PLAYDAR: On 1989, Taylor Swift Takes a Form-Perfect Dive Into 1980s Pop
First things first: I hate that I like Taylor Swift.
You see, we share something in common: We’re both Pennsyltucky-bred projects hopelessly in love with (or fascinated by) the grandeur of life outside the haystack. I understand that T-Swift’s not being snarky when she croons about awe-inspiring, big-city lights on tracks like “Welcome to New York”—girl, I get it. But explaining that to someone who’s otherwise annoyed by her diaristic songwriting or small-town naivete inevitably seems to unearth the inner music snob in everyone—something Tay Tay herself poked fun at in Red’s “We Are Never.” Just try telling someone you listen to Taylor Swift, and suddenly they’re big fans of The Beatles or some indie group no one’s ever heard of (or cares about), and you’re the guy perceived as having Kidz Bop on repeat at work.
Point being, liking Taylor Swift can feel like a burden—especially when you feel the urge to shelter your iPhone on the subway when someone sees the fairy-princess-esque Speak Now cover art spring to life on your screen. It’s a curse that the, say, Beyoncé fans of the world never have to deal with.
But here’s the thing: What 1989 seems to accomplish—whether it meant to or not—is a softening of that stigma.
So, let me start by telling you what this is not. This is not the Taylor Swift of 2008, tear-dropping all over her guitar or donning her band uniform and fake glasses as that try-hard nerd who got snubbed by the mean girls at prom. Nor is this the Taylor Swift of 2012’s Red, anxiously straddling the line between moody country-pop acoustics and Max Martin-approved dubstep. No, 1989 is an unabashed and form-perfect dive into the universally enjoyed pop of the 1980s variety (duh), matched with the balloon-chorus pop sensibilities of 2005. If Red was Taylor Swift civil union-ing contemporary pop music, 1989 is her taking the full vow of marriage.
And go figure—it actually works.
Those fearing a collection of “22”-alikes (justifiably so) can rest assured that nothing here touches that track’s level of pop-mediocrity. All-but-certain singles “Out of the Woods” and “Style” are full-throttle pop numbers with more nuanced lyrics and confident melodies, boasting Taylor’s signature stamp of dysfunctional romance in the form of glossed-up synths and wake-the-neighborhood bass. But her sound doesn’t exactly mature here so much as it morphs. What stands out from first listen with 1989 is Taylor’s lyrical restraint—you won’t find a five- or six-minute tune like “All Too Well” or “Enchanted,” and as such, the majority of the album’s tracks lack the fly-on-the-wall specificity of those songs. Generalities abound here, but not without feeling uniquely “Taylor.” You’ll still get the drama of heartbreak with harrowing power ballads “This Love” and “I Know Places,” and schoolgirl sass on jams like “Blank Space” and Katy Perry shit-talker “Bad Blood.” The primary difference this time around is that Taylor’s learned to be concise and cohesive—and yes, a little trigger-happy with the Auto-tune.
Still, the album’s not without a few songs that do feel more experimental. “Wildest Dreams” takes more than a few notes from the Lana Del Rey Songbook for Depression, somehow managing to feel both heartbreaking and red-lip sultry with the breathy, exhaling euphoria of its chorus. Then there’s the album-closing and Imogen-produced “Clean,” which is easily the most distinct (and, I’d argue, best) of the bunch—a sapphire in a sea of topaz that oozes with sincerity and produces a rejuvenating effect that only Imogen is capable of so effortlessly manufacturing. Swift sings: “Rain came pouring down when I was drowning / That’s when I could finally breathe / And by morning, gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean.” Poetically, it caps off the album while simultaneously serving as a symbolic blank-slating for her career. Taking her previous LPs out of the picture, it’s hard to make an argument that Taylor’s pop music is any more embarrassing to be found listening to than the other pop chanteuses filling the airwaves.
And of course, with earworms like “How You Get the Girl,” “Wonderland” (that chorus!) and “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” 1989 surely wins the award for catchiest and most radio-ready pop album of the year. True, that may not be saying much, considering 2014’s not exactly brimming with sterling pop numbers. But in a fall release schedule noticeably devoid of big-pop-girl albums (a second year without a Rihanna album!?), Taylor Swift’s 1989 will do just fine.