On the surface, the fact that Taylor Swift named her new album “1989” and the fact that she is now drawing musical inspiration from 80s pop and New Wave are merely coincidental.
Using one’s birth year as an album title might symbolically imply some sort of return to one’s roots, but for an artist who made her name singing straightforward pop-country songs over straightforward pop-country production, a foray into heavily constructed, atmospheric pop realistically represents a massive departure from one’s established identity. Save for small hints of the era’s sound on recent album track “State of Grace” and on soundtrack composition “Sweeter than Fiction,” there is nothing overtly “80s pop” about the Taylor Swift who wrote and performed the songs from 2006’s “Taylor Swift,” 2008’s “Fearless,” 2010’s “Speak Now” and 2012’s “Red.”
But music is not merely about the superficial. While taut production, repeatable lyrics and catchy hooks–all of which often grow from the garden of the shallow–might be what establish a particular song with the audience, true artists recognize those qualities as mere instruments. They are tools–bridges, perhaps–for conveying one’s true identity and true feelings to the masses.
An 80s arena pop song that captures–and communicates–the sentiment behind Taylor Swift’s notoriously personal lyrics, therefore, might be a more true to her identity than a more contemporary, straightforward song that restricts Swift to simplicity.
Consider lead “1989” single “Shake it Off.” Easily Swift’s most straightforward, effective, successful, accessible, catchy and well-produced track to date, it also mutes much of what had previously defined Swift from a lyrical perspective. Save for a brief nod to her personal life and a sassy spoken-word/rap section, “Shake it Off” does not feel like it belongs to Swift. And if Swift’s unique poise, charisma and delivery were not so hard to replicate, one would not be wrong in suggesting that any major pop superstar could have smashed with the track.
While not a country song, “Shake it Off” is far closer to Swift’s usual sound than any “80s pop” song could ever be. Yet when juxtaposed against her new “80s pop” song “Out of the Woods,” it is clearly the inferior medium for communicating her lyrical voice.
Featuring heavy synth artillery, a deep, atmospheric percussion line and the jittery production that has become the signature of track collaborator Jack Antonoff, “Out of the Woods” checks off all the boxes required of a modern reproduction of the 80s pop sound. It, meanwhile, checks off none of the boxes required of an authentic Taylor Swift song.
Until one actually listens to the words and processes the melody.
From the raw, yet vivid storytelling, to the open showcasing of emotion, to the seamless interjection of metaphor she has been honing since “Speak Now,” to the way she transitions from verse to chorus (“And I…”), Taylor Swift is wholly true to herself on this song. She never leaves any doubt that the new sound and production style are simply new–and improved–means of allowing her to present that true self rather than components of a “new Taylor Swift.”
What has always been remarkable about Swift’s songwriting is her ability to extract the big from the small. In the grand scheme of things, many of her stories about cute boys, mean boys and friendships might seem petty and trivial. But to the individual who lives through those occurrences–whether it is Taylor Swift, a passionate fifteen-year-old fan or a casual sixty-five-year-old listener–they can carry the intimidating and seemingly infinite weight of the world. Those turning points in one’s life, no matter how small from a macroscopic perspective, drown her in seas of varying–and conflicting–emotion. They are never small or insignificant to the person going through them, and few songwriters are more faithful to that reality than Taylor Swift.
If the production and overall essence of “Out of the Woods” change anything for Swift, they finally give her some help. Instead of having to rely on the weight of her words–and subtlety in her vocal tone–to convey the hugeness of life’s moments and fleeting emotions, Swift now benefits from a wave of sound that truly captures that hugeness.
Swift has always worked to be simultaneously personal and universal. “Out of the Woods” allows her to fulfill that objective in a way few would have expected–but anyone absorbed in her hauntingly personal story or the colossal, surrounding music will be able to accept.