Late last night, Taylor Swift released “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” a hands-in-the-air breakup anthem that already has the makings of major hit—and a few dudes trying to accept that it’s really, truly over between them and Taylor. Hours later, we here at Popdust emerged from our listening cells, stumbled to our laptops, and began a feverish debate over the song, which was produced by Max Martin and Shellback and teases Taylor’s next album, Red, due out October 22. What follows is the transcript of a mildly contentious three-way chat between writers Andrew Untenberger and Katherine St. Asaph, and new Popdust deputy editor, Nick Catucci, who has written for Rolling Stone, Spin, and New York, and now wishes to admit that a broken-framed platinum record signed by Taylor Swift and addressed to someone named “Michael” rates among his most prized possessions.
Nick: This song’s just about as purely pop as anything Taylor has done.
Andrew: Easily, yeah.
Nick: Which for her is actually kind of risky—she’s had so much success sounding like … Taylor Swift.
Andrew: She has, but the pop transition has been a long time coming. Ever since she released a “pop version” of “You Belong With Me”—which wasn’t much of a country song to begin with—a track like this was probably an inevitability.
Country radio kind of picks their spots with Taylor these days, anyway—they’ll pick up on a more traditional song like “Ours” or “Mean,” but not so much “Eyes Open,” which has more of a pop/rock sound.
Andrew: Yeah, she doesn’t belong to Nashville anymore. She’d be wise to keep one foot rooted in that world, and I imagine other songs on Red will probably belie that, but she has bigger goals in mind at this point.
Katherine: She belongs to… whatever place it is that produces people who sound weirdly like Avril or Ke$ha if they ditched the “look, we’ve got a badass over here!” persona.
Nick: Regardless of whether it is a pop move—or part of a pop evolution—the song doesn’t sound at all calculated to me. It’s free and joyous, without the undercurrent of melancholy that so many of her songs have. Maybe that’s what makes it sound different—and also more interchangeable with songs by other pop singers.
Andrew: No, it’s definitely pure Taylor. It’s got the same kind of vibe as “Picture to Burn” off her first album, with a little less Carrie Underwood and a little more Avril Lavigne.
Katherine: I wouldn’t call that too surprising—Avril started out with songs more or less like this, and Ke$ha has a few lurking on her albums. (And they both have songs about guys named Stephen! Conspiracy?) Or maybe it’s Michelle Branch if she lightened up a bit. It’s not unheard of, in other words.
Nick: Well, it definitely has one thing in common with her other singles—I love it.
Katherine: I’m lukewarm.
Andrew: It’s a great pop song, sure—deftly written and reflective of the personality of its artist.
Nick: Andrew, you romantic!
Katherine: The song is secretly about Andrew.
Andrew: If I had one real issue with the song, it’s that it does feel a little regressive for Taylor.
Katherine: I mean, she’s dating a high schooler.
Nick: Question … the spoken interlude (!): It sounds like someone recorded Taylor’s end of an actual phone conversation, but that’s probably not the case, right? She just recited that part in a studio.
Katherine: Inconclusive. It could be anything. It could be an actual phone conversation, it could be Taylor improving one, it could be Taylor reading lines. And is it really all that different from any other spoken-word interlude? “Oops… I Did It Again” had Britney and some guy shooting the shit about Titanic. That is my pop lead single gold standard. (Sapphire standard?)
Andrew: It’s part of the whole high school vibe of the song, I think. I don’t really believe that actual 22-year-old Taylor Swift really still has conversations like that, down to the affected use of the word “like.”
Katherine: She would have to be very diligent about recording phone conversations.
Nick: Andrew, that’s true—she’s having fun playing a role.
Andrew: It’s supposed to approximate the kind of conversation that her 12-16-year-old fans would very likely have in a similar situation. But is that actually the kind of conversation she had with a galpal after breaking up with John Mayer? I’m skeptical.
Katherine: It’s Adam Young. Clearly. Adam Young would totally listen to indie records and mope. Which reminds me—what do we think about that line?
Andrew: I think it’s funny that Taylor now belongs to a world where her ex-boyfriends are de facto indie dudes. Wouldn’t the Taylor of 2006 have had an ex-boyfriend that would’ve listened to a “fuck her, she don’t know what she’s missing” Toby Keith-type record after breaking up with her? She’s come a long way, clearly.
Nick: The line itself isn’t terrific—not particularly pungent or funny.
Andrew: It’s a rule that every Taylor Swift put-down track has to have a part where she lapses into haughty spoken-word to mimic her subject’s snobbiness.
Katherine: Like in “You Belong With Me.”
Nick: If you’re going to have a rule, you could do a lot worse than that one!
Katherine: The line seems very culture-war to me. As in, to me it sounds like Taylor reassuring fans that yes, it actually is okay to like a) pop music; b) her sort of pop music. It’s the sort of thing that seems designed to latch onto, you know?
Andrew: Yeah, it does feel like it’s almost baiting critics. And it’s sort of weird that she’d even care enough to do that.
Nick: She’s just having fun! At this point she’s confident and well aware of how her songs will be dissected.
Katherine: Definitely. She makes a point of it, even.
Andrew: Yeah, and that’s sort of the hangup with Taylor—even if you say the song’s not “calculated,” and I don’t think it is necessarily, it’s definitely carefully plotted.
Nick: And this one is cleverly plotted. It’s a relationship kiss-off that’s actually just an excuse for her to get loose and have fun.
Katherine: That’s why I’m lukewarm, though. The song doesn’t seem fun enough. The tempo’s too plodding. All the fun’s in Taylor voice-acting. The chorus in particular seems underwritten.
Andrew: I do think the song’s legitimately fun, but I agree that it’s almost trying too hard to be “fun,” with the “weeeEEEEEE”s and stomping sounds and such. And Taylor’s ad-libs are such clear echoes of previous songs of hers that there’s no real sense of spontaneity there. But the song’s catchiness is undeniable—I listened to it only once and last night and I was waking up singing it.
And the thing that really impresses me is how it takes such a dour lyrical conceit and makes you totally forget that if you didn’t know it was her song, you’d probably assume it was by some early-’00s emo band.
Katherine: It is definitely a Los Campesinos! title.
Andrew: My friend said the Smiths, though there’s no way Morrissey would ever sing about having been in a relationship in the first place.
Nick: We can debate all day where it falls on the spectrum of likable Taylor Swift singles—there are plenty of those to compare it to. It’s a nice counterpoint to “Safe & Sound,” her somber Hunger Games song. It mainly makes me greedy for the album.
Andrew: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see which of the two songs, if either, the rest of the album falls more in line with.
Katherine: It works better as a headline than a single, I think. But then, that’s basically its purpose, no?
Andrew: It’ll be a hit regardless, won’t it?
Katherine: No. 1 on iTunes in no time. Probably will be a major hit. As it turns out, a lot of people a) like Taylor Swift; b) are never ever getting back together with unspecified exes.
Nick: Okay, ratings—let’s have ‘em.
Katherine: Needs less drum preset, a little more BPM, a lot more vitriol. 2.5 Popdust lightning bolts (out of five).
Andrew: I’d say 3.5, with real potential to fall or grow as it becomes inescapable over the next few months. Smart and catchy but maybe a little soulless compared to her most resonant songs.
Don’t leave us hanging, Nick.
Nick: 4 bolts. Taylor delivers a breakup anthem without sounding mean or even heartbroken. Musically and lyrically, she’s free as she’s ever been.