A sense of frustration lies at the center of “1989,” and it is not of a variety one has ever encountered on a Taylor Swift album.
Yes, the singer-songwriter unveils some angst over a relationship (presumably with Harry Styles) gone wrong. Yes, the music phenom directs ire at a rival female (believed to be Katy Perry). But the frustration at the core of Swift’s new album is not directly tied to her personal life. It is not fueled by a lack of respect from a segment of the critical community.
Rather, Swift’s drive seemingly stems from an incongruity between her stature in the mainstream music community and the ubiquity of her music.
When it comes to popular music, there is no star as big as Taylor Swift, and there has not been one capable of filling her shoes for a while. She garners immense attention from the media. She moves millions of copies of her albums. She fills stadiums around the globe.
She is not simply someone everybody knows; she is somebody about whom everyone has a clear understanding and strong opinion. Her face and voice are instantly recognizable. Her personality and musical proclivities are easily dissected. She is the epitome of a pop superstar.
But either despite that stardom or perhaps because of her unique presence as a pop juggernaut, her music–and particularly that released to mainstream radio–tends to operate at a distance from the pop community. It has occasionally been very successful. It has occasionally been very buzzworthy. It has occasionally been ubiquitous.
That success, however, almost always comes with elements of qualification. The songs, many will argue, succeeded because of Taylor Swift’s involvement, not because of their inherent appeal. The songs, many will argue, garnered buzz and recognition because of the gossipy lyrical targets rather than the quality of those lyrics or the strength of the music.
While those arguments are subjective, there is a very objective disparity between her stardom and their performance. Songs like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” performed well, but pop-friendly releases like “The Story of Us,” “22” and “Everything Has Changed” petered out in ways recent songs by pop radio darlings like Maroon 5 simply do not.
One could not even begin to discuss the last decade in popular music without devoting significant attention to Taylor Swift. One could, however, get by without spending too much time on her individual singles.
Particularly vexing about that reality is the fact that the country radio, despite some ill-will concerning her transition into a more overly pop sound, continued to embrace her music. Not everything was guaranteed a stay at number one, but her singles, by and large, occupied the country format in the way her persona–but not necessarily her music–occupies pop.
On new album “1989,” Swift allows that frustrating, annoying situation to transform into ambition. It is an attempt not simply to deliver a great, cohesive album. It is an attempt not simply to achieve more uniquely personal and emotional connections with her listeners. It, most notably, is an attempt to solidify her music as the sound of a generation. It is a statement that she is not only the biggest name in pop but also the creative force behind pop’s biggest songs.
To get into position for that strike, Swift re-teamed with heavyweight pop writer-producers Max Martin and Shellback, enlisted the help of pop hitmaker and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, collaborated with friend and prolific alt-pop musician Jack Antonoff (fun., Bleachers) and dialed up quirky pop artist Imogen Heap. She severed ties with country (and thus removed any asterisks or qualifications from her effort) by declaring “1989” her first official pop album. And she introduced the project with her most lyrically innocuous, commercially polished single to date in “Shake it Off.”
All logical, respectable and seemingly harmless tasks, the collective reality of the situation requires a rather significant compromise. In so aggressively and ambitiously chasing unadulterated pop dominance, Swift was, for the first time, writing to a sound rather than utilizing sounds as tools for broadcasting her personal messages. And insofar as her signature invocation of vivid, specific imagery, anecdotal storytelling and frank emotional conveyance is more fundamentally country than it is pop, Swift was absolutely going to have to abandon some of her old self in an attempt to meet the demands of the new sound.
Whether measured at its best moments or its worst moments, “1989” operates at a clear distance from any previous conception of Taylor Swift. The lyrics, while perhaps rooted in real life stories, convey emotion from an uncharacteristically broad and conceptual perspective. The individual narratives and messaging, while all originating from the mind of the same singer-songwriter, lack cohesion and can even be contradictory (good luck reconciling “Shake it Off” with “Bad Blood”). The songs’ characters, while almost surely intended as representations of Swift and others she knows, are generic prototypes rather than naturally flawed, nuanced human beings. The presentation, while very obviously from Swift’s unique voice, feels filtered for the sake of being more overtly universal.
What listeners will encounter on “1989” is not a Taylor Swift album that happens to be poppy. It is Taylor Swift’s calculated attempt to develop a credible pop album.
But while the “1989” experience is fundamentally different from that of its previous albums, it is not necessarily weak from a musical standpoint. And it is certainly not unsuccessful in its overall goal.
From top to bottom, and through its highs and its lows, “1989” functions as an album that is both startlingly consistent with the sound of contemporary pop music and different enough to feel like the work of a true superstar. It demonstrates that while Swift might have carved a unique niche with her previous approach to pop-country songwriting, she is a legitimate musical powerhouse whose appreciation for melody, awareness of tone and articulation of emotional sentiment is second to none.
With its fierce, punchy chorus beats and intoxicating central riffs, the production behind songs like “Blank Space” and “Style” could realistically create hit records for many upper echelon pop artists. Few, however, would able to navigate the songs the way Swift does.
Aware of when to swim with the current (she completely captures the 80s action movie vibe on “Style”) and when to swim against it (her delicate, Ingrid Michaelson-inspired delivery clashes with the bolder, hip-hop inspired tones on “Blank Space”) is not performing others’ creations. She is expanding those creations with a sense of savvy and personality unrivaled by others in the pop music space.
As dialed into her flaws as she is to her strengths and ambitions, Swift uses “How to Get the Girl” as a mulligan for underperforming “Red” single “22.” Crafted from the same sensibility, the track nonetheless relies on a more calculated, less conversational lyrical perspective and a significantly more resonant chorus to present itself as something that absolutely could be a hit.
Swift makes no attempt to hide the Lana Del Rey influence on “Wildest Dreams,” but she also recognizes the vast distance between her own aesthetic and that of the “Summertime Sadness” singer. As such, she wisely attacks the track with a more frank, conversational and innocent vibe that captures the emotional gravitas in a manner true to her signature persona.
Despite the involvement of long-time collaborator Nate Chapman, “This Love” is more constricting and processed than the epic ballads that populated her albums “Red” and “Speak Now,” but Swift compensates for the limitation with the album’s most haunting, emotional and tasteful vocal presentation. Swift’s recognition that she can use her vocals to turn a bottled composition into a tidal wave of emotion similarly garners the Imogen Heap-co-written “Clean” an important place in Swift’s discography.
The biggest–and most unavoidable–compromise associated with a transition to pure pop involves the lyrics, and there is no denying Swift made that sacrifice on “1989.” The precise imagery, cute anecdotes and clever references are as lacking as they have ever been on a Swift album, and the result is an artist who is harder than usual to know and a set of storylines that are harder than usual to visualize.
What Swift did not abandon, however, is the lens through which she conveys her messages. The lyrics for “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” in particular, come directly from Taylor Swift’s playbook. They might not rely as significantly on her signature storytelling devices, but they absolutely reflect her authentic perspective.
Her conversational, pre-chorus asides in “Blank Space” present corny sentiments (“I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”) with Swift’s signature self-awareness, while the spoken-word/chanted bridge in “Shake it Off” rolls its eyes at the type of conversational interplay that supposedly passes for authentic in young women.
While not as snarky, “Style” features the same carefully constructed clash between the wondrous and the jaded, depicting a woman who is able to curb her fantasies with the barriers of reality.
Surely owing to their legitimate friendship, no songs, however, are as faithful to Swift’s lyrical style as her collaborations with Jack Antonoff. Their “Out of the Woods,” which shined upon its promotional release and holds up as the album’s standout, is Swift’s most successfully application of her lyrical voice to an ambitious pop production. And while their “I Wish You Would” swallows Swift from a rhythmic standpoint, it does play host to common Swift tropes like “2AM” and being in “your car.”
Unfortunate insofar as “I Wish You Would,” lyrically, so notably reflects the most familiar iteration of Swift, that clash between Swift and production is far rarer than one might expect for an album as aurally ambitious as “1989.” The only other such failure is “I Know Places,” which finds Swift emulating far too many vocal and lyrical styles–including those of Lorde, who realistically should have been tapped to sing the second verse–to create even a hint of comfort.
While the requisite lyrical broadening did not prevent Swift from leaving her stamp on the album’s standouts, it did allow for some total failures. Whereas Swift’s lyrical sensibility has historically been enthralling enough to overcome limitations in the composition and production, the transformed version on “1989” steers two potentially promising tracks in the wrong direction.
“Welcome to New York,” which features the rhythmic and melodic elements needed to be a successful New York anthem, fumbles in the lyrical department. Swift’s words are neither personal to her nor specific to New York City, and the result is a track that serves to overstate the extent to which she needed to mute her personality for this album. Tragically placed at the top of the tracklist, it spurs undesirable–and inaccurate–pessimism about the level of honesty resting within Swift’s first official pop album.
On previous Swift albums, there was always an enjoyable “game” associated with identifying who she was targeting in her honest, aggressive, yet coyly protective diss tracks. Had Swift not explained “Bad Blood” in an interview prior to the album’s release, it is doubtful anyone would have even discussed it.
Supposedly a response to a female artist (purportedly Katy Perry) who, after a period of subtle, backhanded digs attempted to sabotage her live tour, “Bad Blood” features the most generic, emotionally disconnected lyrics ever included on a Taylor Swift album. Comprised only of broad generalities and weightless sentiments there for no other reason than to sound interesting (“band-aids don’t fix bullet holes”), “Bad Blood” does nothing to unpack the incident–or resulting emotions–for viewers. That the lyrics are presented with vocal indifference in the verses and a grating quality in the chorus does the song no favors.
And it is a song that, from a production standpoint, realistically should be a force at radio.
The album’s two key misses help to define what “ambitious” means within the context of “1989.”
Accepting more modern, forceful, swallowing production in an effort to create music more independently appealing to the pop community is only one half of the battle. For someone like Swift, who has always used sound to enhance her message rather than a message to enhance a sound, there is also an additional battle: assuring that message is not completely silenced in the process.
Not all of Swift’s songwriting tendencies will work on a pure pop album. But everything should still feel uniquely reflective of Taylor Swift.
The good news is that the majority of “1989” achieves that goal. It finds Swift doing no more alteration than is needed to fit the overall essence of the album. It also proves that Swift’s sense of melody and confident, yet vulnerable delivery can indeed synthesize with masterful production to produce legitimate pop music.
The album’s few weak spots, however, prove that the adjustment is not complete. Much in the way Swift needed “Fearless” to perfect the youthful, down-to-earth vibe of “Taylor Swift” and then “Red” to better articulate the epic emotional resonance of “Speak Now,” the singer-songwriter will need additional time to complete the transition to pop.
What “1989” proves, however, is that Swift already has the raw toolset required for that transition. It proves that Taylor Swift is not simply capable of making pop songs that fit into the contemporary scene but ones that stand above–not merely beside–those being created by other pop superstars.
“1989” is not a seamless, organic evolution of the Taylor Swift listeners met on “Taylor Swift,” “Fearless,” “Speak Now” and Red.” But if its goal was to position her music at the top of the pop world, it is very successful.
Taylor Swift’s “1989” is now available.
1) Welcome to New York
2) Blank Space
4) Out of the Woods
5) All You Had to Do Was Stay
6) Shake it Off
7) I Wish You Would
8) Bad Blood
9) Wildest Dreams
10) How You Get the Girl
11) This Love
12) I Know Places