Single Review: Taylor Swift, “Red”

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August 3, 2013

Taylor Swift RedBeing a great songwriter can be just as much about being distinctive and unique as it is about writing great songs.  Being a great songwriter that records her own material requires not getting in the way of your own song.

“Red” isn’t necessarily a great song, but it is a song that could only be written by Taylor Swift. It has a lot of lines that would be awkward on their own but somehow make sense when thrown together.  She makes fairly benign observations throughout, but they gather meaning as she goes along. Her writer’s voice is so authoritative that she can compare a lover’s quarrel to a difficult crossword puzzle, with the punchline being that “there’s no right answer”, and it sounds like such an obvious metaphor that you’re surprised no one thought of it before.

I really do like the song, and I think that I’d put in heavy rotation if it wasn’t for the bewildering echo effect on the title word when it ends the chorus.  I’m totally baffled. I happen to like a lot of electronic music, and the effect itself is somewhat interesting, if not particularly compelling.  It feels like a gimmicky flourish that you’d use to cover up the weakness of a song, rather than undermining the strength of a very good one.

I’ve been around enough to know the difference between a sound that’s progressive and forward-thinking, and one that’s a novelty that will soon be dated. “Red” as a record would hold up a bit better over time if the song had been allowed to stand on its own.

Written by Taylor Swift

Grade: B+

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  1. VickiNo Gravatar says:

    You cannot deny the power of the written word. Taylor is a master of it. Also, of the hook. She can find the music that makes her words fit, come alive in the best way. No wonder she is one of the top artists in the world. Her singing is even better and the songs are strategically written to fit her vocal range and nuances. I like this song almost as much as I loved “Begin Again”

  2. Markus MeyerNo Gravatar says:

    This a pretty good record.

    The echoing type effect really annoys me, but overall solid. Probably a ‘B’.

  3. AndrewNo Gravatar says:

    I’m a Taylor Swift fan and I don’t care who knows it. She’s much more pop than what I’d normally go for, but for some reason I just can’t help but like her stuff.

  4. TomNo Gravatar says:

    …the fact that you can never quite tell, what is her own experience or just songwriting craft in her music, makes her records so special.

    this is more than a pop solid offering from a true superstar that still is progressing with every album. still as much impressed with taylor swift – as i have always been. actually, even more, when i come to think of it.

  5. bobNo Gravatar says:

    This song just doesn’t give me good vibrations. (which makes me think of the Beach Boys and how surprised I was that they could reproduce the sound of that record when I saw them in concert at SJU in the late 60′s.) It’s not just the echo. It’s TS too. There are certain singers I just can’t listen to, just as there are authors, fiction and non-fiction, whose writing style I don’t like, painters whose work makes me cringe, etc. I wish them all well but I’ll pass on their works.

  6. EthanNo Gravatar says:

    Nice review again, Kevin. I don’t know how much of a electronic fan you are, but I’m a pretty selective one and yet the chopped vocals at the end of the chorus always appealed to me in this song. I’d say it’s because it fits thematically with the song: a lightning fast, chaotic relationship. You’re right that there’s a fine line between progressive and novelty, but the way you say that makes me feel like you have an idea of what Swift, Huff and Chapman could have done to place this song on the latter side of the line beyond just getting rid of the chopped/echoing vocal. It’s likely she approached this production spontaneously–like tossing random ingredients (vocal echo, banjo, etc.) into a cake recipe simply because they each appeal to her tastebuds–rather than in an attempt to be deliberately forward-thinking, so I’m not sure this song is exactly a failure.

    I do have a /bit/ of a pro-Swift bias, but I think that sways me in one direction just as much as someone’s slight anti-Swift bias sways them in the other. Given your past admissions (which I commend) of, simply by consequence of your age and gender and musical tastes, not being a fan of Swift in general, I find most of your reviews of her singles predictable, but I admire your commitment to objectivity. Out of curiosity, what songs outside of her radio catalogue have you enjoyed?

  7. EthanNo Gravatar says:

    Correction to my above post: I meant to say “former,” not “latter,” referring to the word “progressive,” not “novelty.”

  8. I really enjoy this song and like Andrew don’t care who knows that I’m a TS fan. There isn’t any truly undeniable country elements in this, but it works for me as a TS country single in the same ways “Sparks Fly” did. I adore “Begin Again” as well.

    My only gripe? The production is too cluttered. This would’ve worked better if TS (along with producers Nathan Chapman and Dan Huff) had opted for a simpler sound where the listener could clearly distinguish the instruments being played. Huff had too much influence over the sound here, and while it works in stadiums, it doesn’t translate as well on record.

    Here’s hoping “I Almost Do” is her next country single. “Red” is good for a change of tempo, but that one is classic “TS country” and has a killer lyric. It’s my favorite track on the album.

    I’d give it an A- but totally see why you gave it a B+, Kevin. Great Review!

  9. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    I like this song well enough, but wouldn’t rate it among my favorite T-Swift tunes. Ironically, I’m not typically a fan of electronic music, but in this particular case I find the “Re-eh-eh-eh-eh-ed” echo effect oddly addictive.

  10. Erin SNo Gravatar says:

    I think the crossword puzzle with no right answer metaphor hasn’t been used for the same reason nobody had ever said Juliet wore a scarlet letter: it makes no sense!

    Crossword puzzles always have right answers. They are created with them. Crossword puzzle writers don’t screw up. I don’t know why but I’m almost offended on their behalf by that lyric in “Red.”

    I’m at the point where the drama Taylor attaches to the feelings of love just don’t move me anymore. It’s even beginning to gnaw at my ability to enjoy “All Too Well,” which is actually a really well written narrative. But in “Red,” the metaphors are uninteresting and feel generic. The melody sounds a lot like several of her past hits. The only thing new is the electronic stutter, and I don’t care for it either. So I’d rate this a C-.

  11. JimmieNo Gravatar says:

    “Crossword puzzles always have right answers. They are created with them. Crossword puzzle writers don’t screw up. I don’t know why but I’m almost offended on their behalf by that lyric in ‘Red.’”

    It doesn’t mean that people aren’t at a loss to find that right answer, though. That’s what makes the metaphor so effective. She knows the answer is there, but they can’t find it… it seems like “there’s no right answer.”

    I give this song a solid A. I’m lucky not to be in a “red” relationship right now… but I’ve been there, and this song does a pretty good job of capturing that excitement and simultaneous disappointment.

  12. Erin SNo Gravatar says:

    @Jimmie: “It doesn’t mean that people aren’t at a loss to find that right answer, though. That’s what makes the metaphor so effective. She knows the answer is there, but they can’t find it… it seems like “there’s no right answer.”

    That’s not how the line is written. The line goes “Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer.”

    “Realizing there’s no right answer” doesn’t mean she knows the answer is there but they can’t find it so it just seems like there’s no right answer. “Realizing there’s no right answer” means she’s actually saying there’s no right answer to the crossword puzzle. It’s her way of trying to say there’s no way to win a fight with this guy. It’s a bad metaphor because, like I said, crossword puzzles always have a right answer, by design.

    Taylor sometimes gets loose with her lyrics without Liz Rose there to tighten them up and edit. That’s what happened with this song, and the crossword puzzle line is just one example.

  13. JimmieNo Gravatar says:

    Even meeting you at your literal take on the line, Erin, crossword puzzle writers do make mistakes. Your assertion that “crossword puzzles always have a right answer, by design” and, earlier, that “crossword puzzle writers don’t screw up” just isn’t true. See, as one of countless examples: http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1230&context=wordways

    Guess Taylor didn’t need Liz Rose to fix this line after all.

  14. Erin SNo Gravatar says:

    @Jimmie

    Those examples are bad/misleading clues, but there is always a right answer within the structure of a crossword puzzle. Crossword puzzle writers don’t make mistakes in the designs of the puzzles themselves. Therefore, there is always a right answer, and a way to get to the right answer even around the occasional bad/misleading clue. My point about the sloppiness of Taylor’s line stands.

  15. JimmieNo Gravatar says:

    @Erin

    Nope. Read the document again. The crossword puzzle writer–for the New York Times, no less–admits that some of his clues have no right answer.

  16. Erin SNo Gravatar says:

    @Jimmie

    I see what you’re saying, but you’re not getting my point about crossword puzzle design. There is always a correct arrangement of letters that solve a crossword puzzle.

    I’ve spent so much time talking about crossword puzzles, it’s time for me to stop debating and go actually done one. It’ll no doubt be way more interesting and better constructed than this song as far as I’m concerned! But you keep enjoying it for what it is :)

  17. Markus MeyerNo Gravatar says:

    I honestly don’t think Taylor thought people would take that line so literally when she wrote this song…..

  18. Michael A.No Gravatar says:

    This song reminds me of the title track to Lorrie Morgan’s War Paint album and I think the concept was better executed then.

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