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Bad Habit

by Steve Lacy

In an age where video content holds such an ascendancy, I can’t remember the last time I saw an official video as insultingly low-rent as the one for this song. Steve Lacy’s no dancer, so why the hell does he think we’ll be entertained by four minutes of him wandering around like a stoner on a blank backdrop. Because occasionally they change the lighting? Because the picture turns upside down for a moment? Because someone’s opened their ‘My First Video Filter’ kit? It’s embarrassing. He can’t even do a passable lip-sync during the a capella at 2:19…

In a sense, though, the video is also extraordinarily apt, providing an almost too on-the-nose visual analogy for the music production! It’s the manifest laziness of it that offends me most. You see, one of the fundamental challenges of writing a three-minute song is trying to develop and expand the musical material so that it maintains the listener’s interest and gives them a reason to want to listen through to the end. Here, though, we just get an extended vocal jam over basically the same two-bar musical loop, giving precious little sense of musical or arrangement progression. And not content with boring our pants off with two dozen iterations of the same chord progression, Lacy also sees fit to recyle the section at 0:25-0:59 pretty much unchanged at 1:33-2:07, thereby removing both harmonic tension and arrangement build-up as tools to make it sound like we’re actually heading anywhere worth going. And his answer to the inevitable ennui after more than two minutes of this copy-paste bonanza? Launching into a more-or-less completely unrelated new section, entirely based around another stodgy four-bar loop, the final four iterations of which beguile us with… an identical vocal melody every time!

But surely it’s the vocal writing that’s the star turn here? Well, to be honest, that aspect of the production also impresses me not at all, because the song’s harmonies (all six bars of them!) are rendered so ambiguous by washy clouds of more-soulful-than-thou added notes that you could have got away with singing practically any lead or harmony line over them within an Ab major scale. And once you acknowledge that, Lacy’s rather pedestrian and repetitive stylings lose a good deal of their shine.

The video does have one redeeming feature, though: the dog that comprehensively steals the show from about 1:35, and whose entrance smacks of an unscripted opportunistic addition that had nothing to do with the director’s original intent. Which again seems to parallel the song’s musical production, where the only truly ear-catching moment for me (that a capella section between the two extended jams) might very easily have been created serendipitously by mix engineer Niel Pogue rather than by Lacy himself…

So suffice to say that it hardly surprises me that Lacy’s first big hit rode in on a TikTok meme frenzy, given how the aimless modularity of this production chimes with typical viewing habits on that platform. And I reckon it’s pretty damn rich of him now to rail against fans at his live shows for only knowing the song’s most TikTok-friendly segment, when he’s provided so little musical incentive to listen any further than that. But maybe I’m missing some important aspect of his appeal, so how about we let Time be the judge? If he continues to put out songs as musically threadbare as this, then I’d guess that the current TikTok backlash against his public attitude stands a good chance of derailing the commercial reach of any future release. If I’m wrong, and the bedrock of his success is actually the inherent quality of the music, then maybe he’ll turn out to be more than a petulant one-hit wonder.

Anti-Hero

by Taylor Swift

If you read any lyric, you instinctively supply it with a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Here’s a line from this song, for instance: “When my depression works the graveyard shift, all of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room.” Now, I imagine most people would naturally stress that line something like this: “When my dePREssion WORKS the GRAVEyard SHIFT, ALL of the PEOple I’ve GHOsted STAND there in the ROOM.” Of course, there’s some leeway for adding nuance by deviating from those expectations, such as if you started " When MY depression…", which would emphasise the nature of your specific experience over someone else’s. But there are nonetheless plenty of ways to stress words in a phrase that just sound weird and unnatural, for example “all OF the PEOple”. Er, which is exactly Taylor Swift gives us at 0:18 in this production!

Now I’ve complained about this kind of lumpy word-setting before (see my critiques of The Saturdays '30 Days' and Kid Laroi’s 'Without You'), and it initially seemed rather lazy here, given how easily it could have been avoided with something like “…then EVeryBOdy I’ve GHOsted STANDS there in the ROOM”. However, listening further, I reckon we can cut Swift some slack on this occasion, because of the ear-catching way she turns subsequently makes unexpected placement of lyric stress patterns into a kind of production hook during the prechoruses, turning a potentially stodgy-sounding series of straight eighth notes into a playful word-stress syncopation. So in the first prechorus, for instance, the lead vocal places its word stresses on the following beats of each bar:

  • Bar 1: beats 1, 4, and 7
  • Bar 2: beats 1, 4, and 6
  • Bar 3: beats 1, 4, and 7
  • Bar 5: beats 3, 5, and 8
  • Bar 6: beats 3, 5, and 8
  • Bar 7: beats 3, 5, and 8

And the first three bars of the second prechorus provide further variations:

  • Bar 1: beats 2, 6, and 8
  • Bar 2: beats 6 and 8
  • Bar 3: beats 5 and 8

Within this context, a touch of slightly clunky stress-assignment during the verses then begins to feel more like thematic foreshadowing than poor prosody, especially as Swift has form as far as playing rhythmic games with her word stresses is concerned – the choruses of 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together' and 'Look What You Made Me Do' immediately spring to mind, for instance. Maybe it has something to do with the unorthodox way she holds her pen