NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m simultaneously in and out of my comfort zone.
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Okay: typically I don’t like to talk about current events during the show, because I like the episodes to be what they call “evergreen”, but I think it’s important in this case, because it addresses the gap between this show and the previous one. And while I haven’t been sick, and fortunately nobody especially close to me has gotten sick, I do know plenty of people who are in that particular boat. My wife is considered one of the more vulnerable types, and so she’s been self-quarantining in our southern location for the past several weeks, so it’s been a bit of a tough separation for us, all jokes aside. And frankly I lost my urge to do…pretty much anything that wasn’t work-related…for awhile. Not that I was motivated to do that, but at least I’ve still got a gig, whereas so many other people—many of whom ARE family members—are out of work right now. But sitting around and doing nothing is not good for me. It’s not good for anybody. And as a result, I’m trying to find ways to break out of the ruts and ennui that I found myself in. And likewise, I hope you’ve found a way to break out of your version of Cabin Fever that doesn’t endanger anyone else. Please take care of yourself, and you are more than welcome to reach out to me through the Tweet Machine, and the Book of Face, and such. Take care of yourself!
Here’s some 70s trivia for ye today:
I was ten years old in the summer of 1973, and one of the things I remember about that time was how absolutely everyone was glued to their television sets, watching the Watergate hearings. We saw literally weeks of testimony, over fifty days. And if you want to see or re-live it, you can find it online at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. And if you had a day job, you could catch the footage again in primetime, unedited, on PBS. And, as it happens, all of this became the inspiration for one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. What show was that?
I’ll have that answer to that question, and the story behind it, near the end of the show.
This week we’re looking at Taylor Swift, but you have taken the time to listen instead of hitting the delete button, so that’s a good sign. Because here’s the thing: my favorite comments and reviews come from the people who tell me that they don’t like some of the songs that I talk about here, but they still manage to come away with a little more appreciation for it. And I think this is going to be one of those times. I’m not expecting you to turn into a huge Taylor Swift fan, but with a little luck you’ll come away a little less likely to roll your eyes at the mere mention of her name.
And today we’re looking at Swift’s hit song “Shake It Off,” which was the first single from her album 1989. At that time, Swift was still making the transition from Country music to pop, so there was a lot of resistance from both sides of that line. Swift said in an interview with the BBC that it took some doing for her to overcome her fear of not being accepted. She said that eventually it takes not caring what people think about you a step further, to kind of locking the fact that people don’t get you. She said (quote), “It’s kind of taking pride in the fact that you know who you are and it honestly doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t want to understand you.” Which, I think, is a key component of maturity and something that doesn’t come to a lot of people until a little later in life, if it comes at all.
The song was written by Taylor Swift, along with producers Max Martin and Karl Schuster, who is known professionally as Shellback. And lyrically, it’s clearly dedicated to the people who badmouthed Swift for whatever reason—because they thought she was a country singer turning her back on that industry, because they thought she was a vapid pop singer, because they thought all she did was badmouth others through her lyrics. Now, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that she wrote about people being mean to her, as she’d already done in her 2010 single “Mean”. And before I play the clip from that song I want you to notice a couple of things: first, she’s still got that country thing going on with the harmonies and the banjo—I kind of miss her use of the banjo; she used to use it a lot—and second, notice that it’s a little more of a victim mode she’s coming from. Oh, and one more thing. Listen carefully, because it’s kind of interesting that the song opens cold with her singing the first word, but Martin and Shellback actually let her first breath remain on the song, so it doesn’t start with “You”, but with that quick intake of air, like she’s gearing up for the argument. I’m going to amplify it a little bit here so it’s easier to hear in the podcast context, but that it’s there at all is kind of neat:
The other thing she does, right before I faded it out, and it’s become a kind of a staple for Taylor Swift, is that she does that break in the instrumentation where all the music stops and she sings a capella for a short bit before the music resumes. It sets up just a little bit of tension that relieves itself as the song moves forward. I’m going to come back to that in a couple of minutes, so keep it in the back of your head.
Now, as I mentioned before the clip, Swift has a bit of a victim mentality in “Mean,” but she’s got a different attitude four years later. In an interview with Time Magazine, she said she had to learn that people can say whatever they want about you at any time, and that can’t be controlled. The only thing that can be controlled is how you react to that. In a Rolling Stone interview that appeared the same week as the Time article, she said (quote), “When you live your life under that kind of scrutiny, you can either let it break you, or you can get really good at dodging punches. And when one lands, you know how to deal with it. And I guess the way that I deal with it is to shake it off,” (unquote). So why not take back the narrative, right?
The other thing I think is notable is the jibe about Swift writing about people who were mean to her, or who broke up with her, or people she knew. And frankly I don’t get that criticism, since we’ve certainly seen that in other musicians. The Beatles drew from all kinds of people and places in their lives to write about, including Paul McCartney’s sheepdog Martha and, on the same album, Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence. Alanis Morrisette’s biggest hit is a poison pen letter to an ex-boyfriend. Some of Bob Dylan’s best work is aimed at someone he dislikes. So what’s the big deal if Taylor Swift does the same thing?
Okay, now. As I noted, 1989 was Swift’s big move into pop music, so she needed some hooks to make it sound poppier—and don’t think my spellchecker didn’t have a problem with the word “poppier”. But when you’ve got a solo singer and a genuine pop sound, these days it’s tough to come up with a bridge that doesn’t involve a guest singer, or a totally electronic sound.
[BRIDGE TO END]
Swift kinda-sorta split the difference by augmenting her voice electronically and then going LOW tech for the bridge. First she does a spoken section with all the low frequencies equalized out, and then she does a little rap section which is little more than drums and handclaps. She’s also changed the focus of the words to address the listener directly…
…and did you notice that, once again, she’s done that bit where the music stops briefly, and it’s not until after she resumes singing that the music comes back. She’s actually gotten better at setting up that tension, holding it for nearly a full second and then BOOM! Releasing it as the song ramps its way toward the ending.
Now, believe it or not there is some controversy attached to the song, from a legal standpoint. In 2017, about three years after “Shake it Off” was released, a pair of songwriters named Sean Hall and Nathan Butler, sued Swift of copyright infringement over some of the lyrics. You see, Hall and Butler are the composers of the song “Playas Gon’ Play”, which went to Number 81 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the group 3LW in 2001. Their contention is that this section is the part that was stolen:
[PLAYAS GON PLAY]
Swift’s lawyers moved for dismissal of the lawsuit arguing that the phrases are basically in the public domain. And about a month later, A US District judge ruled in her favor, saying that it was too commonplace to be a copy-protected part of the song. He wrote—and I love this—that (quote):
“By 2001, American popular culture was heavily steeped in the concepts of players, haters, and player haters to render the phrases ‘playas… gonna play’ or ‘haters… gonna hate’, standing on their own, no more creative than ‘runners gonna run’, ‘drummers gonna drum’, or ‘swimmers gonna swim.’ The concept of actors acting in accordance with their essential nature is not at all creative; it is banal.”
[SHAKE IT OFF]
However, in late 2019 that decision was overruled by a federal appeals court and sent back to the US District Court, on the grounds that the district court was the final authority on “the worth of an expressive work.” Essentially, this means that as of this recording, over six months later, the case is awaiting a jury trial.
The song made its debut through an interesting series of hints that Swift dropped. First on August 4, 2014 she posted a video on Instagram, in which she pushes the number 18 in an elevator. Two days later she took to Twitter, tweeting a picture of a clock reading 5:00. The day after that she tweeted a screenshot from Yahoo dot com. Finally, on August 13, she appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and during that interview she announced that a live streaming session would take place on Yahoo at 5 PM on August 18. During that live stream, Swift announced that the 1989 album would be released in October and she premiered “Shake It Off” as the leadoff single. The song debuted at Number 45 on the Billboard Radio Songs chart and at Number 12 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart. It also managed to appear on the Country Airplay chart in the Number 58 position, but it only spent that one week on the chart, probably because the country stations only played her record out of sheer inertia. “Shake It Off” became the 22nd song to make its debut on the Billboard Hot 100 in the Number One position, selling over a half-million digital copies in its first week available. It spent a second week in the top slot, then dropped to Number Two and stayed there for eight weeks before moving back up to the top when the album was released. The song spent four non-consecutive weeks at Number One and 24 non-consecutive weeks in the Top 10. And at one point “Shake it Off” was knocked out of the Number One slot by her second single from 1989, called “Blank Space,” which makes Taylor Swift the first female artist to replace herself in the entire history of the Hot 100 chart. The song was also Number One in Canada, Australia, Mexico and a couple of other places, and it was Top 10 throughout most of Europe, including the Number Two position in the UK.
There were a couple of covers of the song, mostly in live performances. Having said that, however, Ryan Adams covered the entire 1989 album in 2015, but he framed it as more of a reinterpretation of Swift’s songs. Think of its sound as falling somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and The Smiths. The album debuted on the album chart at Number Seven on the Billboard Album Chart, one position ahead of Swift’s album, we should note that Taylor Swift’s 1989 was already in its 48th week on the chart at that point. And while this reinterpretation did get generally positive reviews, some critics thought that “Shake It Off” was the weakest track on Adams’ album.
And this isn’t a cover exactly, but also in 2015, in April, the comedy-slash-music show Lip Sync Battle featured Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pitted against Jimmy Fallon to see who could do a better job of lip synching a pop song, and one of the songs Johnson chose was “Shake It Off”. I’ll post a clip on the website; it’s kind of fun. BUT:
The Dwayne Johnson fun doesn’t end there, and here’s where things come full circle, in a way. Remember the lyrics from the 3LW song?
[PLAYAS GON PLAY]
Playas gonna play/and haters, they gonna hate/Ballers, they gonna ball.
Well, as it happens, around that same time Dwayne Johnson’s HBO show Ballers was about to debut, and in Episode 8, which appeared in August, what do we see The Rock singing in his car?
Who knew! Dwayne Johnson is a Swiftie!
And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the Broadway musical that was inspired by the Watergate hearings. Well, according to an article in the New York Times in June of 1975, the show’s co-creator and producer Michael Bennett said he was watching the hearings unfold on TV, and he felt frustrated by the falsehood and apathy that seemed to pervade the country at the time. He says in the article that he wanted to do something on stage that would show people being honest with one another. Bennett had also been pondering putting together a show that was comprised entirely of dancers, and the two things came together in January of 1974. Now, at this point the specific details in the stories begin to diverge, largely because of a lawsuit involving the play’s authorship, but the bottom line is that Bennett attended a series of late-night sessions with dancers, wherein they talked for hours about what they were doing, what they were after, the whys and hows of their careers, and so forth, and Bennett recorded these sessions, getting about 30 hours of stories.
He said he listened to the recordings for a few months, wondering what to do with them when, he says,
he realized that these dancers were auditioning their lives for him. The audition idea took hold and Bennett joined up with writer Nicholas Dante to turn the material into a script they could produce. From there it took some convincing to get Marvin Hamlisch to do the score, and Edward Klelian was brought in to write lyrics. That script became A Chorus Line. And the show’s initial Broadway run went from July 1975 through April 1990, running for 6,137 performances altogether. So: thanks, Richard Nixon!
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we meet the Leader of the Pack. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.