Taylor Swift may have premiered the video for her new single “Mean” Friday night on CMT, but don’t be surprised if the video pops up on VH1; directed by Declan Whitebloom from a concept Swift herself envisioned, the clip’s crossover appeal practically guarantees the song (already a Country Top 10) a much broader pop audience.
The song’s lyrics are boilerplate “aspiration in the face of bullies” but delivered with enough charm and power that they maintain their power despite cliché. In particular, the sheer glee Swift takes in her prediction of a vengeful fate (“And I can see you years from now in a bar/ Talking over a football game/ With that same big loud opinion but/ nobody’s listening/ Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things”) is especially effective—reminiscent of the “graph of a jock’s life” speech Late Night with Jimmy Fallon announcer Steve Higgins gave as A/V teacher Mr. Fleck on the series finale of Freaks and Geeks.
Swift’s stagey treatment for the video recalls Crash Test Dummies‘ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”, as the stories of a teenage boy into fashion, a teenage girl in an unfortunate employer-mandated star costume, and a girl wearing the “wrong” ribbon color play out under bright stage spotlights and painted backdrops.
But it’s Swift herself who makes the video work. In the first place, as a success, she acts as proof of her predictions. Her and her band’s transformation from down-home bluegrass band to the toast of 1920s Broadway (plus her silent-film damsel-in-distress sequence) keep her style rooted firmly in the imagined past, as suits a country artist, while narrating her crossover from Nashville to New York, which is to say, into the mainstream. It’s “Gotta Dance” from Singin’ in the Rain, condensed to mere seconds.
And beyond that, her position as a success story allows her to take passive-aggressive shots at those who’d criticized her (a tactic she uses elsewhere on Speak Now). “All you are is mean/ and a liar/ and pathetic”: are the referents of these sassy addenda specific and historical? It doesn’t really matter; the mere fact that the listener doesn’t know makes the attacks feel twenty times sharper. The tactics of teenage gossip turned against gossip by a pop star barely out of her teens? Well done!