Taylor Swift seems to think shamelessness should be her signature. “ME!,” with its capital letters and exclamation point–a juvenile expression of exuberance matched by the song itself—makes that clear. She’s trying very hard to prove she’s shameless about who she is, and shameless about sticking up our radios with sweet, sweet bubblegum. It’s getting pretty weird.
“ME!,” for instance, is shamelessly regressive. Think what you want about Swift, but she’s not dumb enough to believe something like “You can’t spell ‘awesome’ without ‘me'” is a good lyric. (Although I do suspect she believes there’s something sophisticated about mastering lowest-common-denominator pop, and I don’t entirely disagree.)
When she ushers in the bridge with a cringey “Hey kids! Spelling is fun!” the attempt at irony is less-than-subtle, and less-than-successful given the song’s ostensible earnestness. Some critics argue the song is actually characterized by its lack of irony, but unless it was written for “Sesame Street,” I find that difficult to believe.
At its core, “ME!” is sincere: “You’re the only one of you. Baby, that’s the fun of you.” That’s exactly why these flairs of playfully ironic childishness land flat. Swift manages somewhat impressively to embody multiple teenage stereotypes at once: the girl who insists she doesn’t care what people think of her, but pours hours of time into her image; the incessant hand-raiser whose elaborate theory on “Mrs. Dalloway” is much less profound than she thinks it is.
The song, Swift told Robin Roberts, is “about embracing your individuality and really celebrating it, and owning it. I think that with a pop song, we have the ability to get a melody stuck in people’s heads, and I want it to be one that makes them feel better about themselves.” She’s using her earworm powers for good, we are to believe. But “ME!” is also clearly meant to serve as a statement on this particular moment in her career—the opening seconds of the music video make that plain enough.
As a reaction to the perpetual churn of Swift-centric media chatter, the deliberately jarring pivot back to innocence marked by “ME! is understandable. But that doesn’t mean she pulled it off. Apart from Swift’s devoted fanbase, which will surely discern something more meaningful from the song, I’m not sure that the broader public wants is to see the girl they watched mature into an ultra-successful woman revert back to the land of rainbows and butterflies (literally).
The track’s muddled self-identity, torn between irony and sincerity, doesn’t help. Nor does the facade of shamelessness from an obsessive image-cultivator. (There’s another point to be made about “ME!’s” participation in the very vapid, very millennial fad of self-love creeping across the charts—see Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Maren Morris—but that’s for another time.)
Whatever album to which “ME!” eventually belongs may indeed include some of Swift’s best work. But this isn’t it. This is boring and half-baked. Swift is right that pop music needn’t be sophisticated or profound, and that the simplest messages are often the most powerful. But surely after ruling the world for more than a decade, she’s capable of more than this.
Ultimately, “ME!” is little more than a tone-deaf attempt at delivering frothy pop music with a side of emotional resonance. To borrow a line from one of the .gif generation’s great oracles: I was rooting for you, Taylor. We were all rooting for you.