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no body, no haim

Like all the Swifties of the world, I spent last Friday breathlessly awaiting evermore, the surprise sequel to Taylor Swift’s indie folk record folklore. Like the presumably sizable subset of Swifties who are also fans of the pop rock band HAIM, I was thrilled and curious to hear them in collaboration, one perhaps long overdue. The Haims’ friendship with Swift is well-known and well-covered by the magazines; their quasi-sisterhood, I thought, would make the song especially meaningful.

By midnight I was sleepy and decided to only give evermore a full listen if I liked the first few tracks, which I then skipped out of a burning desire to hear “no body, no crime” before anything else. Its two-line opening, sirens and Danielle Haim’s deep, stoic “he did it,” immediately sparked promise, as did the first line of the verse — “Este’s a friend of mine” — in spinning Swift’s real-life friendship with Este Haim into a story. But dread steadily ensued: HAIM would not return past 0:12 save for in each chorus, their voices contained within faint harmony. The only exception was Danielle’s quiet spoken echo in the middle of the bridge, responding to Swift’s call for “Este’s sister” to support her alibi. With a sass stifled by the brevity of her speech, Danielle confirms, “She was with me, dude.”

The problem with this Swift/HAIM collaboration, then, is that it wasn’t one. As much as Swift sings about Este, she is mentioned more than she is ever really heard, her character disappearing from the story alongside her own voice and Danielle’s. As a friend put it, the backup vocals of “no body, no crime” — a mellow country ballad of adultery and murder mystery — could just as easily have been sung by Swift herself; HAIM’s singular, breathy sound is hardly audible and upsettingly compressed. Another friend offered that the band might have played the instrumentals for the track, justifying their relative vocal absence, but the album credits state otherwise. (Alana Haim is also noticeably absent from the track.) So give the Haims a verse, we say, give them the bridge, for goodness’ sake!

The disappearance isn’t just auditory, but also stylistic and technical. Here HAIM sings in tertian harmony, a practice standard, Swiftian, and unlike the denser, pluckier layers they are known to combine — notably in “Leaning On You” from their latest album, and the choruses of most of their songs. The swingy, Underwood-esque “no body, no crime” is hardly a match for HAIM’s punchiness. It’s hard not to feel that other songs of Swift’s — “The Man,” “Out of the Woods,” or even the rhythmic, drum-led “long story short” and “closure” — could have yielded a more fruitful arrangement. 

Principally, HAIM is not a backing band. Sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana have proven to be prolific songwriters and dynamic performers, each with their own signature instrument and distinct voice. To include them on any song and not grant them a share of the musical limelight would be a grand opportunity missed. Charli XCX knew this, as did Twin Shadow and Vampire Weekend.

Swift’s relegation of HAIM to this supporting role, moreover, is as predictable as it is troubling. The only three women bands who have featured in Swift’s serpentine discography, each unique and compelling in their own right, were each not granted their own slice of the song. From country icons the Chicks’ suspiciously soft backup vocals in the lullabying, not-that country “Soon You’ll Get Better” to Colbie Caillat’s soothing yet never spotlighted harmonies on the stirring “Breathe,” these collaborators have sat comfortably in the background of Swift’s own dominant melody. 

Meanwhile, every other artist — which is to say, dude — that has featured on a Swift album was given a solo or two, as well as simply the volume, for their own timbre to mix into the music. Swift’s longtime friend and partner in pop crime Ed Sheeran features heavily on “Everything Has Changed” and “End Game,” as does Bon Iver on “exile” and “evermore,” all of which are essentially duets. “The Last Time,” “Bad Blood,” “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” “ME!”, and “coney island” similarly single out the voices of Gary Lightbody (of Snow Patrol), Kendrick Lamar, ZAYN, Brendon Urie, and The National. Sugarland and Little Big Town are ostensibly the only other bands with women who have collaborated more evenly with Taylor Swift, though exclusively on their records and not hers; the former’s “Babe” was cut from the final selection of songs to be included on Red

What might this imbalance suggest for a celebrity who has repeatedly championed the artist’s ownership of their art (presumably also when there are multiple artists), one whose “girl gang” has been applauded (and better, critiqued) for its necessarily “feminist” example? Swift has suffered from and been outspoken on the music industry’s tradition of handing the microphone to men. And yet here she appears to do the same, perhaps reflexively, being surrounded by men in the studio and on stage for much of her career, or perhaps knowingly, caught in the trap of female competition and choosing to partner with more different voices, and reach more disparate fanbases, than her own. As intimate as most of the collaborations and mythical lyrics in evermore may be, distance between Swift and HAIM remains the most noticeable feature of the sixth track.

“If we consider [something] important, we have to critique it rigorously,” suggests literary critic Lauren Oyler. She’s talking about books, but this method extends to anything you put your time and love toward. Having devoted much of mine to Swift’s discography and public persona, to every essay about her and every demo she’s shared, I’ve lately struggled to resolve my own criticism of her music. Steamrolling ambient art doesn’t make you think and feel anything new; it rather numbs and reinforces an existing affect. Nor is Taylor Swift’s music entirely so; there is much to be mined from her repertoire, one that has made people cry, dance, wonder, and love perhaps more than it has made their ears glaze over. But the same and more can be said of the fun, brazen, and immensely talented HAIM, and they deserved better this time.

Becky Zhang is from Hong Kong. She studies English and Computer Science at Pomona College.

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