In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Taylor Swift- “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
HIT #1: September 1, 2012
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
Funny how things change. On “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the first #1 hit for country turned pop superstar Taylor Swift, Swift sings “And you would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine” which is a sassy dig towards her ex-boyfriend and his snobby taste in music. Fast forward almost eight years and Swift has just released her latest album folklore which Stereogum’s Tom Breihan describes as “an indie record that’s not remotely worried about being cool.”
Hearing all that would have been weird in 2012 considering this is Taylor Swift, an artist who makes every album and song a pop culture event writing music that’s personal but also big-sounding guaranteed to stick in your head once you hear it. Even by this point, she had already perfected it to great success which comes through in her first #1 that came at a transitional time in Swift’s career.
Taylor Swift was only 22 when she first hit #1 but had already accomplished a lot in her short time. Born and raised in suburban Pennsylvania as the daughter of banking execs, Swift showed an interest early on for music. (The #1 song the week of Swift’s birth: Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”) Inspired by the music of pop-country divas Shania Twain and Faith Hill, Swift set her sights on a career in country music learning guitar, writing songs, and shopping demos around to various labels in Nashville where her family relocated. At 14, she signed with RCA Records to a development deal working with seasoned songwriters in Nashville but left the label shortly after. With many labels rejecting Swift for being too young, she finally got her break when former record exec Scott Borchetta, who after seeing her performing at an industry showcase, offered to sign Swift to his new independent label Big Machine.
With Big Machine, Swift was now able to get her career going and with the release of her 2006 self-titled debut album it took off right away. The album wound up selling over seven million copies topping Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart with all its five singles landing in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart with two of them “Our Song” and “Should’ve Said No” hitting #1. The album even managed to crossover to the pop market peaking at #5 on Billboard’s overall 200 album chart and its five singles peaking in the Hot 100 Top 40 with two of them “Our Song” and “Teardrops On My Guitar” peaking in the Top 20.
2008’s Fearless did better barely outselling Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed A Dream to become 2009’s best-selling album and won the Grammy Album of the Year award. It further pushed Swift into the mainstream with its first single “Change” breaking her into the Top 10 peaking at #10. (It’s a 6.) Three other singles from Fearless also hit the Top 10 with the #4 peaking “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me” becoming her highest-charting single yet peaking at #2, and the title track peaking at #9. (“Love Story” is a 6. “You Belong With Me” is a 5 and “Fearless” is another 6.) Swift also peaked at #2 with 2010’s “Today Was A Fairytale” a single from the soundtrack to the romantic comedy Valentine’s Day which she also starred in. (It’s a 4.)
With 2010’s Speak Now, Swift took to writing every song by herself to reflect a new personal direction. The direction worked with Speak Now becoming another big seller moving over a million copies in its first week, a rare feat in the 21st Century. The album also continued her hit-making streak with its lead single “Mine” peaking at #3 and its follow up “Back to December,” arguably one of her best songs, peaking at #6. (“Mine” is a 5. “Back to December” is an 8.)
By this point, Taylor Swift had become well established in country music even though her canny ability for pop hooks and production made her just at home in the pop mainstream than country which probably explains her massive early success. Of course, the history of country music is full of artists who straddle the lines between the country establishment and pop mainstream but Taylor Swift was different. Past country acts have crossed into pop while still maintaining their country connections but Swift eventually outgrew them. It also helped that her lyrics often touching on her teenage and young adult experiences became poetry for many fans. That all started to change with her next album Red.
As Swift was seen as the relatable songwriter for young girls, her life was quickly becoming a never-ending soap opera with the countless famous men she dated making it prime fodder for the tabloids to exploit. Starting with Speak Now, her songwriting started to reflect this new lifestyle often dropping subtle clues for people to dissect who she was singing about. It’s this approach that began a tired out punchline that Taylor Swift only writes songs about breakups and dates guys to break up with and write songs about. And of course, there was the infamous Kanye West VMA incident from 2009 that will be relevant to a future #1.
That breakup inspired writing comes through on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the lead-off single for Red. In an about-face from the solo writing of Speak Now, Red featured Swift working with pop masterminds Max Martin and Shellback. During one of their sessions, a friend of Swift’s ex-boyfriend walked into the studio talking about a rumor that she and her ex were rekindling their relationship. After he left, Swift told Martin and Shellback the story of their relationship which eventually led to the writing of “We Are Never Ever” in 25 minutes. Many speculate the song is about her ex, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who Swift had recently broken up with, but as always Swift is mum about specifics.
In an interview with USA Today, Swift talked about “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” as a direct jab at her ex for putting her music down, “It’s a definitive portrait of how I felt when I finally stopped caring what my ex thought of me. He made me feel like I wasn’t as good or as relevant as these hipster bands he listened to…So I made a song that I knew would absolutely drive him crazy when he heard it on the radio. Not only would it hopefully be played a lot, so that he’d have to hear it, but it’s the opposite of the kind of music that he was trying to make me feel inferior to.” Pretty sure we all know someone like that.
This type of back story feels appropriate for a song that’s about being annoyed while also proudly shoving it into someone’s face. Swift spends the song describing an on again off again relationship where they fight and break up while her ex continuously tries to get back with her. Getting all fed up, Swift proudly proclaims that they are finally through and on the bridge does a spoken dialogue in the vein of Britney Spears on “Oops…I Did It Again” where she portrays a phone conversation with a friend further driving the point of the song across.
Swift has never been a powerhouse vocalist but she delivers the song in a conversational and sarcastic wit that makes it feel real and relatable especially with her teenage audience at the time. It certainly feels like what a young girl would say and do when trying to kill off a relationship. When Taylor sings the title, it sounds like she’s excited to be done with this guy and isn’t afraid to hide it, “WE-EEE.” Despite that, “We Are Never Ever” marks a change in Swift’s persona moving from the girl next door personality that made her famous to a more celebrity-based image. That’s not the only change.
Red is clearly the sound of an artist in transition and that’s how this song feels. There’s not really a genre you can identify “We Are Never Ever” as. It’s certainly not country with its processed acoustic guitar lead, thumping electro beat, and loud synths. It certainly sounds like an attempt to capitalize on the dubstep craze in 2012 but it doesn’t feel like that either. The best way I can describe the song is that it sounds like an early draft of the high energy synth-pop that would come to define her later on but even that doesn’t feel right. “We Are Never Ever” exists in this genre-free zone where country, dubstep, and synth-pop all intersect without being any of these things.
Swift’s label did release a countrified version of “We Are Never Ever” to country stations leading it to spend nine weeks on Billboard’s Country charts. It marked the first time since Lonestar’s “Amazed” in 2000 where a song was both a #1 Hot 100 and #1 country hit. On the country version, the song isn’t much different only that instead of electronic production we get more live instrumentation with acoustic guitars, drums, fiddles, and banjos all over it giving the song an arena feel. It’s more country than the original but it further highlights the crossroads Taylor Swift was in 2012. She was still seen as a country artist even as she was carefully making her move away from it.
Before I go further, I should point out that I am not a Swiftie. Granted, I’ve never been in the target audience for Swift’s music so that shouldn’t be a surprise. While there are some songs from her that I do like there are also many that I can’t stand. Part of it is my personal experience as my sister and best friend were big fans at the time so I’d hear her songs a lot. I wasn’t a big listener to modern pop music back then so hearing her bright and catchy sounding songs didn’t do much to turn me on. And another part of it is that some of her songs are legitimately not good including this one.
Swift certainly succeeded in making “We Are Never Ever” as annoying as possible because I’ve never liked this song, like ever. Even listening to the song for this column hasn’t changed my opinion much. Like with a lot of Taylor Swift songs, it sounds competently made hitting all the big notes it strives for and it’s fine in that regard. My problem is the tone of the song which has a feeling of teenage immaturity all over it that I can’t stand to hear. Hearing these lines delivered in this annoying teenage girl inflection turns me off from any enjoyment. And hell, maybe your ex’s indie record is cooler than yours. The song only feeds into the public perception at the time of Swift solely making music about her breakups.
I’d be remised if I didn’t mention about “We Are Never Ever’s” honestly ridiculous music video directed by Declan Whitebloom. Swift is singing with her band dressed up in furry animal costumes while performing in various locations like Swift’s apartment, a coffeehouse, a club, and a park all while we see her dealing with her ex-boyfriend. The whole video was done in one take and no edits with Swift going through five costume changes. As Swift herself recalled, “The costume changes were really hectic. [We did them] in real time; it was crazy. At one point, I had a breaking point. ‘I can’t do five costume changes, there’s not enough time!’ but we ended up being able to do it.” The video certainly looks impressive given its backstory but it doesn’t change the stupidity of it all.
My problems aside, “We Are Never Ever” did its job in continuing Taylor Swift’s success while also bringing her to a new level of fame. It helped anchor the Red album to massive success selling over three million copies in 2012 to become the year’s second best-selling album behind the year-old 21 by Adele which was already 2011’s best-seller. The album spawned three more Top 10 hits which further highlighted the musical crossroads I mentioned. “Begin Again” is a reflective post-breakup country ballad and it peaked at #7. (It’s a 6.) The album’s title track, a solid country/arena rock fusion that’s another song reflecting on a relationship, peaked at #6. (It’s a 7.) Lastly, “I Knew You Were Trouble.,” which peaked at #2, is a pop-rock/dubstep fusion of regret that arguably represented the path forward for Swift in her music though another annoying one. (It’s a 3.)
We’ll be seeing more of Taylor Swift in this column and by the next time we talk about her she’ll have dropped all pretenses of being a country singer hitting her imperial phase as a result.
BONUS BEATS: The YouTube channel teddiefilms did a Breaking Bad parody of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” called “We Are Never Ever Gonna Cook Together” in 2012. Here’s their video:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Back when they were assembled together on the American version of The X Factor, Fifth Harmony performed “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” on a 2012 episode. Here’s the video:
(Fifth Harmony’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Ty Dolla $ign collaboration “Work From Home,” peaked at #4. It’s a 1. As a lead artist, Ty Dolla $ign peaked at #15 with the 2016 Suicide Squad multi-artist collaboration “Sucker For Pain.” Ty Dolla $ign though will eventually appear in this column as a featured artist. Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello will also appear in this column eventually as a solo artist.)
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