Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” became the artist’s ninth number one this year, so, to celebrate, I figured I should rank all nine of the number ones she has amassed over the years. Furthermore, to increase the “fun” factor, I have also taken the time to note my favorite and least favorite lyrics in each song. Please note, this is all in good jest, and I do not want any angry Swifties to dox me because I said something stupid. In all fairness, all of these songs are at least mildly important to pop culture, and they are all very important to me as a person. Taylor Swift was really my gateway to pop music in general, and I hesitate to think what might be, whether I’d even be doing my show, had I not heard “You Belong with Me” in the middle of a Nashville Goodwill when I was fifteen, or had I not had “New Romantics” shoved down my throat for the better half of middle school. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that if I say one of these songs is bad, or I don’t like it, it’s not that I think everything about it is bad, and there very likely exists some plane — irony or sincerity — where I do like it. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into the hits.
- “Look What You Made Me Do”
Best Line: “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Cuz she’s dead.”
Worst Line: “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Cuz she’s dead.”
Taylor Swift’s reputation came at a time when I was just starting to get into pop music — I heard “Delicate” every day in the back of my best friend’s dad’s car — but even then, I JUST missed this song’s radio presence. And, judging by what’s left after the hype subsided, I am thankful I did. Serving as the seminal single for Swift’s sixth album (say that three times fast), this song reads like one poor choice after another, from those campy opening strings to the “Right Said Fred” interpolation, all culminating in what is likely the least self-aware lyric in all of pop history. Don’t get me wrong, 16 year old me absolutely ATE THIS SONG UP when I discovered it, but the older I get, the more hollow it feels.
- “Bad Blood” feat. Kendrick Lamar
Best lyric: “Still all my life I got money and power/and you got to deal with the bad blood now.”
Worst lyric: “You made a really deep cut” (The particular weakness of this lyric comes from the fact that the soft “U” sound, likely the most unpleasant vowel phonic in the English language, is stretched out for three straight syllables before it ends with that breathy “T” sound).
Much like “LWYMMD” (boy acronyms are fun!!!), this 1989-era single falters because it attempts to diss without any real hiss (snake puns, lol); instead of offering specifics, one of Swift’s particular strengths as a songwriter, she and co-writers Max Martin and Shellback opt for a more general (read: generic) approach to the lyrical content. The hook is also weak, and the chorus does not have a particularly pleasant melody either. This track is saved from last place, though, by the inclusion of now-legendary Compton hip-hop bard Kendrick Lamar, who, in the tradition of Kanye West and Britney Spears, lays down bars on a remix that was able to push the song to the top spot for a week in June 2015. Lamar’s rapping here is the true saving grace for this track in my eyes (gotta appreciate that “Backseat Freestyle” reference!).
- “We Are Never Getting Back Together”
Best Lyric: “I used to think that we were forever-ever/and I used to say, ‘never say never.’”
Worst Lyric: “With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” (Much like “Bad Blood,” my particular dissatisfaction with this lyric stems from the fact that certain syllabic emphases feel completely alien to modern English pronunciation).
Really, “We Are Never Getting Back Together” (WANGBT from now on, thank you acronyms!) is the first of these singles that I actually enjoy, but even then, I regard it as a rather thin outing. Singles like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22” remain some of my favorite tracks on Swift’s landmark 2012 LP Red, and their placement in the album’s track list provides for what can be considered the perfect tonal whiplash. Even so, I never completely got “WANEGBT.” Its choruses seem to move through too broad a range to be accessible, and its lyrical content feels like an awkward compromise between Swift’s lyrics-first songwriting mentality, and the Max Martin philosophy of “melody trumps all.” Everything feels a little more awkward than it should, and, as a result, I view “WANELGBTQIABCDEFZ” as more of a starting point, a promise of things to come, rather than a fully formed composition.
- “Shake It Off”
Best Lyric: The entire bridge
Worst Lyric: The entire bridge
The jury’s still out on whether this song is plagiarism, but if it is plagiarism, it’s darn good plagiarism. This is the first of Swift’s hits that I can say I enjoy without reservations. That’s right; I bump to this, and have bumped to it (sometimes secretly) since fifth grade. Swift is amazing at writing songs that express that sentiment that you really don’t want to care but you care deeply and it rocks you to your foundations. She basks in denial on this track, and the entire thing is, admittedly, the better for it. Take special note of the so-bad-it’s good bridge, which should be recited at every campfire in the world.
Best Lyric: “My covert narcissism/I disguise as altruism/Like some kind of congressman”
Worst Lyric: “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby”
While I believe “Anti Hero” is a good song, I still dislike it on principle, and that’s why I’m ranking it this low in Swift’s number ones. On a technical level, the songwriting here is almost completely on point (aside from that odd 30Rock reference), but, production and melody-wise, “Anti Hero” feels like a retread. Its satire music video feels like a belated sequel to “Blank Space,” the alt-pop production harkens back to (arguably) superior tracks from 1989, and the chorus sounds like it came straight outta Lover (JUSTICE FOR “CRUEL SUMMER”!!!). What I’m saying is that, as good as “Anti-Hero” is, it feels like a regression from the progression that was the folklore/evermore/“All Too Well”-ten-minute succession (see TayTay, I can do internal rhymes too!), and, for that, I feel disappointed.
- “Blank Space”
Best Lyric: “Cuz darling, I’m a nightmare/dressed like a daydream.”
Worst Lyric: “I can make the bad guys good for the weekend.”
Arguably Swift’s biggest hit of the ‘10s, “Blank Space” saw the star at a new apex. Managing a rare case of self replacement on the charts (from “Shake It Off,” no less), it also served to craft the “Evil Taylor” persona that would be built upon in reputation and Midnights. Swift satirizes herself as a crazy serial dater who does everything she can to make sure the men she dates have a horrible time, just to write their names in her notebook once the break up hits. Max Martin and Shellback offer booming alt-pop production that helps to make the entire thing feel sort of off-kilter (there appears to be some sort of screeching sound in the background of each chorus), but they also recognize the entire thing is supposed to be fun, and fun it is.
3 & 2. “cardigan” and “willow”
Best Lyric: “To kiss in cars/and downtown bars/was all we needed.”
Worst Lyric: “I come back stronger than a 90’s trend.”
Just as it is usually impossible for me to rank folklore and evermore, the two quarantine albums Swift released in 2020, I find it equally hard to pick one lead single over the other. They compliment each other so well. “cardigan”, of course, is the first in a trilogy of songs surrounding the Betty/James/Inez/August storyline that runs throughout folklore, and it is beautiful in its downtempo cottagecore vibeyness. “willow,” released near Yuletide in 2020, captures a feeling of wintry cosines, with a more upbeat and straightforward love song. Tying the two together is the immaculate, atmospheric production by The National member Aaron Dessner, production MVP of the folklevermore saga, and I cannot stress enough the beauty of these songs. Exquisite.
- “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)”
Best Lyric: “But in this city’s barren cold,/I still remember the first fall of snow/and how it glistened as it fell/I remember it all too well.”
Worst Line: probably none
“All Too Well” was already a standout in Swift’s discography at the time the re-records were announced, but this song, released as a single for Red (Taylor’s Version), amps up everything great about it. There are switch-ups in the rhythm of the verses, Antonoff adds a mellotron solo, Taylor says the f word! But, likely the one thing that has not changed is the sheer, bitter, seething rage that seeps through every second of this song. This is the power of it all; this is the one Taylor Swift song that has sent veritable shivers down my spine. It is an awe-inspiring emotion to feel, the realization of the power in rage. I almost wonder whether Taylor was right in releasing this song, as it undoubtedly sent Jake Gynecologist (Jake Gyllenhaal) into a fetal position for several months. At the same time, it is such a masterclass in everything Swift excels at that I do not really want it out of my life. It is a monument to her power and skill that this song is now the longest number one hit of all time, and, rightfully so. Kudos, ATW10MVTVFTVABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZZYXWVUTSRQPONMLKJIHGFEDCBA!!! (I swear these acronyms get longer every time!)