Single Review: Taylor Swift, “Sparks Fly”

Written by guest contributor Jonathan Keefe.

Compared to the cultural juggernaut that was Fearless, Taylor Swift’s Speak Now has underperformed at both retail and radio. The set’s fifth single, “Sparks Fly,” could turn things around for Swift, as it’s perhaps the most perfectly constructed single in a career built on tracks that are marvels of pop production and songwriting.

What makes “Sparks Fly” a standout is that it is, in a lot of ways, the purest iteration of Swift’s template and repertoire. Producer Nathan Chapman grounds the single in a punchy, not-at-all-country pop-rock sheen and ensures that all of its key lines and phrases are pitched for maximum impact.

It’s that attention to the details of production that make Chapman and Swift such a strong team: Most singles don’t highlight a line in the middle of their second verse, but here, Chapman dials back the volume on the electric guitars just as Swift sings, “You find I’m even better/Than you imagined I would be.” There isn’t a line in the song that captures the tone of first-love wonder more perfectly, and Swift’s breathless delivery suggests that she might be even more surprised by that revelation than anyone.

The song’s proper hook is even better constructed. The a capella “Drop everything now” exclamation simply commands attention, with the desperation in Swift’s call-to-action answering the common criticisms that her work is sexless and chaste. For all of the well-documented technical limitations of her voice—and yes, she wanders off pitch more than once on “Sparks Fly,” and yes, it would likely be even better a single if she didn’t— Swift is learning how to perform her songs with real depth and conviction.

As for the song itself, the narrative of “Sparks Fly” doesn’t necessarily scan as “country” in any archetypal way, but its simplicity and plain-spokenness parallel some of the genre’s conventions. If Swift writes what she knows, what she knows better than anything else is the head rush of infatuation. Of the many songs she’s written on that subject, “Sparks Fly” is both the purest in tone and the most familiar. With references to meeting someone in the rain and being guarded and fireworks and a touch that’s “really somethin’,” the song makes use of nearly all of Swift’s go-to phrases and images.

But, rather than scanning as redundant when considered alongside “Fearless” or “Back to December,” “Sparks Fly” proves how evocative those turns-of-phrase can be in the right context. To that end, “Sparks Fly” plays as a template as much as it does as a standalone single, and it’s a testament to everything Taylor Swift gets right.

Written by Taylor Swift

Grade: A

Listen: Sparks Fly

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22 Comments

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22 Responses to Single Review: Taylor Swift, “Sparks Fly”

  1. EthanNo Gravatar

    Wonderfully insightful review, especially for a guest contributor! (I’d love to be a guest contributor, haha.) I’ve loved this song for a while, so I’m glad it’s a single. I hesitate to concur with the remark about Speak Now’s underperformance, however. I don’t see the critical value in comparing its commercial performance to something as career-defining as Fearless (since I think we all agree that that’s the kind of album its artist will never be able to touch commercially–6X PLATINUM+–especially in this climate.) Otherwise, great job, Jonathan!

  2. Ben FosterNo Gravatar

    Great review. I enjoyed this song too. For all Taylor’s techinical limitations, it is nice to hear her sounding more engaged in her lyrics. I also like the little bit of fiddle they add to the song, even though it’s not really enough to make it “country.”

  3. Hoggy from OzNo Gravatar

    Fantastic review. I didn’t care much for “Fearless”, but I am surprised to say I actually liked “Speak Now” and I think this is a really good song that’s covered nicely in your review :D

  4. bobNo Gravatar

    While Taylor’s “wandering off pitch” will forever keep her music out of my record/cd collection, I think that your writing could find you a spot on the staff of a country music blog if that’s a goal of yours.

  5. Fabulous review, of course.

    For the record, Jonathan has been a friend to Country Universe for a very long time, before I even knew that CU existed. He writes for Slant Magazine, which is in our blog roll and well worth checking out. I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time.

  6. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    Yup, awesome review – wouldn’t have expected less.

    This is one of my favorites from her, too. I love the dark edges; the minor key and her performance suggest that her infatuation has reached the peak of desperation, that this guy is never going to “drop everything now” no matter how pretty the fantasy is. And it’s definitely not sexless – though that “lead me up the staircase” line is pretty slyly tucked in there.

  7. JoeNo Gravatar

    Very catchy and lovely song. Nice review, as well.

  8. This wasn’t is pretty good. I don’t really mind Taylor or her songs, i just don’t like her voice.

  9. Joseph BrownellNo Gravatar

    I love that this review dissects both the lyrics and production on what I believe to be one of the strongest Speak Now tracks (I reserve the honor of the line “You’re an expert at sorry and keeping lines blurry never impressed by me acing your tests” from Dear John as my favorite), but I disagree with the assertion Speak now has underperformed .

    Fearless was buoyed by ‘You Belong with Me’ and the current MTV generation’s sudden interest in Taylor Swift. While it has sold 6+ million copies in nearly 3 years it also gained a significant bump in sales from a re-release nearly a year after the original release. Speak Now, while not posting extraordinary numbers at this point in time, has still managed to capture nearly 3.5 million in sales in only 9 months.

    As for radio performance I think Sparks Fly will be the test. After 3 straight singles to notch #2/#3 positions on Billboard’s Country Singles chart (and Mean having been the most country sounding of them all) I think Taylor has better chances at outperforming the the underwhelming performance of latter released Fearless singles (ie. Fifteen and Fearless) and who knows with a bonus track or two from a sure to be released repackaged album (‘Speak Again??’ or “Still Speaking’???) Speak Now will achieve a comparable level of success.

  10. LynnNo Gravatar

    Catchy song. However, I think my favorite Taylor single will always be White Horse.

  11. WolfStableNo Gravatar

    Song is quite horny :P love it though

  12. I am a 3rd year journalist student and My fellow students and I agree after researching Swift’s albums that we do not agree with the critics that call her brilliant. Her songwriting is at best cheesy, immature and hints of getting back at anyone who does her wrong (childish). Couple that with her weak vocals–and what do you have??? A studio production with a good Management/PR team. We younger journalists that are going to be critics are going to be fair, unbiased and give our honest opinion. We all think she has been overrated but yet appealed to the much younger generation. This is evident from the people who attend her concerts and buy her albums. She can not stay 15 forever—we think it is time for her to move on as it is becoming more and more annoying to say the least.

  13. shirleycNo Gravatar

    Actually, speak now is not under performing in album sales vs. fearless. Single sales, yes (the hits haven’t been as big so that is to understandable) but it is comparable to fearless in album sales. Speak Now sold more in the earlier month and fearless sold more in the later months but both equaled out and sold about 3.5 million copies in 9 months times (so they are equal in terms of album sales). couple the fact that fearless received a re-release and had the benefit of several Chrismas holiday shopping seasons (2008, 2009 and 2010), I think it is way too early to say that “speak now” is underperforming” album sales wise, especially since right now, sales are about equal. It probably won’t catch up with fearless because the album likely won’t get as much award season love but when it is all said and done speak now will sell 5 million copies. that is a great follow up and keeps her very consistent in album sales.

  14. I wanted to add to my comments above that it seems that the critics never criticize Swift for sounding TOO POP but if other artists sound just a little pop they are all over them saying they sound too pop. It seems she has gotten a free ride in country music but she actually belongs in pop–not even pop country. Truth is truth and I wonder why the critics can be contradictory in one sentence and praise her in another. New blood needed in the mix to tell it like it is.

  15. Hmmm… Judging by your over-generalizations, Anthony, I don’t think you and your fellow journalism students have done your research thoroughly enough then, since Swift certainly does not get a free pass among all music critics. Writers from this site alone have criticized her voice and pop production when necessary. It’s like beating a dead horse at this point.

  16. JonathanKeefeNo Gravatar

    My usual policy is not to respond at length to comments on my work after it’s been posted unless a reader points out a factual error or asks a specific question.

    But I’ll make an exception here. LeeAnn already touched on the fact that you clearly haven’t done your research, Anthony. And as a “journalism student,” you should be well aware of the idea that you should do more than just a cursory bit of digging before making specious claims such as the ones you’ve made here.

    As LeeAnn said, the writers here at CU have done *anything* but given Swift a free pass for her pop leaning productions and her weak vocals. Moreover, my own reviews of Swift’s albums, which are linked by both Metacritic and Wikipedia and shouldn’t be at all hard for anyone who’s actually looking for them to track down, are highly critical of Swift for precisely those reasons, and I’ve made similar comments in various commentary pieces and editorials. So your assumption that I gave this single a positive review as a result of some kind of bias or of a desire to be part of a broader critical consensus simply doesn’t hold. At all. And, as a writer, it’s a petty and anti-intellectual insult that I don’t appreciate or find warranted based upon a simple difference of opinion.

    (Also, no one of the staff at CU has been at this for more than 5 or 6 years, so your claims about “new blood” are equally off-base and lacking in factual support).

    As an aspiring writer, I hope you and your fellow students learn the value of real critical analysis, and that not every viewpoint you happen to disagree with is the result of “bias.” In writing this particular review, I actually had to reflect on my own existing views about Swift’s music and to challenge myself to look beyond them. That’s part of a critic’s *job* when they’re attempting to do that job well.

  17. I am sorry if I offended you. It was not my intention to do so. I must admit we did not research your site but our findings were based on reviews from the internet (more than just a few). We are still learning how to dot our i’s and cross our t’s. Most of the reviews were, as I stated above, contradictory and some were obviously biased. We want to be unbiased and truthful in our reviews and try to conceal our personal feelings and write a review that we can be proud of. Surely you and the staff must have run into these types of critics in your 5 or 6 years in the business. I am going to introduce your articles to my class when school starts again and hope to find them very informative. Thanks for responding to my post. I appreciate being critiqued because it helps in the learning process. I am going to go back and read some of your articles about Swift.

  18. JNo Gravatar

    I knew it was only a matter of time before she started singing about more intimate feelings like sex.

  19. JoeNo Gravatar

    Anthony- you seem incredibly biased in your dislike to Taylor Swift, which does not make your job very easy, when reviewing her singles and albums. There are plenty of things that can be admired about Taylor and her love for music.

    J- this song was written 5 years ago. Maybe she was a horny teenager and became a classy woman? lol
    Although she describes lust as classy as you can in this song, i guess.

  20. TroyNo Gravatar

    I’m not sure about this single choice. Enchanted is the song would do really great but I suppose it’s too long for radio. Sparks Fly is almost too much of the same for it to help album sales. Love the song though

    Taylor dealt with sex in her very first single “Just a boy in a chevy truck that had a tendency of getting stuck on back roads” so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone!

  21. GalPalNo Gravatar

    Typical Review from this site. She can write but she still can’t sing. Truly sad but still typical “cultural juggernaut”-right!

  22. but still, she has good voice and really nice songs :)

    I dont listen to this yet but I hope this is as good as the previous singles