In 2008, Taylor Swift released “Love Story” and quickly got her first taste of crossover success. Looking back, Swift’s swift climb to super-mega-stardom, which started six years ago, seems like it must have been inevitable, but it is more likely a result of the compelling brand and style Swift has created for herself and how she rigorously controls every aspect of her music and her career. With 1.287 million copies sold in just the first week, the best-selling week in the industry since 2002, 1989 is a fantastic example of what Swift has done and can do. It is also a fantastic album to listen to.
Musically, the sound of 1989 is as carefully constructed as Swift’s career. For several tracks, Swift recruited the help of Max Martin and Shellback, the Swedish producers behind several successful hits released in the past decade. Under the duo’s careful direction, the album is predominantly electronic. Drum programming and synthesizers carry nearly all the tracks. 1989 feels processed, much more so than anything else Swift has recorded. These instrumental choices give the album the 1980s feel Swift was looking for--a radically different sound from Red and also different from most songs on Top 40 stations today. Many similar singers are singing hip-hop or borrowing heavily from it, but not Swift. There is not a single rap on 1989.
This processed feel works works best when the music contributes to what Swift is trying to communicate lyrically. The seedy themes of “Style” are matched by the musical choices that make the song sound cool, dark, and sexy. The driving, heavy drum beats in “Bad Blood” bring home Swift’s anger. However, on tracks like “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” the same choices do not connect as well, leaving the track sounding fake.
Vocally, the strongest performances come when, despite of the new sound, classic Taylor shines through. Tracks like “How You Get the Girl” could never be mistaken for another artist because of how true she remains to the Taylor Swift voice that made her famous. Conversely, as much as I personally enjoy “Wildest Dreams,” it is impossible to listen to the song without hearing an imitation of Lana Del Rey. Swift’s vocals have never been her strong suit, but she has always found success by using this weakness to convey meaning and develop her unique brand.
One of Swift’s trademarks has always been writing her own songs and writing them about her own life. Decoding Taylor Swift lyrics is one of America’s favorite parlor games.You can’t just listen to her music; you have to listen for something. She knows that this is part of her success story and wisely continues her biography in 1989. But, as always, her songwriting habits have benefits and detriments. “Cause you know I love the players/And you love the game” perfectly sums up everything Taylor wants to say in “Blank Space.” But her biographical themes can yield clunky lyrics. This is particularly clear on tracks like “I Wish You Would.”
Perhaps the biggest overall theme of 1989 is how she has matured. This album is not Taylor the Victim, at least not entirely. More than anything, she makes fun of the victimization that has been a hallmark of her career. This is particularly evident in the two music videos she has released so far from 1989. In “Shake It Off,” Swift inserts herself into a variety of subcultures, all of which do not seem to quite fit her, but she isn’t complaining about that anymore; she’s shaking it off.
In “Blank Space,” Swift takes on the break-up/boy-crazy trope that has always characterized her song writing. The lyrics alone speak to this, but the craziness Swift brings to the music video is fantastic and even uncomfortable. The video shows her picture perfect love story (rendered with painstaking detail, as usual) that descends into jealousy, rage, and destruction; this is classic T-Swift. What sets “Blank Space” apart is her flippant acceptance of this cycle, because by the end of the video, she has a new boytoy to fill her blank space. Is this how Taylor Swift really runs her love life? Based on her recent lack of romantic interests, the answer is probably no. Rather, she is lampooning the narrative that has both propelled her to fame and boxed her in.
Overall, 1989 achieves most of what Taylor Swift was aiming for. More than that, it’s a fun album for the listener. It’s fair to describe it as the perfect pop album, not because it’s perfect, but because Swift has given thought to every last detail. She has always been an artist in full control of her sound, her career and her image, and 1989 is perhaps the best example of this so far.