Anatomy of the Hit: Taylor Swift’s “ME!”

Anatomy of the Hit: Taylor Swift’s “ME!”

Taylor Swift has always had a talent for retro. Her multi-platinum 2008 single “Love Story” is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1590s); the video for “Wildest Dreams” puts her on a Casablanca-era film set (1940s); and the baritone saxophone in “Shake it Off” is a knowing nod to Wilson Pickett’s 1965 hit “In the Midnight Hour.” And that’s before we get to the fashion references, such as “Style”s “red lip, classic thing that you like.”

In “ME!” the historical references are everywhere. Set in a fantastiverse of Mary Poppins, spelling bees, Sesame Street and glitter swirls, it’s a joyful teen pop song, in which the characters’ love for each other is matched only by their healthy self-esteem. Romantic cynics and goths, look away now.

 

INTRO (1 bar) [0:00]

[Taylor] I promise that you’ll never find another like me 

One problem with short intros is that there isn’t always enough time to engage the listener before the verse begins. Taylor is taking no chances here, with a one-bar onramp that brings us vocals, a chorus excerpt including the title, and summarizes the entire meaning of the song.

VERSE 1 (8 bars) [0:02]

[Taylor]: I know that I’m a handful, baby, uh / I know I never think before I jump And you’re the kind of guy the ladies want / (and there’s a lot of cool chicks out there)/ I know that I went psycho on the phone / I never leave well enough alone / And trouble’s gonna follow where I go / (and there’s a lot of cool chicks out there)

Throughout this super-sparse opening verse, the accompaniment is just bass drum, snare and synth drone — the minimum we need to establish the song’s marching-band soundworld and its chord loop — more on that later. Taylor’s vocal is dry, single-tracked and close, but there’s a subtle production trick at the end of each lyric line where the reverb kicks in just for one syllable (underlined). It falls on the first beat of each new bar, so feels like a very gentle cymbal crash, adding emphasis to each chord change, and drawing us closer to the verse’s journey.

Here in this pre-duet section, Taylor is her own backing vocalist, with the double-tracked “cool chicks” commentary providing devil-on-the-shoulder style advice.

PRE-CHORUS (4 bars) [0:23]

But one of these things is not like the others/ Like a rainbow with all of the colors
Baby doll, when it comes to a lover / I promise that you’ll never find another like (me-he…)

The retro remains strong here —  “one of these things is not like the others” is a reference to the U.S. children’s show Sesame Street (1969), which used this song in an educational context. It’s just voice and drums, and the mostly one-note melody reinforces the marching band chant feel. The only nod to current pop production here is the reverse cymbal that accompanies the “me-he-heee” harmonies that open the chorus.

CHORUS (8 bars + 1) [0:34]

Me-he-hee, ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
I’m the only one of me / Baby, that’s the fun of me
Eeh-eeh-eeh, ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
You’re the only one of you / Baby, that’s the fun of you
And I promise that nobody’s gonna love you like me-e-e

The main part of the chorus lasts for a pop-typical eight bars, or twice around the C-Am-F-G chord loop. There are hooks galore here; the opening “Mee” and “Ooh” vowels cover a range of only five notes, making them easy to sing and extra memorable. It also helps that they use the C major pentatonic scale.

The trumpets repeat the “me-he-heee” melody with variations throughout the chorus, rising up the scale and building the excitement, until the drop for the +1 bar (“promise that nobody’s gonna…”), which serves the triple function of adding a bonus hook, creating a quick drop in time for the next verse, and providing a brief break from the repetitiveness of the chords.

We should probably talk about those chords. As lots of musicians know, the pop landscape of the 2010s is heavily influenced by two ubiquitous chord loops: six-four-one-five (Am-F-C-G) and one-five-six-four (C-G-Am-F). But there was a time, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, when a different loop reigned supreme. I refer to the one-six-four-five, also known as the “doo-wop” sequence. It featured in hundreds of songs of that era, including “Unchained Melody,” “Duke of Earl” and “Monster Mash,” resurfacing occasionally in the 1980s (“Every Breath You Take,” “True Blue”) and even in the 2010s (Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, DJ Khaled et al’s “I’m The One” and Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect”). In “ME!,” the doo-wop loop is a clear 1950s allusion, albeit more subtle in this context than in, say, a Meghan Trainor song.

VERSE 2 (16 bars) [0:58]

[Brendon] I know I tend to make it about me / I know you never get just what you see / But I will never bore you, ba-ay-by / (And there’s a lot of lame guys out there) / [Taylor] And when we had that fight out in the rain / You ran after me and called my name / [Brendon] I never wanna see you walk away / (And there’s a lot of lame guys out there)

This is a duet, so Taylor quite reasonably yields the mic (just) before the first minute is over. The production team has solved the vocal-range problem of male and female vocals by having Taylor sing the verses in the lower part of her range, with Brendon working in the upper-middle part of his, so there’s no need for the male verses to change key.

Verse two is classic girl-boy call-and-response songwriting; we’re hearing a conversation between two characters. Writing a duet in this way is yet another retro gesture — think of Elton John & Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976) or Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” (1965), or even the old standard “I Remember it Well” (1958). There’s old-fashioned protective chivalry on display here, too; if Taylor’s self-doubt devil character was worried about the “cool chicks,” Brendon’s shoulder angel wants to convince her that he’s an improvement on the “lame guys.”

The accompaniment is drums-and-drone as before, with the addition of an organ sound filling out the notes of the chords. There’s fun to be had on the first beat of bar two, where the whole band drops out as Brendon says the title “Me.” It’s quirky, interesting, unexpected and another chance to highlight the title.

PRE-CHORUS (4 bars) [1:19]

[Together] ‘Cause one of these things is not like the others / Livin’ in winter, I am your summer
Baby doll, when it comes to a lover / 

[Brendon] I promise that you’ll never find another like (me-e…)

The call-and-response style now changes to two-part harmony for the second pre-chorus, with Brendon’s rising fifth of C-G (“…like the oth-ER”) tracked by Taylor’s rising 6th of E-C. Sweet, major-key intervals blend with sweet, nostalgic lyrics and a sweet, joyful sentiment. Cynics, you were warned.

CHORUS 2 (8 bars + 1) [1:29]

[Taylor] Me-e-e, ooh-ooh-oooh-oooh-ooh
[Brendon] I’m the only one of me / Let me keep you company

[Taylor] Hee-hee-hee, ooh-ooh-oooh-oooh-ooh
[Brendon] You’re the only one of you / Baby, that’s the fun of you

[together] And I promise that nobody’s gonna love you like me-e-e

The second chorus comes in even stronger than the first, with an eight-to-the-bar chordal piano riding high in the mix. Brendon’s lyric variation “Let me keep you company” works as a more passive replacement for Taylor’s self-assertive “Baby that’s the fun of me.”

BREAKDOWN (1 bar + 8) [1:53]

[Brendon] Hey, kids! [Taylor] Spelling is fun!

[Brendon] Girl, there ain’t no I in “team” [Taylor] But you know there is a “me”
[Brendon] Strike the band up, one, two, three [Taylor] I promise that you’ll never find another like me
[Brendon] Girl, there ain’t no I in “team” [Taylor] But you know there is a “me”
[Brendon] And you can’t spell “awesome” without “me” [Taylor] I promise that you’ll never find another like (me-ee…)

Some of the pop world’s snarkier journalists have been unkind to Taylor’s “Spelling is fun” line, including one who described it as the low point of the song, and another who felt a little bit sick,” but this pop musicologist knows no such negative bias. First of all, it’s very obviously ironic (no one these days sincerely uses the phrase “hey kids!” in a pop lyric), and second, the spelling bee allusion is clearly part of the song’s fantasy kid-retro world of Sesame Street, marching bands and boy-girl dueting.

There’s meta-fun to be had in the brass section, when Brendon sings, “Strike the band up, one, two, three.” On the “three” (one of a fast-dwindling supply of “me” rhymes) there’s a single trumpet stab on top C. So the band only gets to “strike up” for that one note, but it’s a good one.

The vocal production in the “ain’t no I in team” section brings in a doubled high-octave part, sitting low in the mix alongside both Brendon’s and Taylor’s vocals. It creates a kind of gender-blended sound, and fits with the two-become-one love story theme.

CHORUS (8 bars +1) [2:17]

[together] Me-e-e (yeah), ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh [Taylor] (and I won’t stop, baby)
[Brendon] I’m the only one of me [Taylor] (I’m the only one of me)
[Brendon] Baby, that’s the fun of me (baby, that’s the fun of me)
[together] Eeh-eeh-eeh, ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh (oh)
You’re the only one of you (oh) / Baby, that’s the fun of you
And I promise that nobody’s gonna love you like me-e-e

The call-and-response doubles its pace here, with each character’s line having backing vocal ad-libs in response. The tambourine continues to hammer out the 16-to-the-bar feel, and there’s vocal harmonizing, octave doubling and double-tracking galore.

OUTRO (8 bars +2) [2:41]

[Brendon] Girl, there ain’t no I in “team” [Taylor] But you know there is a “me”
[Brendon] I’m the only one of me / Baby, that’s the fun of me
(Eeh-eeh-eeh, ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh)
[Brendon] Strike the band up, one, two, three
[Taylor] You can’t spell “awesome” without “me”
[together] You’re the only one of you (yeah yeah) / Baby, that’s the fun of you

And I promise that nobody’s gonna love you like me-hee-hee

The outro feels like a chorus; it has the same chords and instrumentation. But the chorus vowels are matched with vocals from the breakdown section “there ain’t no I in team.” This overlap adds excitement for the final push to the end, and brings the themes together: boy and girl are in love with each other, they feel good about themselves, and all is well with the world.

At least, that’s how it was in the old days…

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