Sorry Taylor Swift, but I didn’t put up with this attitude from Tucker Beathard, and I won’t stand for it from you.
There are a few unbreakable axioms in life: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger,” and you don’t ever, ever, ever mess with Taylor Swift. Case in point: Scooter Braun and later Shamrock Holdings purchased the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums looking to make some easy cash off of her work, only to see Swift start to re-record those albums to devalue the originals and cut off Braun and Shamrock’s potential revenue stream. Red (Taylor’s Version) was released just last week, and it’s basically a deluxe version of the original: All 20 tracks from Red are here, plus six new tracks that were cut from the original release and four others that had not been released on her album previously, including “Better Man” (recorded by Little Big Town in 2016) and “Babe” (recorded by Sugarland in 2018).
One of the tracks “from the vault” is “I Bet You Think About Me,” which features Chris Stapleton on harmony vocals and was officially released to radio today. Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why this one got dropped from Red originally: While it features Swift’s trademark sharp songwriting and includes a hint of social commentary, the song reminds me a lot of Beathard’s whiny tire fire from last year and is simply too sour and bitter to be enjoyable.
The production for this song feels like little more than a placeholder, and really doesn’t do a good job setting a proper mood for the subject matter. There are some interesting arrangement choices here (leaving the guitars mostly acoustic, giving the piano a prominent spot in the mix, and most notably the generous helping of harmonica to try to give a song a folksy feel), but they don’t add up to much in the end, and the harmonica ends up doing more harm than good in the end (it’s much louder than other parts of the mix and is badly off-key at points, turning the song into an ear-splitting wall of noise). The 3/4 time signature and loping cadence of the arrangement makes the song feel like a bar sing-along, but it clashes with the more-serious nature of the subject matter, and the mostly-neutral instrument tones and occasional minor chords keep the song from gaining any momentum. Where a song like “Mean” used its sound to draw the listener in and make the track fun and enjoyable even with its serious connotations, this song is stuck in an awkward spot between being catchy and being moving, which keeps the listener from feeling anything at all in the end.
Swift is no stranger to these sorts of no-holds-barred, this-is-how-it-was tracks (“Picture To Burn” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” anyone?), but she usually balances her irritation with a sassy, confident attitude that draws the audience over to her side), and much like the production she doesn’t pull it off this time. There aren’t any technical issues with her performance, but in striking a more-serious posture on the track, her bitterness really bleeds through the track, and as cathartic as doing so may be for the artist, it’s more than a little off-putting to the listener. (In a way, Swift has outgrown this kind of track—this sort of over-the-top reaction is more suited for a younger artist who can pull off being heartbroken for the first time, not an industry veteran with several high-profile relationships and breakups on her resume.) She comes across as so joyless and dour that it keeps the audience from sharing in the schadenfreude she’s imagining, and instead it makes her feel more like the aggressor than the aggrieved. (For Stapleton’s part, his harmony adds absolutely nothing to the song, and restricting him to lower harmony parts keeps him from using his range and power to help drive the narrator’s point home.) It’s one on Swift’s weaker performances overall, and makes me wonder how the rest of the Red re-make turned out.
The narrator tells the sad tale of how their relationship fell apart because the other person couldn’t escape their obsession with status and the superficial nature of their lifestyle. The narrator tries to position themselves as the grounded individual surrounded by judgemental, class-conscious upper-crusters, giving the song a whiff of the urban vs. rural conflict that other artists (*cough* Blake Shelton *cough*) are stoking, but Swift and Lori McKenna and good enough writers to actually bring the receipts and give the listener enough to visualize their warts and see who they really are (honestly, this song works better as a commentary on high-class society than anything else, calling out those people who read and talk about problems but don’t actually do anything to solve them). However, by taking such broad aim at a target, the writing doesn’t do enough to paint the ex as a villain, with only a few lines spotlighting their transgressions (“you laughed at my dreams, rolled your eyes at my jokes”) that barely register with the listener. Instead, the narrator wastes time imagining how the other person must regret giving up the relationship and how bad their life must be, even though they admit in the first freaking verse that “they’re just fine.” It makes the narrator feel petty and whiny, clearly painting themselves as the one who’s actually struggling to get over the relationship while providing no evidence of the other person feeling that way. It’s the sort of “you should feel bad, darn it!” attitude that annoyed me about Beathard’s “You Would Think,” and instead of feeling bad for Swift’s character, I wish they’d just move on already.
I’m glad that Taylor Swift is getting to own her material and perform it the way she wants to, but “I Bet You Think About Me” just feels like wasted time and potential to me. Swift has pulled off plenty of songs like this in the past, and could have easily followed that same formula to make the song more interesting and enjoyable without dulling its edge. Instead, thanks to unfocused writing, uninspired production, and a bitter vocal performance, this song comes across as unnecessarily-sour grapes, and doesn’t motivate people to rally to the cause like before. It’s a track that probably should have stayed on the cutting room floor (or at least relegated to album-cut status), and in six months, I’ll bet you don’t think about it.
Rating: 4/10. No thank you.