Just after midnight today, Taylor Swift dropped the new song that she wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber for the upcoming film version of Cats, and like most cat droppings, it is best approached with caution.
The film version of Lloyd Webber's 1981 stage musical, adapted from a 1939 book of kitty-themed poems by T.S. Eliot, is set to premiere on December 20. Universal Studios has kept a tight lid on the actual contents of the movie, so each new revelation has been met with intense scrutiny. Public reaction to the movie's CGI merger of celebrity personas and small, digital-furry bodies has been, as they say, mixed. (The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum described the trailer's aesthetic as "Uncatty Valley".)
Lloyd Webber and Swift's original song, titled "Beautiful Ghosts," is unlikely to dispel the sense of baffled unease that Cats has inspired to date.
Here is the song:
And here is the problem:
"Beautiful Ghosts" is a bad song. It has a gentle, softly melancholy melody by Lloyd Webber, but Swift's lyrics clank with banality at nearly every turn of phrase. “T.S. Eliot is such a specific type of writer and uses such specific language and imagery, and so reading through, like, his work and everything, I just really wanted to reflect that with it,” she said in a featurette that Universal released in October. "You can't write a modern lyric for Cats. So, like, if you can't get T.S. Eliot, like, get T.S. [i.e. Taylor Swift]." Yet what Swift has written is in fact very modern in style, and its language, generic and thin, has no relation to Eliot's. (Eliot: "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each / I do not think that they will sing to me." Swift: "Is this hope just a mystical dream?")
In that same featurette, Swift and Lloyd Webber discuss their writing process. “I played it to you and I said, ‘There's a new song,’" Lloyd Webber recalls to Swift. "You said, ‘I’ll do the lyric’ and you did it then and there, more or less.” Then and there. More or less. "I watch from the dark, wait for my life to start," wrote Taylor swiftly, and who in the room had the nerve to say no to this superstar and box-office attraction? No one, it seems, because "Beautiful Ghosts" reads very much like a rough first draft. Over and over, it gives us sloppy semi-rhymes—"home" and "known," "cling to" and "into," "ago" and "ghosts"—where either perfect rhymes or no rhymes at all would be better. Swift is a pop songwriter, and in that world a looser approach to rhyme is common. But in musical theater, and certainly in the Eliot poems that form most of the lyrics to Cats, the standard of craftsmanship is more exacting. Set against the rest of the show's verse, "Beautiful Ghosts" stands out like a sore paw.
It also seems to make little dramatic sense. In the film, "Beautiful Ghosts"will not be sung by Swift's character, the party cat Bombalurina, but by Victoria, a street kitten played by English ballerina Francesca Hayward. And it will function, believe it or not, as a retort to the musical and emotional high point of Cats: "Memory." As Swift put it in an interview: "I knew it would be right after Jennifer Hudson sings ‘Memory,’ and a young little kitten reflects off what she just heard and gives her sort of her counter point of view. Because ‘Memory’ is Grizabella singing about how she had all these beautiful, incredible moments in her past…I just wanted to get in the head of the character if she was hearing someone lamenting about wonderful, majestic, incredible times, an extraordinary life behind her. And a young person thinking, ‘What if I never have any of that in my life? What if that’s lost on me? What if I don’t get that ever?'"
Even this brief vision of Victoria is inconsistent: She laments both that she was "born into nothing" and that "Maybe my home isn't what I had known" (which evokes a more comfortable life in the past); and her takeaway from the song "Memory," in which Grizabella sings about her memories, is somehow that "the memories were lost long ago." But more importantly: Does Cats really need a bitter corrective at that moment in its kinda-sorta-story? And does that corrective, that plaintive cry of "But what about me?," need to draw so directly, so flatly, from the imagery of "Memory" itself? How will that not detract from Grizabella's big moment? One worries.
I am not a Taylor Swift hater—she's a talented woman, though inexperienced in this kind of writing—nor am I some kind of Cats purist. And don't get me wrong: Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is not a great work of poetry on a par with, say, "The Waste Land" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." (It is a cute exercise in silliness that sits at the classy end of a range of anthropomorphized-cat comedy that includes, at lower stations, I Can Has Cheezburger? and New Yorker cartoons of cats on shrinks' couches.) But when Cats's original director, Trevor Nunn, wrote the lyrics for "Memory," he had the good sense to draw from other Eliot poems: "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," mainly, and a pungent snippet ("burnt-out ends of smoky days") of "Preludes." Nothing in "Beautiful Ghosts" approaches them.
Anyhow, Cats will be in theaters next month, and we'll all know more about it then. For now, here is the great Betty Buckley singing "Memory."