In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Taylor Swift- “22”
PEAK: #20 on May 11, 2013
SONG AT #1 THIS WEEK: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” (feat. Ray Dalton)
The thing about Taylor Swift early on was that she acted as a kind of lyrical poet to teenage girls. Her songs were specifically written tales about the kind of situations she and other teenage girls would find themselves in. Through Swift’s songwriting talent and relatable delivery, she was able to take these personal stories and help them connect with a wide audience becoming one of the biggest-selling stars in music because of it. One of those songs was “Fifteen,” a single from her blockbuster 2008 album Fearless, which was a mid-tempo country ballad where Swift reflects on her experiences entering high school and uses it to advise girls going through the same thing. (The original “Fifteen” peaked at #23 in 2009. The recent re-recording “Fifteen (Taylor’s Version)” peaked at #88.)
Flash forward four years with Swift now in her 20s and moving away from country to pop she releases another song titled after an age. This time instead of providing her wisdom on dealing with a major milestone in growing up, she releases a very peppy song celebrating her age at the time of release and how it feels to be the titular age. What that, Swift created an anthem for an age that people would otherwise not think very much about.
Swift wrote “22” during the sessions for her Red album with Swedish songwriting and producing masterminds Max Martin and Shellback who were involved with two other songs for Red which were also the biggest hits including the #1 “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” (“I Knew You Were Trouble.” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.) In interviews at the time, Swift talked about her inspiration for “22” being the joy and excitement she felt at that age. Here’s what she told Billboard in 2012, “For me, being 22 has been my favorite year of my life. I like all the possibilities of how you’re still learning, but you know enough. You still know nothing, but you know that you know nothing. You’re old enough to start planning your life, but you’re young enough to know there are so many unanswered questions. That brings about a carefree feeling that is sort of based on indecision and fear and at the same time letting loose. Being 22 has taught me so much.”
Her Billboard comments explain a lot as to why “22” sounds the way it does. The song is less about the trials and experiences of being 22 years old but instead a party song celebrating how great it feels to be 22. Swift sings about staying up late with friends to have breakfast at midnight, dress up like hipsters, make fun of their exes, and fall in love with strangers who look like bad news. She ditches the cool hipster kids who pretend not to know her, a very early ‘10s concern, and stays up dreaming than sleeping forgetting about all the deadlines and heartbreaks of being 22. Even when singing words like miserable and lonely, Swift delivers it all with that carefree feeling she describes making 22 feel like a great age to be.
With the music, you can absolutely tell Max Martin and Shellback’s involvement on this with “22” sounding exactly what you’d might imagine early ‘10s hitmakers making. The acoustic strumming that opens the song might have you believe this would be another one of Swift’s country songs since up to that point she was still considered a country singer, she even still has some of that country twang here, but as we get more into the song it becomes clear this is far from country. The guitars become more processed and discoey, synths blare, and there’s a loud kick drum beat that anchors everything. Altogether, “22” is a perfectly OK piece of early ‘10s dance-pop.
Now, of course, Taylor Swift at 22 was far removed from the experiences of most other 22-year-olds. By this point in her life, Swift was already a hugely famous pop star who sold millions of albums and made enough money to last the rest of her life. By contrast, people at 22 are just forming their lives graduating from college while trying to find a steady job and place to live which hasn’t been easy in recent times. Yet despite this, there is some truth to some of Swift’s lyrics especially this part, “We’re happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way/It’s miserable and magical, oh yeah.” Those lines perfectly encapsulate the conflicting feelings of being in your ‘20s where you start to assert your independence as an adult while still not sure of how your life is going to turn out. Even as a world-famous celebrity, Taylor Swift is still able to find a way to be relatable to her age group.
But my real problem with “22” isn’t relatability but its cheerful nature. The sugary production and Swift’s overly-enthusiastic singing is the kind of thing that doesn’t do much for me. When Swift sings about having to get with a guy who looks like bad news, she sounds totally excited about it as if there’s no second thought or guilt about it. Also the line “You don’t know about me/But I bet you wanted to” is funny coming from Taylor Swift, one of the most high profile celebrities of our time. Maybe it was meant as an ironic jab at her image but it doesn’t make it less stupid. “22” is the kind of song that’s chipper enough where if you’re not in the mood for it, it can drive you crazy. If you’re feeling 22 then “22” will do just fine but if you’re not it can be fucking annoying.
Veteran director Anthony Mandler, who’d just come off of directing Swift’s video for “I Knew You Were Trouble.,” films “22” as a day-long celebration in Malibu between Swift and her many friends. The video starts out with them having a house party eating cake, lounging by the pool, and enjoying the sunset on the Malibu beach all while Swift and her friends perform and dance together in front of a white background with Swift donning a hipster type hat, heart shaped sunglasses, and a shirt reading “NOT A LOT GOING ON AT THE MOMENT.” As night falls, they all get dressed and glittered up with Swift putting on a cat-like dress and a tiara that looks like cat ears before walking into a very rowdy party where activities include a bicycle race on the grass and Swift diving headfirst into the pool in the video’s last shot. The video is nothing but one long party which for a song like this is all it really needs to be.
These days, “22” isn’t exactly a high-tier Taylor Swift song. Even in 2013, the song only managed to peak at #20 which was a bit of a letdown for Swift considering the Red album had already generated four Top 10 singles to that point though it went Top 10 in the UK. Swift herself hasn’t played “22” all that much mainly playing it on her Red tour along with a few shows on her Reputation tour and other performances. Obviously, a song as age-specific as “22” doesn’t hold a lot of weight for Swift nearly a decade older now but as she plans to re-record Red it’ll be interesting to hear how those feelings Swift explained to Billboard about being 22 still hold up to her.
Oh, another thing: I turn 22 today. I don’t know about you but I don’t feel any different at 22 than I did before.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2013 episode of New Girl where Jake Johnson tries to console Zooey Deschanel after her breakup by dancing to “22:”
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2013 Diet Coke commercial showing Taylor Swift writing “22” with random people singing the song throughout:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: There’s a funny bit on a 2016 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver where Oliver quotes “22” in making fun of Virginia congressman Don Beyer for holding a fundraiser at a Taylor Swift concert. I can’t find a specific clip of it but you can watch the whole segment here: