It seemed only appropriate to buy the physical CD of Taylor Swift’s 1989. After all, that’s how people bought music in the 80s. I cringed when I heard the former country star had fully converted to “pop” on her latest album—a genre in which she had dabbled previously but still resisted. (I mean, lets be real: most of Nashville’s mainstream output these day is far more “pop” than traditional “country.”) But still, I dutifully sliced open the CD cover and hit the play button.
It could have been the unusually nice weather, my unnaturally ebullient mood—or the cool air-conditioner blasts blowing my hair back in my car—that caused me immediately to break into a smile when the first chord of “Blank Space,” the album’s second track, erupted from the speakers. Or it could be that Taylor Swift is a special kind of genius.
First and foremost, 1989 is a pure pop album. There is nothing revolutionary about it, and the thirteen songs are not particularly original in their content. However, there is something to be said about the nearly one-million copies sold during its release week alone. Why is it that Swift’s music continues to stand out in an industry—encompassing both pop and country—filled with thousands of artists not too dissimilar from her? Swift is something of an enigma: Her fan base has maintained a healthy growth since her first single was released nearly ten years ago. She has handled her transition from girlish ingenue to twenty-something adult, CMA-winner to Grammy-winner to VMA-winner, with such grace that it is hard not to applaud her efforts, whatever one thinks of her aesthetic output.
In an interview with CBS, Swift explained that, while people are perhaps not surprised she has gone in a pop direction, she “think[s] people [have been] surprised that [she] [has not been] honest about it.” Her statement is telling on two fronts: First, it highlights the degree to which Swift is (and has always been) conscious of her demographic appeal and the opinions of her fans. That is not to imply that she has slavishly proffered merely the music that her fans have desired, but rather that she has wisely recognized (and ratified) the importance of a genuine connection with her audience. What has always been clear about Swift’s career choices is two-fold: First, she’s staunchly independent—and her decisions regarding material, genre, producers, and “sonics” are always her own. (And, I’d argue, the young women who buy her records connect deeply with her independent—even irreverent—spirit.) And second, she’s never dismissive of her fans; rather, she seems always to coax them along with each new record, enticing them to accept (or at least acquiesce) to her latest experiments.
For Swift, transitioning to a completely new genre called for new producers and collaborators (or hit-makers), like Max Martin, Jack Antonoff, and Shellback—individuals who could give her an entirely new sonic reality. Yet, while her lyrical material has matured, the voice that made preteen girls fall in love so many years ago is still there—and it’s my sense that this appeal will ensure that her legions of fans, old and new, will embrace her latest “pop” offering.
If 1989 illustrates anything about Taylor Swift, it is that she has matured from the Nashville-raised, curly-haired, awestruck chronicler of teen love that was once the basis of her brand. Now 24-years old, she experiments with new themes and instruments, truly fearless of what her naysayers have to say. There are flashes of brilliance in this album that make the listener want to backtrack and make sure they heard a song “correctly.” For example, “Wonderland” is filled with references to Lewis Carroll’s famed story, weaving in nods to rabbit holes, the Cheshire cat, and madness. “I Know Places” takes the listener on a twisted journey through dark lyrics, such as “They got the cages, they got the boxes… and guns. They are the hunters we are the foxes… and we run.”
However, there are definitely weaknesses on the album, and there are more disposable tracks on 1989 than any of her other albums. “Shake it Off” and “Out of the Woods,” the first and second singles, spend half of each three-minute track repeating the exact same lines that express nothing especially important. Compared to other tracks, like “You’re In Love” or “Blank Space,” these two in particular feel lazy and juvenile, even for Swift. Exclaiming to her audience, ad nauseum, that she will “shake off” the “haters” is an irritating regression in her lyrical growth.
There is a definite cohesion to the songs in 1989, in both theme and in style. There is a fair balance between the upbeat, electronic-heavy songs that are nods to the 80s, and the slower ballads for which Swift is known. There are no true acoustic tracks on the album, and Swift’s use of techno beats, while true to the idea of the 80s, is a little overdone. She still draws on her (typically) failed relationships for sources of inspiration, but there are some new muses in 1989, like her love affair with New York City, as is showcased in several songs, including (not surprisingly) “Welcome To New York.”
Yes, there are some songs featured in 1989 that tend to drive the listener crazy. I would be lying if I said “Shake It Off” has not been stuck in my head, and not in a good way, for the past few months since its release. But the fact that it remains in my mind after switching it off attests to Swift’s abilities not just as a singer, but as a pop artist, and a writer. (One tends to forget, in the current pop landscape, where pop artists have myriad producers, composers, beat-makers, and such, that Swift still writes her own material.) Sure, there are some moments of immaturity in the lyrics or moments of cliches in the production values of the songs, but these instances are outweighed by the recurring joys of the album.
Critics and music fans alike have always enjoyed harping on Swift, for countless reasons—her disloyalty to authentic country music or her explicit mention of past lovers in songs. But there is a reason her past four, and now her fifth, albums have enjoyed such sustained success. There is an undeniable authenticity to Swift’s work that listeners cannot help but feel as relating to their own lives, their own travails. And there is something to be said about Swift’s positive public image that cannot hurt her album sales. Still, her success stems from more than the fact that she is a good role model. Taylor Swift actually understands what it means to be a successful, powerful, female artist in a cut-throat and male-dominated music industry. And she shows through the thirteen songs on 1989 that she is more than a one-note artist. That she is here to stay, regardless of genre, or what “category” the industry, or critics, would consign her.
Emily Spalding is a student at Collegiate School in Richmond, VA. Although she was born and raised in the South, she sees New York City as her second home. She is a self-proclaimed Northerner stuck in a Southerner’s body. When she is not writing, Emily can be found shredding on the guitar, violin, or mandolin—three instruments she has been playing for seven years. Beyond her musical prowess, Emily is an avid dancer and once gave herself a concussion from a vertical high-kick. Oscar Wilde, one of Emily’s favorite playwrights, once said that “I am so clever that I sometimes don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.” Emily finds herself in this predicament daily.