Our playlist also included some grab bag song picks that aren’t part of this transcript (we played them after wrapping up the theme). If you’d like to listen to the full playlist, it’s available on Spotify and Apple Music!
Kayla Beardslee: This is 88.7 WHCL-FM Clinton, NY, and you’re listening to Pop Excellence with Kayla Beardslee. It’s actually not just me today: I have a guest on, if you want to introduce yourself.
Leora Ferrari: Hello everyone, my name’s Leora. I’m a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College, and I have been friends with Kayla since just about third grade.
Kayla: So we know each other a little bit.
Leora: For sure, just a little bit. And I’m very happy to be a part of the show today and share my music taste with you all!
K: So today, for the first hour, Leora and I are going to be talking about songs that represent our musical journeys: essentially songs that were formative to our relationship with discovering, listening to, and sharing music in some way. And then the second hour is going to be a typical grab bag, with us both pitching in some songs.
This first song is a pick of mine. I wanted to start way back at the beginning: this is representative of my strange middle school/early high school years, which was the first point when I became anything close to an active consumer of music (once I actually owned an iPod). I did seek out some songs on my own then, rather than being completely fed stuff to passively listen to through radio and my parents’ music, but I didn’t use streaming services and only occasionally bought music through iTunes with gift cards, so my tastes were still very limited. When did you start buying music?
L: Oh my gosh, it was—I occasionally bought music on iTunes starting when I was like 13, but it was limited.
K: Well yeah, cause we didn’t have money. We were small and confused.
L: Yeah, true, yes.
K: The way I mostly discovered music around the time I was a pre teen was by watching stuff that came up in YouTube recommendations or that I found on Vevo’s new music playlists. (L: Yep). Most of the stuff I listened to was inconsequential, middle-school-appropriate music: some of my other candidates for this spot of first song were Hurricane by Bridgit Mendler (which still holds up, by the way) and also What the Hell by Avril Lavigne. I listened to a lot of Avril Lavigne when I was in middle school, for some reason.
L: Love that song.
K: (laughs) I mostly listened to singles and not full albums at that point, again because there was lots of me just looking at music videos on YouTube, but I was still very preliminarily starting to look beyond surface level promo and seek out music new to me. So this, like, middle school/early high school phase was kind of a precursor to actually diving into new music discovery a few years later.
The specific song that I chose to play is by Cher Lloyd: it was her biggest hit in the US, which explains how I found it back then. This song is intensely associated with middle school nostalgia for me, especially because Cher Lloyd’s career is kind of confined to my preteen years. She put out an album in 2013 and another in 2014, and then her career kind of fizzled out. She’s released a few singles in the last year or so, but still I heavily associate her earliest work with middle school. Didn’t you say you listened to Cher Lloyd?
L: Oh yeah, I did. Yep. Sticks and Stones a lot.
K: Did you like this song?
L: I did like the song! It was good. I’m excited to hear it again.
K: I haven’t listened to the song in full yet, I just put it on the playlist like “I know that’s going to be a good pick,” so I’m ready for a burst of middle school—not nostalgia, just flashbacks.
L: (laughs) It’s coming…
K: This is Want You Back by Cher Lloyd.
K: Alright, that was Want You Back by Cher Lloyd, which has a very strange ending and sounds like a very different time in pop, but I think we both enjoyed listening to it.
L: Oh yeah, it was a trip down memory lane.
K: Yeah, to middle school, great. The regrets are all flooding back.
L: Speaking of middle school (K: laughs), my next song represents my own middle school years, when I first started paying attention to and listening to music. This song is Catch My Breath by Kelly Clarkson.
Basically, during that time, I mostly used YouTube to find music. I occasionally also used Pandora, and I did unwillingly listen to the radio on the bus on the way to school.
K: Oh my god, you just dug up buried memories for me.
L: Oh yeah. And so, I pretty much ended up exclusively listening to pop music at this time, because that’s what I was introduced to and what stuck with me. I also listened to artists’ greatest hits rather than delving deeper into their lesser-known songs, and I never really listened to an album full through, just a couple songs here and there.
I was introduced to Kelly Clarkson when I heard her hit song Stronger on the radio. I also listened to other pop artists like Bruno Mars and Carly Rae Jepsen, and I was deliberating over putting them in this song slot, but I chose Kelly over the others because I fell in love with her powerful voice, driving beats, and catchy melodies. I liked quite a few songs from her 2004 album Breakaway (K: That’s a classic) and her 2011 album Stronger, even if I never listened to the full albums. And also—
K: Oh no.
L: A fun fact, I even used one of Kelly’s—or, not I, we (K: laughs)—used one of Kelly’s song to audition for a musical in eighth grade. Both Kayla and I.
L: I think it was either Behind These Hazel Eyes or Breakaway, I can’t quite remember, but it was definitely a Kelly song. Anyway, the point is that Kelly was a constant in my life back then, so I just had to include this song. This is Catch My Breath by Kelly Clarkson.
L: So, that was Catch My Breath by Kelly Clarkson.
K: Why did you pick that song in particular?
L: Well, I don’t know. I do think that it still is really good.
K: Yeah, it’s a good song.
L: The hook is so catchy, I still like it years after. I really do.
K: Also, I wanted to have a brief interlude to discuss radio on the bus, because that really dug up some other repressed memories for me. We took the same bus to and from middle school, Leora and I. We have so many strange memories. For some reason I remember hearing Brokenhearted—wait, that’s a good segue! We’ll circle back to that—I remember hearing Brokenhearted by Karmin, and also Stereo Hearts by Maroon 5.
L: Oh yeah!
K: Remember that?
L: Yeah, yes. They played Stereo Hearts a lot. I don’t know, I feel like I remember a Chris Brown song. I can’t remember what it was, but it was always playing, it was always there.
K: What a nightmare. Also, can you believe Maroon 5 was already inconsequential by the time we were in middle school? (laughs) What a strange time.
L: It was.
K: Now, like I said, I very accidentally created a good segue. Speaking of Brokenhearted by Karmin, I have a lot to say about this next song. I think basically everyone has a “getting into music” album, and Leo Rising by Karmin is mine. I’ve talked about it before on this show—I’ve played a song from it every semester—because it’s an album that’s very close to my heart. Karmin is a husband and wife duo, and before Leo Rising, they had this small hit called Brokenhearted—super cheesy bubble gum pop, still kind of catchy though—that was in 2012, right? Something like that?
L: I think so, yeah.
K: I checked yesterday and it hit #16 on Billboard, so it was a decent hit, and they got signed to Epic Records as a result. Epic Records did not handle their career well: Karmin put out an album in 2014, but it was not very well promoted or popular, and they left their label later in 2014 and started releasing music for a new independent album in 2015. I think I found one of their 2015 music videos in a Vevo New Music playlist or something, when I was just randomly looking through YouTube because I had all of this free time as a teen. And I was like, yeah, I sort of recognize this group from Brokenhearted, I’ll listen to it. And then I listened and discovered that the song was really good, and the rest is history, I guess.
I think that first video I saw was either Sugar or possibly this next song, I can’t remember, but it feels like it would have been one of those. I followed the Leo Rising rollout for at least a year, from sometime in 2015 to September 2016 when the album was finally released. 2016 was the start of my junior year of high school, and it was really my first time being that invested in an artist’s album rollout and feeling the excitement of finally getting to listen to the full album on release day. I remember walking to and from school listening to it on my old iPod, and I remember showing Leora some of the songs too.
L: Yes, I remember that! I do remember that.
K: I was like, “Leora you gotta listen to this!”
L: (laughs) I remember I fell in love with the song Can’t Live, I thought that was my favorite track on the album. Leo Rising was one of my favorite albums back then, too.
K: I was talking to Leora about this yesterday as we were prepping for the show, but I have this very vivid memory of me asking Leora “what’s your favorite song on the album?” (because that’s the litmus test of what your friend thinks), and I also have this memory of Karmin releasing a music video for Can’t Live on the album release day that had a bunch of blue and orange lighting and stuff—that’s my memory, that’s all I remember of what it looks like—but that music video no longer exists. Karmin rebranded a few years ago and privated a lot of their content, so that music video just isn’t available anymore: it’s wild to see how things can still disappear off the internet. But, you know, it’s just a video. The music’s still out there, and we cherish it.
L: Yeah, we definitely do.
K: I basically stumbled onto Karmin’s independent music at random, just by coincidence, and I had never listened to a full album that was this far outside the mainstream cycle of pop music promo before, so that was also a new experience for me. And Leo Rising really became the template for the kind of album I gravitate to most strongly today: it’s a cohesive indie pop release that experiments with different styles and subgenres but still has has a strong, consistent artistic voice throughout. That’s the kind of album that always rises to the top when I do “favorite music of the year” lists. Primal Heart by Kimbra, Pang by Caroline Polachek—those are both albums I got really excited about and talked about on this show a fair amount that fit the mold Leo Rising first showed to me.
This particular song is the most important one of all my picks today—not that far ahead of the Taylor Swift song that’s coming up later, but just a little bit ahead. To most people, I think Leo Rising would understandably be just another good album, but for me, it marks this legitimate before and after point in my relationship to music listening. If you asked me to choose an all-time favorite album, I would probably just short circuit and run away because that’s an impossible question—
L: (laughs) It is.
K: —but if you held a gun to my head and forced me to pick one, Leo Rising would be the easiest answer for me.
I was already planning on playing this particular song as part of a random grab bag playlist over the summer, because, like I said, I always try and play something from Leo Rising each semester just so I can talk about it more and promote it to more people. I really like this song, and it’s super up there in my favorites of the album. It’s always been really hard for me to pick an absolute favorite song from Leo Rising, there are too many good ones (L: There are), but this was one of the earliest singles so I’ve been loving it for years and years at this point. It’s a really good showcase for the power in Amy Noonan’s voice and the skill of her husband Nick Noonan’s production, and just—I just really like this song. I’m assuming you do too: I mean, it’s also kind of rock leading, which is sort of your thing.
L: Oh yeah, definitely. I think that’s why—I mean, at this time I was still a little bit into pop, but I definitely had started getting into rock, and I really like the rock influences on this album. Especially on Can’t Live.
K: Leora really loves Can’t Live, you guys.
L: It’s just very good. (Laughs) I do.
K: I’m very excited to play this song: like I said, Leo Rising is a very important album to me. This is Didn’t Know You by Karmin.
K: That was Didn’t Know You by Karmin. Still slaps after all these years. I was talking to Leora about this while the song played, but Leo Rising isn’t even four years old yet.
L: That is mind-blowing to me.
K: I know, because it just feels like it’s been around forever. You said this, but…
L: It does, it feels like it’s been in our lives and been a part of us for so many years. It’s crazy that it’s only four years old.
K: Thank god for this album. (laughs) Anyway, if you want to go onto your next song—we could sit here and talk about Karmin all day, but we should probably move on.
L: Okay, so the next song is Selene by Imagine Dragons, and it represents my high school years now, when I moved away from pop to more alternative and rock music. I started listening to Imagine Dragons when I was introduced to them by a few high school friends, and during this time, I was also into bands like All Time Low, Fall Out Boy, and Panic! at the Disco. I would listen to albums full through and pretty much obsess over a select few and listen to them a lot… probably too much? (K: laughs) I think the same thing happened with artists, where I’d listen to only a few rather than a lot at a time. Selene is from my favorite album, Night Visions, and it is my favorite song on the album.
K: That was Imagine Dragons’ debut album, right, Night Visions?
L: Yes, yeah. I used to listen to this song all the time: during road trips, while doing homework, walking to and from school, etc. I was drawn to Dan Reynolds’—the band’s lead singer’s—unique voice and the band’s unique sound. I really like the way Dan can change the pitch of his voice so smoothly, and he has such a wide vocal range. I thought this was pretty impressive, because sometimes within rock/alternative genres the singers aren’t the most talented (there are of course exceptions), and it’s always nice to find a rock band with a strong lead singer and amazing instrumental talent. Night Visions has such a wide breadth of songs, ranging from On Top of the World—and, I mean, the title basically gives away what that’s about—
K: It’s about digging to China.
L: (laughs) And there’s also songs like Hear Me and the nine minute song Nothing Left to Say/Rocks, which are about heavier topics like pain, neglect, depression, and suicide. I also liked that Night Visions has many different instrumental sounds in it, making each song sound distinct. For example, On Top of the World features whistling and acoustic guitars, It’s Time has a mandolin, America has some nice little keyboards in it, and Selene features synths and electric guitars (which you’ll be hearing in a second). I think that each song comes together to form a cohesive, memorable album, and that’s why I fell in love with it. So, without further ado, this is Selene by Imagine Dragons.
L: Alright, so that was Selene by Imagine Dragons. Um… I mean… Okay, so, not to kill the vibe, but—
K: (laughs, imitates) O-kay.
L: It’s a good song! It’s a good song, I really used to enjoy it, but it’s interesting because lately, Selene actually seems a little less meaningful to me. It’s probably because I over-listened to Night Visions and Imagine Dragons in general, but I thought that this, like, assignment for your radio show was really interesting—
K: Don’t say assignment!
L: Well, not assignment… Okay—
K: You make it sound like I forced you to do homework.
L: (laughs) My hOmEwOrK for this RaDiO sHoW (K: laughs) was interesting, because I can really tell that my music tastes have changed over the years. At one time, Night Visions was my go-to favorite album, and I’d listen to it all the time, but now it’s just something I listen to very much on occasion.
K: I remember I listened to this album back in 2017 when I was like, “Hey Leora, give me a recommendation for something to listen to,” and you said, “Night Visions!”—
L: Of course I recommended this.
K: So I listened to it: it’s a surprisingly long album, I was rediscovering this while the song was playing. The deluxe version is 18 tracks, so—(laughs), sorry, you just pulled a funny face at that. So, the full album didn’t stick with me. I remember liking Tiptoe and Bleeding Out, but I didn’t remember this song til I listened to it just now. Fun fact: Radioactive, which you all know, is the longest charting song in Billboard history. I don’t know how many weeks, but it’s probably always going to stay that way, because after Radioactive had a ridiculous chart run, Billboard implemented new rules so it wouldn’t happen—basically stuff to prevent songs having as ridiculous a charting run as Radioactive.
L: That’s amazing (laughs).
K: Yeah, I think radio just super latched onto it.
K2: Hey, uh, this is Kayla from one day in the future, editing this episode. I just want to say I cannot believe neither of us thought to make a joke about Radioactive being “radio active.”
K2: Uh, yeah, that’s all I have to say, back to the episode (snorts).
K: I feel—Imagine Dragons has kind of been the go-to radio rock band for awhile, right?
L: Yeah, it [Radioactive] was all over on the radio when it came out, I remember. Even years after, I heard it and would think, “…Okay, it’s Radioactive.”
K: Radioactive will never die. (Laughs) That’s how things with half-lives work. (More laughter from both).
What are your thoughts on Imagine Dragons’ new albums, by the way?
L: Oh, uh, they’re okay. They’re… I really don’t think they’re as good as Night Visions, because they did change their sound a little bit, and I don’t quite like it as much.
K: Yeah, they got a little poppier and less rock-ish, right?
L: Yeah, they did. But, I mean, Evolve was pretty good, Origins—which is their most recent album—wasn’t terrible, but I definitely like Night Visions the best, still to this day.
K: It’s interesting that you talk about, I don’t know, is aging out of an album the right way to say it? Or just, like, over listening. I mean, I think that’s something that happens a lot.
L: It might be a little of both.
L: I do definitely think, though, that I over listened to it.
K: It especially happens when you have less—when you know less music.
L: Yeah! Yes.
K: Cause I have that same thing, for example with Foxes, who’s this British artist—I talked about her a bit earlier in the summer. I loved her, I still love her albums, but I listened to them so much when I was 16-17. I went back and listened to her two albums All I Need and Glorious recently, because she’s releasing new music, and I was like, these are still really good, but they’re not—I just know them so well, you know? Some of the thrill is gone, because I know exactly what the songs are like.
L: Yeah, it definitely can happen.
K: But those songs do still have value—even for retrospectives like this, for talking about music that’s important to you.
L: Yes! They were important to you at one time, so technically they’re still a little important, and the music’s still nice to listen to.
K: Yeah, I’m still loyal to a lot of artists I was really interested in a few years ago, just because they were so formative for me. They’ll always have my attention.
K: Anyway, we can move on to my next song, I think? I already talked about this a bit, but in 2016, I started exploring more non-charting pop music and checking out more full discographies of artists rather than just bouncing from music video to music video. Karmin, Pentatonix, Foxes, Tove Lo, and Ella Eyre were my favorite artists at this point (I still really like most of those artists today). My music listening really started to expand in 2016 and 2017, and I got more passionate about lesser-known artists and pop as a genre in and of itself. Obviously, Leo Rising was my favorite album of 2016—
L: Mhm (laughs).
K: The bar is too high for any other album to reach that—and this next song is from my favorite album of 2017, Rainbow by Kesha.
Rainbow was Kesha’s first album in five years: basically, she’d been prevented from releasing music because she was in the midst of an incredibly nasty and uncomfortable legal battle against her producer Dr. Luke, who Kesha has accused of abusing her. It’s very hard to talk about well because there have been a bunch of competing lawsuits from the two parties against each other for over half a decade. It was too difficult to prove Kesha’s charges against Luke, so he was never charged as guilty, and Dr. Luke also hit her with a defamation countersuit. There’s still stuff going on today, and it’s very messy. But Rainbow had this whole comeback narrative around it because of all the things that Kesha was going through. The album fits a similar kind of mold as Leo Rising—obviously the name recognition is higher because it’s Kesha, but it’s a cohesive pop album that experiments with multiple genres—but I included it on this playlist today because Rainbow represents my music listening expanding to be more explicitly social instead of just insular, like me walking around listening to stuff in my earbuds and not really talking to other people about it.
Around the beginning of 2017, I started browsing the r/popheads subreddit (exposing myself, ooh), and that’s become the place where I’ve discovered the majority of the pop artists in my library. Honestly, most of the artists I play on this show are ones I was made aware of through popheads, so shoutout, and I still check the sub regularly today to stay in touch with music news, recent releases, general fan discussion, stuff like that. The rollout of this Kesha album was a really big deal on popheads, and because her music had drifted somewhat outside the mainstream since her last album—you know, five years before—I probably wouldn’t have checked out Rainbow if it weren’t for that sub hyping it up and talking about the singles. The singles and the album as a whole were really well received by users, both because of the comeback narrative around Kesha, the nostalgia for her as an artist and her earlier music, and also because the music itself was just really good and represented a great evolution to a more mature, country/folk-based sound for Kesha. Did I tell you about this album? Had you listened to much of it? I know you listened to Praying, I’m gonna talk about that, but…
L: Yeah, I really haven’t. I’m not very familiar with it, so this is very interesting to me.
K: You should check it out, I think you would like it.
L: Yeah, I think I will.
K: Spontaneous recommendations.
L: (laughs) They’re always the best.
K: One of my—I don’t know if favorite is the right word, but one of my strongest memories of this album rollout was when Kesha dropped Praying, which was the lead single off of Rainbow. It’s an incredible song—I’ve thought about playing it on the show a lot before, but it’s just too intense for me to throw into a playlist at random. (I’m not playing it today, I’m playing a different song from Rainbow.)
But Praying is basically a letter to Kesha’s abuser, i.e. Dr. Luke, about how she’s moving on and she’s stronger and she hopes his soul is changing and praying for forgiveness. I remember exactly where I was when I first watched the music video (L: laughs). I was on a couch in Gloucester. Massachusetts. facing away from a window and going, like, “Oh my god.”
L: Very exact.
K: Very specific. And I remember how my jaw dropped when Kesha hit that stunning whistle note in the bridge—do you remember your first time listening to that note?
L: Yes, I couldn’t believe it (laughs).
K: Yeah, I was just so floored by the vulnerability and power of the entire song, and then I immediately texted the video to you after I watched it for the first time. I was like, “holy — you have to watch this right now, it’s so good!”
L: (laughs) Oh yeah.
K: Again, I’m not playing Praying today because it’s just too intense a song, but that’s a very important memory of mine from this album rollout because it was such an event: it felt like everyone was talking about this song. In general, Rainbow was just a really formative album for me. It crystallized my interest in pop music beyond huge charting hits, it further defined my specific taste in pop albums—you know, cohesive and experimental indie pop—and it also represents my increased interest in those more social aspects of music listening, both through popheads and just talking about music with friends. And, on a simple level, it was my favorite album of 2017, and that was a year when my music tastes were rapidly expanding and becoming more well-defined than they’d ever been before.
To actually play from this album, I picked a song that—it’s not Praying, but it does have similar lyrical themes to Praying. The songwriting is really good, Kesha’s vocal performance is strong, and it’s just a great upbeat and uplifting track. This is Learn to Let Go by Kesha.
K: That was Learn to Let Go by Kesha. That album, Rainbow, still totally holds up for me by the way. It’s totally worth checking out.
L: Her voice is amazing. That high note she hit? Oh my gosh..
K: Yeah! Oh my god, I just remembered this, but you know how there was that One World Together at Home concert a few months ago, as a benefit for COVID relief? Kesha did one of the pre-televised performances, and she performed Praying, and she actually went for the whistle note for the first time live. (L: Oh, wow.) I physically reacted with excitement when I was watching it, I was like, “oh my god it finally happened!” It was very exciting.
L: That’s awesome. What a voice, oh my gosh! Alright, so shall we do the next song?
L: Alright, so my next song is Somebody Told Me by The Killers, and this song represents my early college years. The story behind this is that my freshman college roommate loved The Killers and was from the south (also where they’re based). She introduced me to them, and I quickly fell in love with them, too. I remember there was one day where my roommate gave me a piece of pink confetti from The Killers concert she went to, just a little tiny piece, and I was like, “ooh this is great.” I think I still have the confetti somewhere, hanging around. (K: laughs). So I became a big fan pretty quickly.
Somebody Told Me is from my favorite Killers album, Hot Fuss, released in 2004. It includes their hit song Mr Brightside, and it’s pretty much their best known album (I mean, it would be hard not to have heard Mr Brightside yet, it’s been everywhere). I love the guitars and the synths in Somebody Told Me and how they kind of coexist with each other. Brandon Flowers, who’s the lead singer, has such a strong, prominent voice, which I really appreciate, and it’s interesting to me because he seems like such a reserved, quiet man when he’s not on the stage. He seems like someone who’s a little tougher to interview. I’ve watched a couple interviews and I’m like, “oh, okay.”
L: But, I mean, when he is onstage he is like a completely different person, and he sings about his feelings and opens up about personal things: relationships, love, stuff like that. Somebody Told Me is about the heart-wrenching moment where Flowers finds out that the girl he liked was already in a relationship and was most likely a lesbian. I really came to love this band, and still do, because they sound contemporary and like an eighties rock group at the same time. They combine synthpop with indie and rock influences to make a really great sound unlike any other band that I know of, and I thought that this was really cool, because during this time in college, I also became very interested in classic rock. With one band, I was able to combine both my classic rock and my more new age rock interests. Also, an exciting announcement: The Killers just announced that their new album release date is set for August 21 of this year.
K: Literally announced the day before we recorded this.
L: Oh yeah, I was very excited. Thank you Kayla for telling me. (K: laughs) The album is entitled Imploding the Mirage, and it’s going to be their sixth studio album. I’m extremely excited, and my expectations are quite high, since The Killers continue to be one of my favorite rock bands today. And now: this is Somebody Told Me by The Killers.
L: That was Somebody Told Me by The Killers.
K: This next song is my last one for this theme. I can tell you this with confidence in the accuracy, because I have a spreadsheet of all the songs I’ve played on the radio show just for my own reference—this song will be the 26th time I’ve played Taylor Swift on Pop Excellence.
L: That’s amazing.
K: And I’m still not out of things to say about her. In fact, this intro might go more in depth into my relationship with her music than I’ve ever gone before.
Like a lot of people my age (I’m 21), I started listening to Taylor’s music when I was fairly young: by the time I was 11 or 12, I definitely knew the words to some of her most popular singles. You know, Our Song, Picture to Burn, Teardrops on My Guitar, Love Story, You Belong With Me, Fifteen: ah, the nostalgia of watching those music videos in low resolution on YouTube. Did you listen to her early stuff when you were younger?
L: I actually didn’t. I am a recent fan of Taylor Swift.
K: (laughs) A recent Swiftie convert.
L: Oh yes, thanks to Kayla.
K: (laughs) Basically. Around that age (11-12), I got an iPod and started buying music on iTunes like I mentioned: Taylor’s album Red, from 2012, was actually the first album I ever bought myself, so it’s a special album to me for that reason. Then, in 2014-2015, I listened to and enjoyed the singles from her album 1989, but didn’t check out the full album that closely. Thankfully, I wasn’t really paying attention in 2016 when Dramageddon with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian happened. I have no idea how I would have reacted to that at the time.
2017 was the first year when I really tuned into the details of Taylor Swift’s career, since as I mentioned I was consuming a lot more pop albums then (including listening to Taylor’s back catalogue in depth for the first time and unsurprisingly loving it) and I’d been starting to pay much more close attention to album rollouts. At that point, it had been three years since Taylor’s last album, which is a much longer break than she’d ever taken before. The hype was really building up, and I was curious enough to follow along.
Okay, so now to set the scene—I’m getting really dramatic here, it’s fine. (L: laughs) So, it’s August 2017, the weekend of the solar eclipse in the United States. For real, that’s when this happened.
L: Ooh. Wow.
K: And Taylor Swift blacks out her social media, deletes everything, and she posts three videos of a snake on her Twitter and Facebook and everything, playing into what people have been calling her after the Kanye drama. The lead single for her album Reputation drops at the end of August, and it’s like a freaking bomb going off. This is my first time experiencing a celebrity moment as big as this in pop music culture. That single, Look What You Made Me Do, is minimal and abrasive, it directly refers to her feud with Kim and Kanye—and also with Katy Perry, that was happening too—and the aesthetic of her music is darker and angrier than it’s ever been before. Then, three days after the song drops, with basically everyone talking about her, Taylor releases one of the best music videos (maybe the best) of her entire career. It plays into her bad reputation and makes fun of her public image as a simultaneous victim and aggressor in that #drama.
This is just a lot for my brain to handle. Again, this is my first time ever following along with a Taylor Swift rollout, and I’m like, “oh god, what’s happening, this is not what I expected” (L: laughs). I did not like Look What You Made Me Do. I pretty much hated it, it wasn’t what I was hoping for as an entry point into engagement in Taylor’s career. I was hoping for something more… palatable? (laughs). Today, as a sidebar, I still don’t love the song, but I do tolerate and understand it a lot more. I did love the video on sight though: I remember texting you the music video right after my first viewing. Like with Praying, I was like, “Leora Leora omg you’ve gotta watch this right away.”
L: Yeah! I remember watching it.
K: And yeah, so the whole Reputation rollout becomes a rollercoaster to follow. She puts out two more okay, kind of disappointing promo singles, and then about a week before the album release in November, Taylor drops one more promo single that—wait, it’s a pretty song? It’s well-written, it’s romantic, it’s like a musical hug—
L: (laughs) A musical hug…
K: I thought this album was supposed to be vindictive and defensive and about Taylor Swift’s big bad reputation that huffs and puffs and blows whole houses down, what is this? (L: laughs).
Now let’s change gears. Let’s do a sidebar, yes my personal life is a sidebar to Taylor Swift. So, in 2017, I was dealing with a lot of doubts about the college I had committed to. Doubts, i.e., did I not actually want to go there after all, even though it was too late to back out? And I was very stressed about, you know, life and responsibilities and having to think about my capital-F Future, all those intimidating things that kids graduating high school suddenly have to make important decisions about even though they don’t know what’s going on. Did you know what was going on when you graduated MHS?
L: Oh, no, I can relate to this.
K: Exactly. (Laughs) So yeah, I decided over the summer to give that college I was doubting a try. Fast forward to the fall semester, turns out I was right after all. This place isn’t really right for me, and all I do is sit around in my dorm by myself, do work, and think about leaving, which is really fun. So at the same time I was dealing with all that stress and doubt and stuff, I’m following this Reputation rollout and watching Taylor deal with her own personal life in messy ways. (L: laughs).
The album drops in early November. Of course I listen to it on release day: I do my whole ritual of sitting in my bed, headphones on, paying full attention to the album, and it’s about what I expected. There are some nice songs, especially the surprisingly gorgeous closing track, but the overall impression I get from the album as a piece of work is anger, self-disappointment, fear, and uncertainty, because of all the stuff Taylor had been going through in the last year. The music isn’t unlistenable or anything—at their worst, the songs from Reputation are decent and at their best they’re really good—but there’s just this constant undercurrent of stress that’s never been in Taylor’s music this strongly before, and that colors my impression of the album. Stress and uncertainty—hmm—you can maybe see why this album is personally significant to me and why I’m building this whole narrative around it. I’m a little bit disappointed by Reputation, but only because Taylor’s past music has set ridiculously high standards, and I’m still really excited about getting tickets to see her on tour the next year. Funnily enough, that concert was almost exactly two years before the day this show is going to air.
L: Hmm! Interesting.
K: But then, over the course of 2018, Reputation kind of evolves for me—or seems to evolve, a lot of it is perspective. I leave my previous college in January and end up committing to Hamilton [College] as a transfer in May, so a lot of the stress I was dealing with before is gone. Fans have more time to sit with Reputation and understand it better as an album, and Taylor starts touring it in the spring. Many more people, including me, start accepting that it’s not really an album about her “bad reputation”—that’s what it looks like on the surface, and that’s what a lot of the marketing was about for shock value, but the parts of the album that matter most are about Taylor finding love amidst the chaos of her public life. Unfortunately, I can’t relate to the romantic part of it, oh well (both laugh), but what matters is that the positive revaluation of Reputation coincides with my personal life taking a more positive turn. People start focusing more on the lyrics and the sentiment behind the songs and less on the sometimes aggressive music; on tour, Taylor gets to make heartfelt speeches explaining her mindset while making the album and expressing her appreciation to all the fans who stuck with her. It’s very evident that by the end of the tour, she’s in a much better place as well.
So yeah, Reputation more than most other albums I’ve ever listened to has been an album intertwined with my personal life, and I’m more invested in Taylor Swift’s music and career than any other artist’s—which you can probably intuit by listening to this show (both laugh). And I’m just really grateful for the way her songs have soundtracked various phases of my life.
I picked this specific song from Reputation to play because it kind of expresses that dichotomy I was talking about: it has this big drop and loud production, but if you really tune into it and focus on the lyrics and vocals, it reveals itself to be a very sweet and hopeful song. This is King of My Heart by Taylor Swift.
K: That was King of My Heart by Taylor Swift, which is a really good song. I hadn’t actually listened to it in a while, and I really enjoyed it.
L: Such a good song.
K: Do you want to talk a little bit about your own sort of relationship with Taylor’s music?
L: Sure! So, like I said, I’m a more recent fan. I really think that Reputation is my favorite album, and that Dancing With Our Hands Tied has got to be my favorite song on the whole album. However, I really like King of My Heart too. We were just discussing the bridge and how good it is.
K: Taylor Swift is queen of bridges.
L: Yeah. And so, I’m really happy to be a fan of Taylor Swift, a new fan.
K: (laughs) Leora becoming a Taylor Swift fan was one of my favorite developments of 2019, I have to say. (L: laughs). Didn’t—oh my god, I remember when I was packing to go back to Hamilton last fall, this was like a day or two after her album Lover had come out. You came over to my house and we were hanging out one last time before we left for college, and I was like, have you listened to Lover yet, and you said no (L: Oh yeah!), so I just played the whole album while we were hanging out in my room and I was packing.
L: I was like, ooh, this is good. (K: laughs) I think that was kind of the start of my Taylor Swift… um, craze, I don’t know, for lack of a better word.
K: (laughs) If this year had been better and not, you know, crap, just a rotting dumpster fire, we would have been going to see Taylor—oh my god, in like two weeks.
L: August 1st.
K: We have tickets for Lover Fest.
L: Yeah, it would have been.
K: Oh god, I hope it happens eventually. Also, we recently—because I successfully indoctrinated Leora (both laugh)—I suggested that we watch the Reputation Tour film virtually on Netflix a little while ago, and it was really good.
L: It was amazing.
K: Cause I saw her on the Rep tour, and that was a really good—that was my favorite concert experience, but Leora didn’t get to go, so we experienced it virtually a few months ago.
L: It was so good. The production quality of the show and each of the songs was amazing to me. I remember watching it and noticing how many mics she used—one with a snake on it, some with pretty colors—and also her outfit changes. She just kept switching it up, and I was very impressed by that.
K: The Rep Tour film on Netflix, so worth a watch, right? Wouldn’t you recommend it?
L: Oh, of course, yeah.
K: It might make you into a Swiftie.
L: (laughs) It might. (pause) … It better.
K: So yeah, we both, I think, have very positive associations with Taylor’s music.
K: In a lot of different ways. And I think, more than basically every other—this is gonna be the conclusion of Taylor Swift talk for now—
L: For now.
K: I think more than basically any other pop musician working right now, her songs are really good at both building this sort of mythology around her as an artist, but also being very honest and expressing the truth and narrative of her own life in a way that people can connect to. Like her speeches on tour: she can connect with a stadium of tens of thousands of people in a way that’s insane.
L: Yeah, I always admired that.
K: But also, I think her music takes on lives of its own for her fans, and it’s really interesting and really cool to be able to interact with her music in those different ways.
L: I agree.
K: We could keep talking about Taylor Swift (L: laughs), but we should probably move on to another artist that I’m so excited to talk about.
L: Yeah, we’re gonna move on to another great artist. So, the last song of my musical journey is The Steps by Haim. This song represents my most recent listening, which has been changing rapidly! I have been exploring women in indie and pop music lately, rather than mainly listening to men in rock and classic rock, which I have been doing for years. Unfortunately, rock and classic rock is a very male dominant genre, especially white male dominant, so I have really been making an effort to widen my interests. I got introduced to Haim by Kayla a few years ago, and I did like them but wasn’t super attracted to their style or sound. But recently, I gave them another listen when their new album Women In Music Pt. III came out, and I absolutely fell in love with their new sound.
K: It’s so good!
L: I definitely changed, and I think Women In Music Pt. III is my favorite album so far by Haim. My favorite songs, along with The Steps, are Los Angeles, Gasoline, and Another Try. I recommend listening to this album full through, because each of the songs complement each other and flow so well together, and I think Kayla and I both agree that The Steps—which was previously released in March, before this album came out on June 26—sounds even better within the context of the full album.
K: Yes, totally. I’ve said this to Leora like three times at this point, but I was a little lukewarm on The Steps when it came out, and when I listened to the full album for the first time, I was like, “woah, I suddenly like this so much more.”
L: It’s so good within the context, we promise.
K: I mean, it’s a great song on its own too! We just took some time to warm up to it. I think if you listen to more rock-oriented stuff and less pop then you might get it more immediately, but it really opens up with more listens.
L: Definitely, yeah. I like Haim because they are made up of three inspiring, strong women, and like I said, I’m able to widen my circle of music by listening to them. I think that The Steps specifically is a very bold, independent song about the subject’s success and progress in life and how her boyfriend may be intimidated by it, and this message of female independence and not needing to rely on others is something that I really enjoy about Haim’s songs.
Overall, my music tastes have definitely changed and widened, I do think for the better. And although I am a new fan of Haim’s, I know I will continue to listen to The Steps and Women In Music Pt. III frequently. (pause) As much as I can. (both laugh)
Now, without further ado, this is The Steps by Haim.