- Big Machine
By Gibson Johns, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 26, 2014
Taylor Swift recently moved from Nashville to New York City. She craved a change in scenery that would match her new outlook on life: an outlook devoid of famous ex-boyfriends and full of famous girl-friends, an outlook that required her to cut her hair and look effortlessly put-together at all times, an outlook that saw her finally make the switch from country to pop. And it’s an outlook that is not-so-subtly evident on her fifth album, 1989.
To be sure, Swift’s in-your-face approach to her newfound pop persona works tremendously well. Throughout 1989 we hear a Taylor Swift that is more confident, bold and self-aware than ever before. It’s clear that she knows exactly what she’s doing. Her welcoming embrace of pop freed her from the constraints imposed on her by the “country” label, she’s experimenting with new sounds, intonations and writing techniques.
The 13-track album begins with “Welcome To New York,” a love song co-written with Ryan Tedder that pays homage to, you guessed it, The Big Apple. If 1989 had been filled with 13 songs like this, it would have been an uninspired disappointment — the lyrics play on clichéd ideas of being young and independent in New York City and the production, though technically sound, presents nothing that new. But by predictably opening 1989, her first pop album, with a song about moving to New York, Swift feeds into our expectations only to immediately turn around and shut them down. “Took our broken hearts / Put them in a drawer,” she declares. And on the rest of 1989, though she opens that drawer a few times, she proves that her heart is anything but broken.
On the ironic “Blank Space,” which follows “New York,” Swift directly acknowledges these expectations and the image of her that have been constantly perpetuated in the media (“Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane”). She’s in on the joke and she doesn’t really care if you believe her or not. This sentiment is also echoed on the album’s first single, “Shake It Off,” which is another direct call at her haters who, regardless of what she does, will continue to “hate hate hate.”
Most of 1989’s standout moments are the ones during which we hear Swift’s voice in settings where we haven’t heard it before. On “I Know Places,” her voice is eerie and pointed in its verses but as soaring and hopeful as ever in the refrains. “Wildest Dreams” sees her channeling Lana Del Rey’s enchantingly drowsy vocalization in a call to past lovers to remember her. “I Wish You Would,” one of two songs written with fun.’s Jack Antonoff (who also happens to be the boyfriend of Swift’s pal Lena Dunham), would fit right in with the late ’80s electro-pop that Swift said inspired most of the album.
Perhaps the most anticipated track on 1989, “Bad Blood,” lives up to its hype. The foot-stomping, hand-clapping, anger-fueled track was written about a fellow female popstar, who’s all but confirmed to be Katy Perry, that apparently scorned her unprovoked (something tells me John Mayer, an ex they both share, had to do with it). It’s a clear single candidate and represents a rare example on 1989 of Taylor doing what we have come to expect from her in the past — singing songs written about famous exes (friends and boyfriends) in a tongue-in-cheek manner, baiting us into guessing who they’re about. The funky “Style,” another probable single, also exemplifies this Swiftian tendency, albeit (again) not-so-subtly. Let’s just say there’s only one member of One Direction that she used to date and who essentially shares a surname with the song’s title. While 1989 excels by playing down this celebrity callout style of song, what it’s lacking is another quality of songwriting that has become classic Swift: that of little, personal details that accentuate the imagery in her music.
Part of what made Taylor Swift’s previous work so special were those instances where she got so specific with her writing that, at least on the surface, it appeared as though we were present in those intimate moments with her. Though we do get some of that on 1989, like on the building ballad “Out Of The Woods” when she sings about “[moving] the furniture so we could dance” and “Remember when you hit the breaks too soon? / 20 stitches in the hospital room,” there is markedly less detail here than on her past efforts. Is this a result of Swift’s heavy collaboration with pop mastermind Max Martin? Probably. But it’s also not necessarily a negative. Sure, we all loved that knack for detailed lyricism that characterized Swift’s first four albums, but what we get on 1989 is more honed-in songwriting and more complex lyrical structure. We get songs that are more universally relatable. In other words, what we get is massive, glorious, no holds barred pop.
There was a lot riding on 1989. Swift’s break-up with country music was risky and had the potential to turn away loyal country fans. The aggressive marketing and social media presence surrounding its release implied that there is something to be wildly excited about. The troubling decline in music sales this year only increased that pressure (as did the fact that Swift’s last album, Red (2012), is the most recent album to sell over a million copies in a week). But, just like she knows exactly what people think of her and her image and her music, Taylor Swift knew this. So she delivered.
1989 is as fresh a pop album as we’d ever hope of having the pleasure to listen to, especially these days when producing a cohesive album seems to be the last thing many single-track-minded pop stars have the intention of doing. It may have been inspired by an era of pop that ended 25 years ago when Swift was born, but it brings something new and something much-needed to the mainstream pop landscape.
Taylor Swift: the pop star who will never go out of style.