Jackson McHenry: Hello, we’ve gathered here like the Jellicle cats on the night of the Jellicle Ball for a momentous occasion: the release of Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s grand musical collaboration, “Beautiful Ghosts,” a song for the movie Cats. For a little context, this is what will play over the end credits of the digital fur technology–filled Christmas movie that’s seemingly designed to break our minds, though Taylor wrote the song specifically for the character of Victoria the White Cat (played by Francesca Heyward) to sing in the movie, as a response to that big ballad, “Memory.” It’s also written in the style of T.S. Eliot, because as Taylor herself put it, “If you can’t get T.S. Eliot, get T.S.” But are the beautiful ghosts any good? Vulture cat and Cats-lovers and haters, please weigh in.
Kathryn VanArendonk: Look, we’re gonna talk about the actual music of this song, but I just need to start by tackling the hilarious, bonkers nonchalance of the art design of this video. The stars fall … upward? And there are what are probably supposed to be London-ish cityscapes. And then, unexpectedly, there on the rooftop, the alarming and yet apparently totally reasonable silhouette of … a person/cat. I’ll never recover.
Madison Malone Kircher: I cannot decide what is more haunting. The “I watched The Parent Trap and now I’ve got a British accent” vibes of the way she pronounces chances as “chohhhnces” or the weird voice flip at the end of Taylor screaming “FREE!” Somebody on Twitter did a thread of all the times she does that thing on her last album and called it the “Crack Antonoff,” a name which has also haunted me.
Rebecca Alter: CHONCES.
MMK: Yes! Rebecca! CHONCES!
Nate Jones: As someone who grew up in a part of Pennsylvania not so far from Wyomissing, I always found Swift’s newfound Southern accent slightly hilarious. But as someone who also affects a slight British accent within seconds of meeting anyone from the U.K., I can empathize with some of her vowel sounds here.
JDF: I liked “chonces” because it looks like “chonks” and then I picture a big fat cat, lying on its back, waiting for tummy rubs.
RA: A word most pleasing to mine ears. The creativity that that has! There is a “Beautiful Ghost” haunting Europe — the “Beautiful Ghost”… of communism.
KV: Help me out just in a reading comprehension sort of way: What is this song about? There’s ghosts, and they are beautiful. But also she’s not going to be haunted anymore? There are memories, but also, no more memories?
JDF: Dead cats. The song’s about beautiful, dead cats.
JM: Kathryn, sadly I can help you there, because I watched a whole interview about this where Taylor explains that her idea is that Grizabella sings her whole song about “Memory” (which to be fair, already has lyrics that do not make sense — “touch me, it’s so easy to leave me”???) and wanted to have Victoria, the young cat, explain that hey, at least Grizabella has beautiful ghosts, which are memories? And Victoria is expressing that as a young cat, she wishes she had those experiences? Anyway, Grizabella has had a pretty hard life on her decline from once being the cool glamour cat and literally wants to die to be released into cat heaven throughout most of the plot of the show, so exactly how beautiful are these ghosts we’re talking about?
JDF: I literally cannot imagine what someone would expect from a song Taylor Swift co-wrote with Andrew Lloyd Weber for a filmed version of Cats, other than this. She achieved the assignment. It’s like, “I can’t believe the song Taylor Swift wrote for the film version of Cats is corny. What’s next: Billie Eilish is going to write a song for a Nightmare Before Christmas reboot that’s spooky?!?!”
RA: Thank you, Jesse! There are dozens of us.
MMK: There are two of you.
KV: I can’t get over the sense that the lyrics are basically Cats/Andrew Lloyd Webber mad libs, arranged in phraselike patterns. “But I feel so alive / with these phantoms of night / and I know that this life isn’t safe / but it’s wild and it’s free!”
MMK: We taught a neural network to write a Cats song!
JDF: I feel like more blame should be placed on ALW, considering he has a history of writing songs like this, where this is Taylor’s first song for the musical Cats.
JM: To be fair, we should also discuss ALW’s infamous resistance to writing music with any sense of a typical or even specific performer’s natural vocal range. “Beautiful Ghosts” seems to be written for someone who can let loose and belt, and Taylor Swift has many wonderful talents, but she’s not that person.
MMK: What do you mean? Evita is totally singable.
JM: Patti LuPone would
like love to talk to belt at you about that.
MKK: I would
like love to talk to belt at Patti LuPone about that. Patti, call me. Christian Dior me!
KV: There are many, many egregious moments of unsingability in this song, but my favorite is the very end when Taylor has to sing “dance with these beautiful / [enormous and ridiculous breath] / GHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSTS!”
JDF: This is unrelated, but actually not: Do you remember the featurette for Into the Woods where Sondheim talked about getting Anna Kendrick to sing “On the Steps of the Palace”?
RA: Tay is competing in an age of “risky high notes,” sometimes you gotta get cocky. I think the “Ghost” is her leaping for that note and falling off a cliff. And the trying and failing? That’s what makes the ghost “Beautiful.” Did nobody read the annoying tweetstorms about What(™) Camp(™) Means(™) during the Gala this year?
MMK: Sometimes anything resembling a vibrato helps, in the absence of cockiness.
JM: Well, if you’re going to go for that angle, then you have to commit with true Idina Menzel levels of ambition, where failure is a regular occurrence, and yet part of the fun. ALW, write a high E flat into “Beautiful Ghosts”!
MMK: To get very particular this taps out around a … B I think? “Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology” Mezzo-Soprano/Belter Book 1 hive please back me up, this is not as hard as the shouting here might indicate.
RA: Let it ghooooooost, let it ghoooooooost!
JM: Either way, the tension of watching Taylor having to sing this live while Idina tries to sing “Into the Unknown” live will make the Oscars so much more thrilling. We have to assume this’ll at least be in contention, right? I guess it’ll all make Beyoncé’s performance of “Spirit,” the song from The Lion King, A Beyoncé Project, stand out all the more.
JDF: Just played it for my cat. Her review: “She doesn’t sing about dry food enough.” To be fair, that’s her review of all music.
KV: My cat’s review of this song: “Please stop laughing at whatever this is because I am trying to sit on your lap, thank you.”
RA: Problem here is you’ve gotta grade this song on a curve. The curve being “songs from Cats.” That’s what makes this a solid B.
JM: My question is whether it’s better than “You Must Love Me,” the song that Evita didn’t need but then got because Madonna was in it now and ALW wanted an Oscar. That’s not the highest bar to clear, but I don’t think “Beautiful Ghosts” passes it. ALW has already gotten that Oscar, so maybe the ambition isn’t there.
KV: On this, my fourth time through the song, I’ve suddenly realized that she also somehow sings the word “born” with a British accent. So it’s not just chonces!
RA: “Bwahhwn into nothing …” The accent really makes it a spiritual successor to “London Boy,” uh, innit?
MMK: Cats, don’t threaten me with a good time!
JM: We have to remember that Taylor isn’t even singing this in character in the movie, because she’s Bombalurina, and Francesca Heyward, a very successful Royal Ballet dancer who I can’t find clips of singing, is Victoria. Is Taylor trying to make Francesca’s accent? Will Francesca’s version be even better? Is it a Demi Lovato “Let It Go” and Idina Menzel “Let It Go” situation? We have to wait until we’re let into the extremely delayed Cats press screenings to know.
RA: Okay, now that it’s been entire minutes since I heard it, it’s playing in my head to the tune of Jesse McCartney’s “Beautiful Soul.” Demoting it to a B- because it’s not as good as what Jesse McCartney would have written.