Is Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' the ultimate earworm?

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Taylor Swift

Sometimes, being a dad just plain sucks. Because no matter how hard you try, your kids are going to get sucked in to things you will hate.

It's easy when they're little. We had adorable dance parties to Dillinger Four songs with my daughter, named after my second-favorite Black Flag bassist (so we'll just call her "Chuck"). We watched my younger son (Lil' Tigger) run circles while listening to Cheap Trick. But they grow up too soon, and suddenly, they're Taylor Swift fans. And, like Jules in Pulp Fiction's de facto vegetarianism, if your kids are Taylor Swift fans, you have to be, too. They will beat you down. It's nefarious sonic waterboarding.

I resisted initially. I was strong. I used a mix of good old-fashioned flat-out "no" with the best tools of parenting — deflection and deceit. That only works for so long. I settled for redirecting the song selection to tracks I didn't mind, like Swift's 2014 mega-hit "Shake It Off," which you can hear live at Xcel Energy Center as her 1989 World Tour visits Friday through Sunday. Suddenly, my kids believed it was my "favorite song." And then, somehow, my brain decided that it was.

I would wake up in the morning with it stuck in my head. In situations where I was bombarded with bad pop music, I'd actually look forward to hearing it. I tried to excuse it. I drew connections to a lifetime of listening to classic Memphis horns, Motown, and more modern punk rock 'n' roll rave-ups like the Saints and Rocket From the Crypt. But I can't put my finger on why exactly this song has wormed its way into my medulla oblongata for the long haul. This was a puzzle that must be solved. I had to have an answer.

First I turned to the primary sources: my kids. But they weren't going to make it easy. When I asked Chuck why "Shake It Off" is her favorite song, she laughed. "That's not my favorite song, Daddy! That's your favorite song!"

OK, I'm not going to belabor that point. "But you still like 'Shake It Off,' right? What do you like about it?"

After a short pause, gears cranking in her head: "I like the verses. You know, when you're sitting in the car, and you listen to 1989, you do this...." She makes this little dance-wiggle with a big smile on her face. "I like her singing."

OK, that got me nowhere. So I turned to my son. Unfortunately, Tigger Jr. wasn't even that helpful. "I like 'Cockydoodle' and 'Monkeydoodle.'"

Having failed utterly to force a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old to express in words something that I, a 40-year-old (supposedly) professional rock writer couldn't, I knew I needed to turn to experts to find my answer. I decided to seek the advice of Dr. Alex Lubet and Dr. Peter Mercer-Taylor, both professors in the School of Music at the University of Minnesota. The question I posed: "What is it that makes 'Shake It Off' get stuck in my head? What makes it such an irresistible earworm?" The answers I got make regular rock criticism look like amateur hour. Within a few days, my inbox was awash in multiple emails, bullet-pointed lists, follow-up emails, and more information than I could have dreamed for in my quest.

According to Mercer-Taylor, "The challenge of the perfectly catchy pop song is concocting something that sounds enough like a thousand other pop songs that you can immediately feel at home, immediately feel like you're invited in somehow, but that sounds just different enough that you want to hear that song again."

In other words, an earworm has to be essentially familiar — you can't get too crazy — but at the same time, distinctive. OK, this I get. But how? What magical songwriting and studio trickery makes "Shake It Off" that song when so many others aren't? It all starts with the riffs — even the opening drum beat. Lumet says:

"This may be the most riff-based composition I have ever heard. One might even say that the entire song is composed of hooks."

And all the hooks feel safe. The song stays in one key and scale ("diatonic," they call it). The beat is up-tempo and danceable. It's produced to robot-like perfection, so all the focus is on the riffs, not individual performances. Lyrically, the biggest-selling pop artist in the world continues her never-ending campaign to convince us she's a normal girl who gets judged and isn't that great a dancer. She's doing everything she can to suck us in, while still throwing us surprise curveballs.

To this end, "Shake It Off" follows your basic pop verse/chorus structure, but Mercer-Taylor points out something unique that I'd never considered before.

"Nine times out of 10, the chorus of a song — whose job is to be the most exciting part — will feature the highest notes of the melody. In the case of 'Shake It Off,' the verse is the highest part. Where a normal pop chorus dazzles with how high the singer can sing, this presses in exactly the opposite direction."

But the twist doesn't stop there. Taylor Swift might have a hell of a voice, but she deliberately under-uses it. Lumet, again: "The riffs themselves are limited to a few, close together pitches, within nearly any listener's vocal range." In other words, Taylor Swift, evil genius, doesn't want to blow us away with her vocal skills — she wants us to sing along.

But while we're singing along, with each simple repetition of hooks that resolve on a happy note, we're getting more sucked in because each chorus builds more dramatic tension. "The real story is how the chorus is tweaked at every reappearance to address that basic melodic weirdness: the fact that the chorus is the lowest part of the song," Mercer-Taylor says. And he's right — every chorus is a little longer than the one before, and every chorus goes for higher and higher, more triumphant notes.

So basically, Swift's lured us in with the familiar trappings and structure of a pop song, and then told us a story that's alternately tricky and engaging. When we expect zigs, she zags, but in a way that pulls us in. Then she builds dramatically on those twists, bringing us along for the ride. And then: The song just ends. But even that has a purpose, as Lumet points out.

"Anything other than the kind of triumphal ending one might get in a hard rocker or blues or a classical symphony lacks closure and thus asks the listener to return."

So right at the end, she lets us down ... just enough to come back for more.

Chuck and Lil' Tigger don't notice any of this, of course. They just love Taylor Swift unconditionally and will until they find something better. (I'm just now seeing the first signs of burnout, after so many months.) I'm hoping they will soon, and that I'll be able to stand it. But in the meantime, I've got my answers. I understand my earworm. And I respect it even more.

Taylor Swift
With: Vance Joy.
When: Sept. 11-13.
Where: Xcel Energy Center.
Tickets: $39.50-$139.50. More info here.


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