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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