“A Closer Look at Pop” is a new column from Step Up Magazine examining songs in America’s current top 40. This column will be a melange of literary criticism, news reporting, and music journalism, striving to provide readers with a greater understanding of what makes a hit song in the modern era by bringing the pieces into a news and media context.
Photo: Taylor Swift Official Online Store
As the opening lines of Taylor Swift’s sixth single from her album Reputation ring out over the radio, it’s easy to imagine eyes across America turning from the road to the dashboard, fingers reaching towards the volume dial. “Delicate” has an arresting quality, increasingly rare in the homogenized realm of radio pop, that impels even the most jaded of audiences to sit up and take notice. This immediate effect is multifaceted, owing largely to Swift’s lyrical skills and the nostalgia her writing evokes.
Currently sitting solidly at #20 on American Top 40, and evidently on its way up, “Delicate” shows no sign of dropping from the US charts. It’s easy to pin “Delicate’s” success on Swift’s firmly-established pop star status, but considering how quickly her initial singles—revenge track “Look What You Made Me Do” and club banger “...Ready For It?”—fell from the charts, it seems unlikely that Swift’s fanbase has the power to propel her to success singlehandedly. To maintain the dominance over the pop sphere that she’s held for over a decade, Swift needed something special—something familiar.
Reputation is an album characterized by bombast, with Swift adopting a self-conscious, spite-fueled persona and singing such lines as “I play ’em like a violin / And I make it look oh-so-easy.” Yet in the midst of all this, “Delicate” is a bright spot, showing Taylor as her fans have always known her: vulnerable, passionate, and utterly honest. If Reputation is an examination of how Swift believes herself to be perceived by the outside world, “Delicate” provides a respite from this performative navel-gazing with lyrics focused instead on her relationship with an individual. Over and over, she asks her lover—almost nervously, in contrast to the accusatory tone in “Look What You Made Me Do”—if it’s “cool” and “chill” that she is spilling her heart out for him. Swift wears no mask here; no longer the “American queen” of “King of My Heart,” she is reduced to a bare expression of want. And therein lies this song’s appeal: with “Delicate,” we are re-introduced to the flawed, human Swift we knew in simpler times.
Indeed, “Delicate” recalls early-period Swift, perhaps the confessional tone of the Red era or even 2006’s “Cold As You” (“I start a fight ‘cause I need to feel something”). The combination of raw emotion, memorable lyrics, and Swift’s popularity certainly contributed to the song’s success—still, its musicality and flawless production are not to be ignored. Swift effortlessly couples form and content in “Delicate” with the breathy, almost whispered quality of her voice, intensified by the heavy use of a vocoder. A whisper, by nature, is meant for an audience of one, and its use here emphasizes the theme of personal connection.
Ultimately, “Delicate” and the rest of Swift’s latest album have proven that Swift’s transition from country to pop is complete: she is a pop artist now, for better or for worse. Public and critical reception of Reputation have made it clear that Swift’s foray into performance-focused albums is best tempered with more diaristic tracks. Twitter beefs at a massive scale are difficult for audiences to relate to and may even undermine the essential likeability upon which Swift has based her image; yet, with “Delicate,” Swift reminds us why we keep coming back to her. Her writing reveals her heart, laying bare all of its fears and uncertainties. And that, after all, is the fundamental goal of songwriting.
Sarah is a 19-year-old student at BU who hopes to someday live in an Edward Hopper painting, preferably Cape Cod Morning. She enjoys hanging out with her friends, having strong feelings about fictional characters, and making fun of herself (not necessarily in that order).