorite songs.
TOUROS: When I did some deeper thinking about what the unevenness could mean, I realized that she was using the soundscapes of the albums in which she was experiencing these moments in time to repaint a new picture. And so to that end, I really loved kind of the "Folklore" sound of a song like "Sweet Nothing." And I think her wordplay here about her partner not asking anything from her when the whole world has demands of her - I found that really compelling.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET NOTHING")
SWIFT: (Singing) They said the end is coming. Everyone's up to something. I find myself running home to your sweet nothings. Outside, they’re pushing, shoving. You're in the kitchen humming. All that you ever wanted from me was sweet nothing. They said the end is coming.
WILLISON: This is sort of an exception to the rule of, like, it's boring to hear you talk about being Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift. She does make the sort of feeling of being, like, under demand and that fear of being used - she makes it feel universal enough. And that feeling of someone who just wants you as yourself, it brings me someplace. It's a simple love song, and it's very quiet. I feel like that's one that, over time, is really going to take on a lot of importance for me.
TOUROS: Yeah, I feel like where I come down is that if you have to be up to date with the minute details of her personal life as required reading...
TOUROS: ...To connect to the song and to understand what the song is doing, then I don't think the art is quite succeeding yet, as a writer. And it also kind of creates the circumstances in which she feels overly scrutinized.
WILLISON: Yeah. It's a real vicious circle.
TOUROS: Yeah, I mean, I agree with you, Margaret, that I do feel like Taylor Swift as a songwriter is like watching a rom-com. You kind of know exactly what you're going to get. You know, the settings may vary. The characters may vary. The beats - the metaphorical beats at least - may differ, but everything else is familiar. Like, the cliches can be comforting if you get invested enough, or if they're not well executed, you can easily fall off and turn it off.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I hear that. And I think for me, some of the standouts on this record are ones where she's, like, fully willing to just embrace confidence. A song like "Bejeweled," which is kind of like about kind of strutting through a party, looking and feeling awesome - I like it when she explores that side. I don't think everything necessarily needs to be self-laceration and late-night doubt. Like, some of it can be moving through the world feeling good about yourself. I want people who hear this record to see themselves in that. You know, I love a little affirmation - a little self-affirmation. Let's actually hear a little bit of "Bejeweled" because I think this song is a jam.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEJEWELED")
SWIFT: (Singing) And when I meet the band, they ask, do you have a man? I could still say, I don't remember. Familiarity breeds contempt. Don't put me in the basement when I want the penthouse of your heart. Diamonds in my eyes. I polish up real, I polish up real nice.
THOMPSON: I like strutting Taylor. Taylor can - like, just take a victory lap, man.
TOUROS: Yeah, I do feel, too, that, like, vocal performance is so much more playful and fun, and that a lot of places where this record falls down for me is where she's giving us kind of low-key and a little at a remove. Going back to a song like "Blank Space," which is really self-incriminating, even though it has a spare beat, I feel like it works 'cause she gives us a passionate vocal performance. And, I mean, this is going back to me missing the "Fearless" days, the "Red" days, but I feel like that big diva vocal moment has been few and far between for her in the last few albums. And so I think where she kind of stretches her range a little bit is where I really dig in deeper.
I mean, the thing I keep coming back to with this album is that she had this chance to revisit things that she's already written about. I don't know that 32-year-old Taylor had to say anything different than 26-year-old Taylor did or 22-year-old Taylor did. And I would be pushing her to think more of, like, what does Taylor of now have to say about these subjects? And I would hope that she follows through a little bit more on the mature songwriting that she showed us and lyricism of "Folklore" and "Evermore" in the future.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think I would sum it up - my wishes for her - as thriving with notes of melancholy. That's the pocket that I like it best when she works in. Where does she go from here? My guess - super deluxe edition with 46 songs.
TOUROS: Oh, my God.
TOUROS: Super deluxe Target edition, Stephen. Taylor Swift loves some Target.
WILLISON: In six different colors of vinyl.
THOMPSON: Oh, my God. Yeah, I think we've hit on what will happen. We want to know what you think about "Midnights." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Margaret H. Willison, Cyrena Touros, thanks so much to both of you for being here.
TOUROS: Thank you, Stephen.
WILLISON: Thanks for having us, Stephen.
THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all tomorrow when we'll be talking about the new movie "Ticket To Paradise."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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