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by Taylor Swift
feat. Post Malone

Once I’d overcome my disappointment that this song wasn’t Swift’s hot take on Epic’s classic first-person battle-royale shooter, my first impression was honestly something along the lines of ‘is that it?’. It’s not that I dislike the song, but there just seems to be very little going on: basically just vocals, the simplest of electro kick-snare-kick-snare beats, and a plodding eighth-note bass-synth riff that repeats every eight bars – give or take some ambient atmospherics and a few one-shot fills. Listening more closely, though, and skipping around in the timeline to compare different song sections directly, there’s a lot of lovely nuanced layering and background detail (the gently pulsing synth fill on the left-hand side at 1:11, for instance, or the growling riser at 1:41) to appreciate once the basics have lost their novelty, and the texture does build tastefully to provide momentum through the song’s full duration – I particularly liked the brighter snare layer and hint of hi-hat that creeps in at the start of the second chorus (1:43), for example.

However, there’s something else that I think helps keep this song engaging: the bass riff’s syncopations, which give a kind of corresponding ’limp’ to the harmonic rhythm, given the part’s prominence in the song’s arrangement. The F# at the start of bars two and six is pushed by an eighth-note, for instance, whereas the B that begins bar seven is pulled by an eighth-note instead, and then the following G#m is pushed even further – a full quarter-note ahead of the bar-line. Now, in purely musical terms, this is the kind of thing that plenty of songwriters would instinctively blanche at, because it effectively destabilises the musical pulse by pitting the bass’s harmonic boundaries against the drums’ implied metric boundaries in a rather off-balance kind of way. It’s not the syncopations in principle that are unusual here, but just that they have such an irregular pattern – unlike, say, the much more common simple alternating pushes of things like Billie Eilish’s 'Everything I Wanted', Ed Sheeran’s 'Thinking Out Loud', Nirvana’s 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', Otis Redding’s '(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay', and Tracey Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’, to name just a few famous examples. Again, though, I’m not dissing Swift for this, by any means – on the contrary, I actually think the unsettling effect of the slightly dysfunctional harmonic rhythm deftly amplifies the lyric’s depiction of a cheery suburban facade perched precariously on foundations of unresolved interpersonal tensions.