What’s amazing about Lover is not how ambitious it is, or how sound its concept—it’s that, as with Reputation, Taylor Swift decided to put out the bad songs first. First single “ME!” was a saccharine mess of synth-pop and self-aggrandizement; its rollout during ABC’s live NFL Draft coverage seemed to suggest that, for Swift, the music came second to optics, and to potential sponsorship opportunities (she’s since leveraged the single into a Capital One commercial and credit card bundle). A pandering, would-be pride anthem, second single “You Need to Calm Down” was somehow even worse. “The Archer” and “Lover” were solid enough, but couldn’t offset the shadow cast by those first two tracks. There was a sense that even if Lover made good on its sugary pop promises, it would only be, at best, the middling aftershock of a once brilliant creative spark.
Instead, Lover feels like a cosmic rebound. Where Reputation anchored its songcraft with a persistent “villain” image, its follow-up is ecstatic and free. Nowhere is this more clear than on “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince”—a glittering dream of youthful romance as a proxy for the American Dream.
Updating the breathless fantasies of Fearless and Speak Now for a decidedly less optimistic cultural climate, “Miss Americana” opens with disenchantment. “You know I adore you, I’m crazier for you / Than I was at 16, lost in a film scene,” sings Swift over a melancholic ambient swell. “American glory faded before me / Now I’m feeling hopeless, ripped up my prom dress / Running through rose thorns, I saw the scoreboard / And ran for my life.” Ever literal, Swift harkens back to her cameo in the Hannah Montana: The Movie and the early single “Crazier,” which debuted on the soundtrack. She’s still in high school, on “Miss Americana,” but thanks to some combination of the Kanye/Kim debacle and the 2016 presidential election, the wide-eyed sophomore has become the disaffected senior. As a result, the concerns of “Miss Americana” are more far-reaching than those of “Love Story,” “Enchanted,” or “You Belong With Me,” all of which cover similar thematic territory; the malicious chatter of the Reputation era may have subsided, but there are enough whispers in the hallways to keep her on edge.
With its marching band percussion and cheerleader ad-libs (“o-kay!”), the chorus is thrilling and exuberant. “It’s you and me, there’s nothing like this / Miss Americana and The Heartbreak Prince / We’re so sad, we paint the town blue / Voted most likely to run away with you,” sings Swift, lingering on those last two words with a lovestruck sigh. She stays right in the pocket throughout, keeping each syllable in satisfying alignment with the beat. And when syncopated piano joins the fray, “Miss Americana” becomes something like an anthem. By turns personal and political, propulsive and slow-burning, “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” feels like a perfect fantasia of old and new. A conceptual evolution, and a love story for increasingly precarious times.