Hot-Take Reactions to Taylor Swift's 'Midnights': A Return to Synthpop, Autobiographical Lyrics and the Word "Fuck"

We weigh in on the clubby beats, Jack Antonoff's contributions, and how "Snow on the Beach" isn't that weird in Canada

BY Alex Hudson and Megan LaPierrePublished Oct 21, 2022

After weeks of buildup and exactly zero singles, Taylor Swift finally dropped Midnights at, well, the stroke of midnight. Three hours later, seven bonus tracks arrived as part of the 3am Edition of the album — a hell of a lot of new content to absorb from a prolific songwriter known for stuffing songs with dense imagery and clues that can take months or even years to fully unpack.

It's the big event that we've been waiting for while diving deep into Swift's catalogue for Exclaim!'s recent ranking of her 20 best songs ever.

So: will any of Midnights earn a place on future lists of Swift's best songs? And how will the album stack up against the rest of her catalogue? As we listen to the album on repeat (with a proper album review to come next week), Exclaim!'s Megan LaPierre and Alex Hudson discuss first reactions in a DM exchange, touching on Swift's return to both synthpop and autobiographical songwriting, the influence of primary producer/co-writer Jack Antonoff, and the crucial role of all those f-bombs.

Taylor Goes Pop (Again)

Alex: Let's start with the obvious: Taylor has gone "pop" again. I put pop in scare quotes because this is less overtly hooky than 1989, or even than Red and Fearless, which had enormous choruses on practically every song. But she's back in a dance-y, electronic zone here. It's almost clubby at times, with kind of a pulsing kick drum that anchors a lot of the songs. It's not quite like the "dance mix" vibe of Beyonce of Drake's recent albums — more like Robyn's Honey, where it sounds like a party is going on in the next room.

Megan: Exactly! This time, the artificial light sources are bleeding through the crack beneath the door, sonically speaking. It's much more of the reputation and Lover style of pop. Both of those albums had their flops, let's be honest, but the highs were high — and I struggle to see the same peaks in this body of work. I hate it when people say "one-note," but all of these songs definitely bleed into each other in a way that rings less cohesive and more like different iterations of the same idea. Which, I guess is the whole premise of Midnights, but still.

Alex: I do think "Anti-Hero" is a strong first single — much better than past pop singles like "ME!" or "Look What You Made Me Do," which I really didn't enjoy (even though the albums they were taken from ended up being good). The chorus of "Anti-Hero" is probably the best hook on the whole album, and I like that hard-hitting beat. Too bad about the "sexy baby" line! It seems that Taylor made a conscious choice to have the album sound a bit same-y — surely that's the only explanation why "Would've, Could've, Should've" got stuck at the end as a bonus track. It's almost certainly the best song here, but it's got acoustic guitar and distortion, so it was left off the main album.

Megan: I agree, "Anti-Hero" is definitely the strongest chorus, as well as one of the most interesting vocal melodies! It's the "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" to "Blank Space" to "Anti-Hero" pipeline of her gradually getting snarkier — and more direct — with this satire of her public persona. Take a shot for every time some dude has said "Maybe she's the problem" and you'll be drunk for the rest of your life. I love the juxtaposition between this and "ME!" too with the "it's me!" bit, as well as the pause between that and "hi." I think somebody somewhere said that the "sexy baby" thing might be a 30 Rock reference? Anyway, I'm too much of a young sexy baby to know. "Would've, Could've, Should've" wouldn't be out of place on Red, in terms of sound and calibre. It's probably also about John Mayer, with the reference to Taylor having been 19 — and of course she made it track 19!

Alex: Next thing you'll be telling me she crashed her Scion TC at 100 miles per hour.

Megan: [Idris Elba voice] We can go drivin' in, on my scooter.

The Antonoff Effect

Alex: So speaking of "Would've, Could've, Should've" sounding different from the rest of the album — that's one of the only ones made with the National's Aaron Dessner, who is on three of the bonus tracks but totally left off the main album. What do you think of Jack Antonoff's production and co-writing on the album?

Megan: Ah yes, the Antonoff Effect. What a trajectory this has been, in terms of his work with Taylor and everyone else (Lorde, Clairo, Florence + the Machine, Lana Del Rey — the list goes on). In hindsight, those early 1989 tracks maybe stood out more for their sense of novelty among the Max Martin productions on that album, although I definitely still really like "Out of the Woods" and "I Wish You Would." I think Lover, folklore and evermore all showed that there was potential for variety, although Lover was a far messier (due to lacking a Dessner?) execution. But it produced songs like "Cornelia Street" and "Lover"! I am just confused by Jack Antonoff these days, honestly. I was a fan of fun., and I've been a fan of Bleachers; I'm not sure what's going on with him lately. As our colleague Kaelen astutely noted, the impression left here is more of a gentle traffic sound. Only some moments are outright jarring and off-putting to me — like the vocal effects on "Midnight Rain" or the bleep-bloop chorus of "Bejeweled" — but sometimes you'd almost rather have grating tracks to let the better ones shine brighter in comparison.

Alex: It feels a bit like "Cornelia Street" was the blueprint for this album. That song begins as a vibey, atmospheric ballad, and then there's a surprisingly danceable beat-drop partway through, which happens a few times on this album ("You're on Your Own Kid," "Question…?"). Like you said, Antonoff hasn't exactly been on a winning streak lately. The most recent albums that he worked on by Lorde, Clairo, St. Vincent and Lana Del Rey were all decent, but not career-highs. He's been making pretty good albums with really great artists. 

Megan: Yes, he's been on his "Vigilante Shit" of being mid. (I hate myself for even thinking that sentence.) I understand why people feel like it's criminal and that he's, like, sanitizing pop music as a whole somehow, but I also struggle to discourage a woman working with a male producer who seems to make her feel comfortable enough to articulate her vision and execute it in a way that at least she feels is fulfilling. But anyway! All of this is making me wonder whether Antonoff did anything on the new Carly Rae Jepsen album?

Alex: I just checked and he didn't. I honestly don't know how that didn't happen. It's a perfect match — they even played shows together!

Megan: He did stuff on Dedicated!

A Return to Explicitly Personal Songwriting

Alex: I guess Jack Antonoff must be great to work with, since people keep coming back to him. His ability to make artists feel comfortable might explain why this album feels a little more explicitly autobiographical than the last couple. On folklore and evermore, she had a more narrative style based in characters who weren't necessarily her, but I interpret most of the songs on Midnights as being about Taylor.

Megan: Yeah, this is a return to autobiographical form for sure. Which is what we came to know and love Taylor for, but I kind of feel like I didn't really get much of a greater window into who she is with these lyrics? "You're on Your Own, Kid" and "Sweet Nothing" are probably the most compelling lyrically for their insights. And, weirdly, I like the opening image of "Maroon" about cleaning incense off a vinyl shelf? It's one of those Swiftian specifics that just immediately sets the scene for me.

Alex: It's a bit cringe, but Taylor has said that it's important to embrace cringe. I agree with her (and you) — "Maroon" sets the scene. On the other hand, I think she overplays the "Snow on the Beach" image. Her best songs contain multiple images per verse, but that one builds an entire song around one image, which I don't find all that evocative. I live in Canada; I've seen snow on the beach before. It's really not that big of a deal. Lana Del Rey's backing vocal fits very nicely on that one, though.

I quite like "Mastermind" for how it directly addresses Taylor's tendency to lay clues. It tears down her own mythology in a nice way, which I enjoy, especially after the rather overbearing Easter eggs of the whole Midnights promotional cycle.

Megan: Embracing cringe is a powerful thing and I support it. Snow on a beach is absolutely nothing to sneeze at for us, and is honestly not even a great comparison for something being "weird but fucking beautiful." Like, talk about the Gentleminions trend or something. (God, please don't actually.) Lana sounds great, although it's funny to see Taylor sideline yet another woman on backing vocals — she's sticking to tradition in that way!

I agree with you on "Mastermind" for sure, although we've previously also discussed the "like clockwork, dominoes cascading in a line" mixed metaphor being… disappointing. I think it's the first time she's really addressed her obsession with being a scheming schemer in a song before? I love it — it's kind of like the truest part of the "Blank Space" character. And I appreciate the incorporation of the word "Machiavellian"!

I feel like this is the first Taylor rollout in memory that I haven't really paid attention to? Which is extra funny now that I work in music media. But Reels? TikToks? I'm too old for this shit! And as much as I love a little lyric preview, a lot of the ones here are, again, not the greatest to highlight. At best, a lot of these lines could be punched up a bit; at worst, it's, like you said, cringeworthy. Ironically, a lot of the critical reception I've seen so far has been harping on this album being a "cooler" sound for Taylor — which I both agree and disagree with. In addition to the icier tones and textures, she definitely sounds more self-assured than ever, but it's sometimes to her detriment. I really love the '70s basement aesthetic of the visuals though. What about you?

Alex: I've found the rollout frustrating. A whole series of TikTok videos announcing one song title at a time? Teasers and countdowns that lead up to merch drops? Who cares! I guess the only good part is that she hyped up her album without actually releasing a single, so that the sound of the album comes as a surprise. The aesthetic is pretty cool, but doesn't really fit the music — which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I guess I don't fully see how the songs connect to the idea of "13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life," since only a couple of them really paint a scene, and the overall sound doesn't really have the intimacy I might expect from a late-night confessional. But again, it's fine if the branding doesn't entirely fit the music, so long as the songs are good. (See: Lover.)

Megan: Oh god, the Lover branding. My Little Pony vibes.

Alex: With that precedent: Midnights has a pretty cool album cover! Plus it's easily memeable, which is a bigtime Drake trick.

Megan: Yeah, the Guy Fieri one is pretty good.

It's interesting because I feel like the more listens I get in, the more apparent it's becoming that certain songs could maybe be attributed to different album cycle eras. Like I said, "Would've, Could've, Should've" probably resurfaced with the demos for Red (Taylor's Version). Meanwhile, the stuttering "Maroon" and its lyric about dancing shoeless in New York are very Lover, while "Lavender Haze" feels firmly planted in reputation with the fixation on what other people are saying. On that note, I'm into "Lavender Haze"!

For the Fuck of It All

Alex: If anything here is reputation, it's "Vigilante Shit"!

Megan: Well obviously that too! For the record, I think there's some inherent vengeance in dressing in a way that makes you feel hot (I speak from experience). But wow, yeah, some of the lines on that one fall really short — "Don't get sad, get even." I appreciate her just putting "shit" right in a title, although that one's become kind of old hat for Taylor at this point.

Alex: She first sang "fuck" on her folkmore albums, but she really leans into it here. The way she enunciates (and repeats) "fuck" in "Maroon" is quite satisfying. And while snow on the beach is not particularly "weird and fucking beautiful," as we discussed, the f-bomb rolls off her tongue nicely. I think the swearing is more than just "tee hee hee, naughty" — it serves a purpose, and is part of an overall more blunt album from Taylor. She sings directly about her mythology ("Mastermind") and an eating disorder ("You're on Your Own, Kid"). So saying "fuck" a lot is all part of a more raw, uncensored lyrical perspective. There are some clumsy lines, but also some personally revealing ones

Megan: I remember some of the first Taylor swears and the faux outrage about her trying to seem edgy or something. I totally agree about these "fucks" being given (ha!) purposefully, although she does deliver them in such a casual way that it doesn't feel put on — like how when a prof who doesn't normally curse a ton is lecturing and throws one in for dramatic emphasis. However, they're effective to varying degrees; like, "Flexing like a goddamn acrobat" in "Karma" is... something else. That being said, that hook is one of the stronger ones.

Alex: That's a real fucking legacy to leave.

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