A few years ago, I saw Taylor Swift perform on her 1989 tour, at Chicago’s Soldier Field. My friend and I were in a state of non-sobriety, but a few details stick out: The men’s bathroom line being nonexistent; the light-up wristbands we were given, so that we could wave along in synchronicity with the music; the t-shirts for sale looking unilaterally awful, to my disappointment. Taylor was full bore into her pop phase, which meant her older, twangier songs were all but absent from the set list. There were two exceptions: “Fifteen,” performed conspicuously on an acoustic guitar, and “Love Story,” which was transformed into a slow, synth-pop song redolent of a band like M83. In my memory, she played keyboards atop a platform that floated above the delirious crowd, like some kind of robot overseer. It was very futuristic, and for someone who loved the soppy, pop-country version of “Love Story,” not at all unpleasant, giving context for how Taylor’s old sound could naturally bleed into her new.
“Gorgeous,” Swift’s new single, reminds me a lot of this upgraded version of “Love Story,” but with all of the sentimentality and descriptive lyricism sanded off, leaving a fairly anodyne single about being drunk-ish and lusty in the club. The arrangement is surprisingly thin, as though performed on a single keyboard and drum machine; Taylor’s voice stays firmly in the breathily confident zone displayed on the other Reputation singles, only rising during the irritating chorus. As a songwriter, Taylor’s specificity in describing common situations like young love or heartbreak was her particular strength. But there is nothing so unique about her description of this familiar night time feeling (in which young people find themselves looking at a hot person in a dark), nothing personal or familiar until she slips in a self-aware line: “There’s nothing I hate more than what I can’t have / Guess I’ll just stumble on home to my cats.” She is awkward here, and wants you to know it, but that isn’t enough to justify how myopic the song is.
Taylor is trying very, very hard to push back against our notions of her personality on Reputation, which would be easier were the public not so firmly wary of her machinations. “Look What You Made Me Do” might have resonated as a camp single had she ever displayed a previous capability for camp, while “Ready For It?” instantly disappeared from the charts once it became clear it was nothing more than a college football promotional tool. “Gorgeous” offers itself up for amateur spelunking as easily as the former single: She’s thinking about cheating on an older boyfriend, who we might think is the elder Calvin Harris or Tom Hiddleston, with a boy who might be her current boyfriend, or maybe just some guy. But that stuff is only interesting if you care about the music, which here is difficult to imagine being heard in any club like the one Taylor describes in the song. The one thing you can believe about her, and about this song, is that she’s looking for something she can’t quite find.