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Swift and Urie Seek Change of Pace on “ME!”

In Taylor Swift’s new technicolor, Jojo Siwa-esque video for her single “ME!” Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco makes an appearance. Though “ME!” is produced to sound uber-exuberant and encouraging, it feels blatantly manufactured, despite Swift’s emphasis on being the organic, every-girl artist earlier in her career.

Swift began her promo process for this single in Nashville, which led audiences to believe that the song would skew toward a country sound. Despite this, “ME!” is more typically “pop” than any song Swift has ever made, with “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Shake it Off” as close seconds. Despite my indifference to the lyricism (and borderline soullessness of the song), I like Taylor Swift. I think that she is an important and well-loved artist who has faced a great deal of misogyny and undue criticism in her lifetime. “ME!” is a change of pace from her last album, which seemed to be written with an enemy in mind, who Swift targeted with lyrics such as “I don’t like your perfect crime/ How you laugh when you lie/You said the gun was mine/Isn’t cool, No I don’t like you.” In “ME!” a similar message is there, but it has the gloss of bubblegum pop and positivity covering that up. 

Taylor Swift has always been incredible at telling stories through her songs, but “ME!” seems to be lacking a flair. It is a poetic desert, boasting lyrics such as “Girl there ain’t no ‘I’ in team/ But you know there is a ‘Me’/ Strike the band up 1, 2, 3.” It screams “this song was written by someone else,” but in the video, Swift is able to do some interesting things with costume design and special effects. 

Brendon Urie, her companion in song, has also experienced a similar evolution in his songwriting over the course of his band’s career. He began his career with abstract, poetic lyrics such as “Through playful lips made of yarn/That fragile Capricorn/Unraveled words like moths upon old scarves,” to the marketable positivity that can be found in “High Hopes” and “Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” off their new album Pray for the Wicked. These lyrics include gems such as “I said hey look ma, I made it, I made it/I see it, I want it, I take it, take it,” but they have experienced far more radio play than most of Urie’s previous songs. In truth, positivity sells more so than lyricism, and Urie and Swift have struck gold with their new hit, which sounds like a Target Commercial, and looks like a slime video directed by Wes Anderson. 

Despite criticisms that they are “selling out,” Urie and Swift’s collaboration perfectly demonstrates how gender expectations in music have become less rigid over the last ten years, allowing for this unlikely crossover to happen. Swift, who used to sit solidly in the country music genre and spent the majority of her career in sparkling outfits and ball gowns, has been trying to escape the set of expectations for women in country for two albums, and collaborating with Brendon Urie is something that previous versions of either artist would not have been able to do.

Urie—who used to sit solidly in the genre of pop-punk, has also come a long way from his original public persona which he presented around the time of Panic!’s first album. The eyeliner-wearing, emo-adjacent group previously wrote misogynistic lyrics (“Yes but what a shame/what a shame the poor groom’s bride is a wh*re”), or explicitly risque verses (“I’ve got more wit/A better kiss/A hotter touch a better f*ck/Than any boy you’ll ever meet/Sweetie, you had me”). In 2019, however, Urie appears in Swift’s rainbow, safe-for-work world in a floral suit, two pink three-piece outfits, and a bedazzled marching band costume. 

Similarly, Swift steps out in a pastel suit and tie with her hair slicked back, surrounded by women in suits, who swing briefcases around her head. It’s hard to tell what this symbolizes, but it is certainly a different move for her presentation-wise, and it might be intended to look progressive (If so, what is it saying? That women can wear ties? That women can carry briefcases?). Regardless, if Swift made this outfit choice in the previous decade, she may have faced a more vitriolic YouTube comments section, where homophobic comments used to run rampant. If you scroll back far enough on any Panic! At the Disco video, the negative rhetoric against members of the band for acting or dressing too feminine are still preserved. 

In a way, “ME!” is brave. Regardless of the corporatization of both Swift and Urie, they have found ways to express themselves in ways that they had not been able to before. For a majority of her career, Swift has presented as a highly glam, traditionally feminine pop star. In the video for “ME!” Brendon Urie gets to participate in the candyland dream of her creation, now that his wholly new, radio-friendly niche is compatible with Swift’s, something that a music fan in 2010 would have never predicted. 

“ME!” plays into many trite, pop archetypes, and though the pastel-unicorn world is a bit cringey, neither artist seems to care, and they participate in the video without a hint of irony. On an Instagram livestream after the video release, they discussed how the song is about “celebrating individuality,” and it is made obvious how much they revere each other as musicians. For two artists that have faced a lot of criticism for changing their looks, their hair, and their sound, “ME!” says “you can’t hurt us anymore, we do whatever we want.”

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