It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say I feel like I’m the only person who managed to escape Taylor Swift’s domination of the music world. I first discovered her music with 2008’s Fearless, an album I thoroughly enjoyed, but by the time 2010’s Speak Now rolled around, I just didn’t click with her music. In the years to come, Swift would skyrocket to unprecedented levels of fame, with her public and private life under intense scrutiny. It all quickly became (and quite frankly, still is) too much to handle. It can be hard to like a person’s music when you don’t find that person particularly appealing, and I balked at the media’s portrayal of Swift as a lovestruck blonde, hopping from lover to lover leaving only the hit records she penned in her wake. As a result, my exposure to Swift’s life and her music was tangential – sure, I heard “I Knew You Were Trouble”; it was inescapable. I never really had a desire to purchase it, though, or check out her releases as a whole.
After hearing “New Romantics” on the radio, I remember asking myself “is this a Taylor Swift song?” It sounded like her voice, but everything else seemed so…unlike the image I had of her in my mind. I found “New Romantics” stuck in my head, and a few days later when the same thing happened with “Wildest Dreams”, I realized that 1989 was calling my name through the radio waves. I decided to pretend 1989 was one of the other albums from emerging artists I find in my inbox, and I left my preconceived notions of Taylor at the door and gave it a spin.
I’ll give Taylor credit – she manages to somehow be both an album and a singles artist. 1989 was released in 2014, and in 2016 is on its seventh single with “New Romantics”. Both the album and its singles have dominated the charts. “Blank Space” seems to poke fun at the media’s image of Swift, although she’s not denying it, either. It’s a wonderful tribute to modern day love, of quick relationships with little substance. The song’s quotable lines are a tumblr dream come true, and the stylish video fits the mold as well. In the clip, Taylor is young and free, clever and insane, and it really is a daydream (and not at all a nightmare.)
“Style” is a much more Taylor Swift-ish song – with uber romantic lyrics that borderline on cliche (“James Dean” gets tossed around a lot). It fits her brand and mold nicely, but there’s nothing exciting or memorable about the track for listeners that weren’t already fans of Swift’s to begin with.
1989 continues with “Out of the Woods”, and Swift takes a much more cinematic approach to the song’s production and accompanying video. There’s something unexpected about the juxtaposition of the swooping, dark production and the retro-hipster lyrics like “We were lying on your couch, I remember you took a Polaroid of us then discovered: The rest of the world was black and white, but we were in screaming color.” The video’s production value is astronomically breathtaking, and it is a work of art that truly elevates the track to new heights, like a good music video should.
Swift masters the art of ending a relationship on “All You Had To Do Was Stay”. As difficult as she finds it to maintain a lasting relationship, Taylor refuses to let a guy back in after he leaves her; this isn’t the way she wanted things. It’s a refreshing change of pace to see Taylor in control and rejecting a lover’s attention (even though she admits he once had her in the palm of his hand.) There’s a real growth both lyrically and stylistically on the track.
With 1989‘s breakthrough lead single, “Shake It Off”, Swift is in all of her awkward glory, calling out her detractors and not letting them phase her. It’s a bit juvenile and detracts from the overall maturity that was beginning to flourish on “All You Had To Do Was Stay”, but the song is spared by its incredibly wonderful spoken interlude and bridge that continue to show a new side to Swift. In the lighthearted clip, Taylor does her best Miranda Sings impersonation while paying visual homage to other famous blondes like Lady Gaga and Hollaback Girl era- Gwen Stefani (and let’s not forget Swan Lake!)
Taylor finds herself longing for a past love on “I Wish You Would”, a well-produced and catchy track, even though it doesn’t do much to take Swift’s writing to new levels. “I Wish You Would” does feel more intimate than the more happy-go-lucky love songs on 1989, but “All You Had To Do Was Stay” is a notch above it. Swift departs completely from her usual lovestruck trope for “Bad Blood”, and while the thematic change is welcomed, the track as a whole is mostly problematic.
A song about a friendship gone sour, “Bad Blood” is not uplifting like a typical Taylor Swift track. The chorus is generic and Swift’s shouting style of singing just doesn’t work. The yell-singing and background screams are all too on the mark, and “Bad Blood” sounds more like a caricature as a result. It’s also far from being Swift’s best written track; the only memorable lyrics come on the bridge, and even they fade from memory before the track ends.
Swift teamed up with a horde of powerful females (and Kendrick Lamar) for “Bad Blood”‘s video – Selena Gomez, Hayley Williams, and Zendaya, among others. While “Bad Blood”‘s video walks a fine line between being a slick collection of short clips of its guest stars and telling an actual story, Lamar’s vocals on the remix of the track are a welcome addition that save “Bad Blood” from feeling too stale and unoriginal like the album version.
With “Wildest Dreams”, Swift ascends to pure dreamy pop, with arguably one of the best songs in her discography. There’s a wonderful imagery to her lyrics on the track, and the visual world created by “Wildest Dreams” is matched with its music video. A raven haired Swift harkens back to old Hollywood, with an opening scene that sees her looking like Elizabeth Taylor in Giant. Like “Out of the Woods”, the video for “Wildest Dreams” elevates the track with its beautifully crafted, sleek storytelling.
Swift stumbles into ultra-generic territory with “How You Get The Girl”, a would-be roadmap for guys describing how to win a girl’s affection. Unfortunately for Taylor – no straight male is likely to be listening to her music voluntarily, and the ultra-bubblegum “How You Get The Girl” is just too on-the-nose; like “Bad Blood”, it’s more of a caricature of a Taylor Swift song than one to be taken seriously. It’s trying too hard, but not in the usually charming and awkward way you’d expect from Swift.
1989‘s only track to be written solely by Swift, “This Love” is about coming back to a relationship that feels like destiny. This is an insightful track to who is the real mastermind behind Swift’s ingenious records – Swift’s solo writing is burgeoning, but just. It’s apparent that the more experienced writers she works with have provided the perfect polish to songs like “Blank Space” and “Out of the Woods”. The verses Swift pens are pure poetry, but the chorus is forgettable and the song as a whole feels a bit paint-by-the-numbers.
“I Know Places” feels like an LGBT anthem, but given Swift’s song’s autobiographical nature, this is more likely about paparazzi dodging. Swift compares her much-scrutinized love to being hunted like a fox on the track which has a dark, pounding production that makes the song feel catchy and dangerous enough to distract from the fact it’s ultimately a self indulgent track about being famous and desiring privacy – hardly something Swift’s target audience will find relatable.
Swift sings about getting over heartache in “Clean”, and while comparing her love lost to recovering from alcoholism (“Ten months sober”) might be a bit suspect, the track ultimately feels fresh and beautiful. It’s no surprise that Imogen Heap produced and co-wrote the song (and provided background vocals). “Clean” describes the feeling when you have an epiphany and realize that you’ve gotten over your heartbreak. This track closes the standard edition of 1989, and it certainly ends the album on a positive note.
As for the deluxe edition’s bonus tracks, “Wonderland” uses Lewis Carroll’s famous story to offer a trippy tale of a toxic relationship. The chorus is infectious, and the nods to Carroll’s works are cleverly done, but “Wonderland” is ultimately a bonus track for good reason. The same goes for “You Are In Love” – with Swift’s past, she seems unlikely to know what true love is, and the song’s clunky verses border on cliche and even cringeworthy.
The true reason to buy 1989‘s deluxe edition comes at the very end with “New Romantics” – a track so wonderful Swift released it as a single. An extremely frank and tongue-in-cheek Swift confronts the apathetic approach her generation has towards love. She’s no longer in a dream world longing for her Prince Charming nor burning her ex’s photos – she’s reveling in her new outlook on life. If this is the direction Swift plans on taking her career, I’m down.
Ultimately, 1989 offers a new side to Taylor Swift, even though at times it rehashes her old territory. The album’s perfectly picked singles have guaranteed its success and cemented the album as a defining moment in Swift’s career. While 1989 isn’t perfect from start to finish, the high moments far outweigh the lows, and1989 is a memorable album that has surely kept her fans satisfied and even earned her some new ones – myself included.