Taylor Swift hits the big city
Taylor Swift set the tone for 1989, her fifth studio album, with the album’s first single, “Shake It Off”: The video shows Swift trying to fit into industry molds, but eventually ends up just dancing with her fans. The whole album is more self-aware than her past work — Swift knows her reputation and isn’t afraid to talk about it in 1989.
In “Blank Space,” Swift sings that she’s “Got a long list of ex-lovers/They’ll tell you I’m insane.” In “Shake It Off,” she sings that “I go on too many dates/But I can’t make them stay/At least that’s what people say.” The whole point of 1989 is to actually “Shake It Off.”
She’s not done writing songs about her exes, however. Depending on who you ask, about half the songs on the album could be about One Direction member, and most recent ex-boyfriend, Harry Styles. Still, 1989 is the first of Swift’s album that feels like it’s really all about her.
In the album’s opening track, “Welcome to New York,” Swift repeats (and repeats, and repeats) “Welcome to New York,” appropriate given the multimilliondollar Tribeca penthouse Swift purchased earlier this year, moving in next to neighbors like Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow. In early October, select fans got a sneak peak at 1989 when Swift threw a penthouse pizza party and private listening session.
1989 makes it clear that Swift is a long way removed from the pop-country sound that initially made her famous. 1989 replaces the banjos and country twang of Swift’s first album with synth intros and pop radio beats. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who listened to Red, which, although it kept the instrumentals, made it clear that Swift was done playing the grown-up country girl. 1989 transcends the modern pop-country genre she helped popularize with her first few albums, still common on the charts in songs like Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” or Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel.”
For the most part, 1989 feels like the right balance of Hot 100 pop and the emotional connection that first endeared Swift to her fans. Only a few songs feel like empty-headed radio fodder, like the annoyingly catchy “Welcome to New York” and “Out of the Woods,” which feels on the third or fourth listen like the same two lines stitched together for three minutes and 52 seconds straight (“Are we out of the woods yet?/Are we in the clear yet?”).
Swift hasn’t lost the strong vocals that catapulted her from Myspace wannabe to industry mainstay. In the voice memo for “I Know Places,” included in the deluxe version of the album, she sings a few lines sans postproduction and proves that she doesn’t need a recording studio to sound good.
The only place the synths fall flat is in the ballads. No one does a power ballad like Taylor Swift, but 1989’s “You Are In Love” and “Wildest Dreams” feel more like momcore soft rock than heart-rending anthems. Swift doesn’t come close to matching the emotional build of Speak Now’s “Haunted” or the damning chorus of Fearless’s “You’re Not Sorry.”
1989 is about Swift’s fans, too. Beyond the early release penthouse pizza party, Swift features her fans in the video for “Shake It Off,” and has spent the past week “#Taylurking,” or reposting pictures of her fans buying up 1989 taken from their Tumblr or Twitter accounts. This is a product of Swift herself, who is more personable on her Twitter and nascent Tumblr than any PR manager could be. Her strong, I’m-just-like-you voice comes across in her music, and although Swift doesn’t completely write her own songs like she used to, her influence is still strong.
While Swift spoke for thousands of teenage fans in her first four albums, she couldn’t help but occasionally sound petty. In Speak Now’s “Better Than Revenge,” Swift sings of a female rival who’s “better known/for the things that she does on the mattress,” and no one will forget the iconic line “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts” from Fearless’s “You Belong with Me.” Songs like these caused a fair amount of outcry when third-wave feminists began to decry slut-shaming and oppressive, gendered school dress codes. Over the summer, however, Swift labeled herself as a feminist in an interview with The Guardian, after denying it back in 2012.
Granted, it’s hard to be popular without making it clear that you’re for gender equality. Just look at Beyoncé, who reached near-cult leader levels of popularity with the surprise release of her eponymous album, which explicitly embraces feminism as a theme. Or look at Shailene Woodley, the Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars star who took a nose dive after telling TIME magazine in May, when asked if she considered herself a feminist, “No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”
The change of heart shows itself on 1989; it feels much less girl versus girl and more girls versus their oppressors. In “I Know Places,” Swift tells her listeners that “They take their shots, we’re bulletproof.”
Swift isn’t singing that “We are never, ever, getting back together/like, ever” anymore; instead continuing in “Clean” with “And that morning, gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean/I think I am finally clean.” It feels like Swift has finally taken some me time, and it feels right.
1989 isn’t perfect, but it’s far from falling flat (it has, after all, already sold an impressive 1.3 million copies, give or take). Swift loses some of the emotional clout of her previous albums and sometimes strays a little too close to the army of interchangeable female pop vocalists surrounding her, but she still has the voice that captured her fan base early on. She finally feels like an adult — not to mention a self-labelled feminist — and it shows in 1989.