Over the past five or so years, few artists have displayed progression and growth more interesting to watch than Taylor Swift’s. In 2008, she was a global superstar with a multiplatinum album and a few world-conquering singles. In 2009, she was the Grammy darling. In 2010, she did the unthinkable for a pop artist of her stature and wrote an entire album without a single co-write. In 2012, she released her most ambitious work to date with a record that hopped half-a-dozen genres and showed immense growth in songwriting craft. And this past summer, she announced arguably the biggest move of her career so far by bidding farewell to country and fully embracing pop music.
In some ways, Taylor’s move to pop wasn’t terribly surprising. The biggest singles from 2012’s Red, “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” were both deliriously catchy pop gems, while 2010’s Speak Now was arguably just a pop album dressed up in organic full-band country arrangements. But for an artist who got her start in Nashville and who always made storytelling the core of her songs, the news that Swift was going to go full pop on her fifth album—titled 1989—truly was shocking.
Because Swift really has always been a country artist. One with a stockpile of hooks and the voice and look of a pop star, sure, but also one who always found her best moments in a twangy chorus or an acoustic ballad. The idea of an artist like that leaving country behind was a risk because it threatened to rob her of the things that have always made her most special: her honesty, her vulnerability, and her relatability. The thought of Swift trading all of that for streamlined, larger-than-life 80s pop had myself and many other fans worried, because we weren’t sure how she would translate her appeal into such a new setting without airbrushing all the quirks, flaws, and stories that have always made her so compelling and unique.
One listen to 1989 proves that those fears were unfounded.
The remarkable thing about Taylor Swift is that, even though she’s probably the biggest music star in America right now, she has never seemed fake. She’s never been afraid to write candidly about her relationships or about the things going on in her life, and she’s never made an attempt to be someone or something else in pursuit of mainstream success. Arguably the biggest accomplishment of 1989 is that it mostly carries those superlatives forward. These songs are still more streamlined than her past work, of course. For one thing, they rely more on catchy choruses than on striking lyrical verses. In other words, you shouldn’t expect any couplets here to be on the level of “And there we are again in the middle of the night/We’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” But Taylor still crams an awful lot of herself into these verses and choruses, to the point where most of these songs hit a new sound, but are still unmistakably her.
Take the lead-off single “Shake it Off,” a horn-infused hook-fest that is essentially about not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks. “I go on too many dates, but I can’t make ‘em stay/At least that’s what people say,” Taylor chuckles in one of the song’s early verses, before launching into the chorus: “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate hate…I shake it off.” It’s not a unique message, and the song itself—complete with a cheerleader breakdown section in the bridge—is shallower than usual Taylor Swift fare. Still, the melody is nothing short of infectious, and there’s enough of Swift’s usual charisma on display to bring down a skyscraper. The song is a winner.
But while “Shake it Off” shoots off the “words can never hurt me” message in gleeful fashion, the rest of the 1989 makes it clear that what the tabloids say does bother Taylor Swift. That was already evident, of course: Swift has essentially stopped dating since Red because she was tired of her love life being made into a spectator sport. And that fact made many people wonder about what kind of stories she would tell on this record. After all, how many people have accused Swift of being a bad songwriter because she “only writes about her relationships”? Or made unfunny jokes like “Don’t go out with her, or she’ll turn you into a song”?
On the best songs from 1989, Taylor is more or less throwing up a middle finger to the people behind those comments, and the result is one of the most exhilarating pop albums in years. She does it in two ways: first, by writing great songs that aren’t about her broken heart; and second, by spitting out venomous lines about how fucking tired she is of becoming the gossip rag punching bag. “You look like my next mistake/Love’s a game, wanna play?” she quips on album highlight “Blank Space,” dropping line (“Let’s be friends, I’m dying to see how this one ends”) after biting line (“Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”) about her own tabloid image.
On paper, those lyrics read like Swift stoking the fires of her critics. You know the type: the people who say she hops from celebrity boyfriend to celebrity boyfriend, actively seeking heartbreak and strife so that she can exploit it and turn it into woe-is-me pop music. But the way she delivers phrases like “I can make the bad boys good for a weekend” or “I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name” is sarcastic, self-deprecating, and more than a little bit aimed at protest. And Taylor should protest. It’s a sick and stupid double standard that she gets called out and dehumanized for writing songs about her relationships when virtually every artist of all time, from classical composers to modern folkies, does the same exact thing. “Frankly, I think that’s a very sexist angle to take,” Taylor said recently in a radio show interview. “No one says that about Ed Sheeren. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life and no one raises a red flag there.” Amen.
Swift’s justified frustration manifests itself over and over again on these songs, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to call 1989 her “rebellion against fame record” as a result. The fascinating thing, though, is that, even when she’s rejecting the worst parts of being a pop star, she’s doing it in the middle of her most irresistibly pop-centric album ever. For example, on the Jack Antonoff co-written “Out of the Woods,” she finds herself second-guessing her own relationship, wondering if her romantic entanglements are doomed to fail because of who she is and what she does. “Looking at it now, last December/We were built to fall apart/And fall back together,” she sings, before asking the song’s core question: “Are we out of the woods yet?” Are we past the point where this thing falls apart? Again? There’s more than a little bit of bitterness in these lyrics, but you could hardly tell from the music, a relentlessly catchy nighttime drive of a track that splits the difference between Savage Garden’s “I Want You” and Bleachers’ “Rollercoaster.”
The radiant hooks continue throughout the duration of 1989, from the M83-flavored “All You Had to Do Was Stay” to “Style,” a song that is almost certain to get stuck in your head after just one listen. But even when Taylor is making a record where literally every song could be a single, she’s baring her soul as much as she did on Red. On “This Love”—the album’s lone ballad, and the only track produced by Taylor’s old partner-in-crime, Nathan Chapman—she sounds like someone halfway through a wine-drenched night of heartbreak and regret. “This love is good, this love is bad, this love is alive, back from the dead” she intones, her vocals multi-tracked in ghostly fashion to each speaker. When she mutters a line like “Tossing, turning, I struggled through the night with someone new,” it’s maybe the most heartbreaking moment of her catalog.
Part of it is Chapman’s production, which pulses with electronic drumbeats and pure unadulterated pain, ripped apart with desperate cries from the disembodied Swifts in the background. But the other part is Taylor’s vocals, which have leaped forward once again on this record. After spending most of the album belting out huge choruses and giving 100%, she cuts back here with a beautifully fragile delivery. On that particular line mentioned above, she sounds about five minutes away from coming apart entirely. She’s desperate to fall in love; to find the right person; to get away from all the scandal and find a real-life fairytale with all the vivid feeling and care that she sings about in her songs. But on “This Love,” she’s wondering if she will ever find that given her current line of work, and it’s fucking devastating.
That “This Love” is sequenced right next to the primal “I Know Places” only hammers that point home further. “Something happens when everybody finds out” Taylor sputters angrily in the song’s first verse, before rocketing into a hazy hunter-and-hunted game between herself, her lover, and the flashing lights of the paparazzi’s cameras. “I know places we can hide,” she claims in the chorus. But as we’ve learned throughout the rest of this record, true escape from the limelight or from the judging eyes of strangers is only ever temporary for Taylor Swift.
1989 is not a perfect album. While Taylor manages to fit her own unique narrative into most of these songs, there are moments where she falls into the natural traps of writing a full mainstream pop album. Case-in-point is the Ryan Tedder co-written opener, “Welcome to New York,” a catchy-but-shallow pop song that essentially plays as a repetitious loop of two choruses. It’s an enjoyable enough track, and it’s a fitting place to start, given that Taylor’s current chapter is very much informed by her move to the big city. But the song simply doesn’t have a lot of personality. It sounds like something that could have just as easily been on a Katy Perry album or an Avril Lavigne album, and it’s the only time on the record where the co-writing feels truly faceless.
Max Martin, Swift’s main confidante this time around, does a much better job at tailoring his assembly line of hooks to fit Taylor’s strengths and stories. However, some of the Martin tracks don’t quite hit the mark, either. The worst offender—and arguably the worst track Taylor has ever put on an album—is “Bad Blood,” a grating tune that was supposedly penned as a takedown of Katy Perry. On an album about trying to escape the hearsay that has poisoned her life, it just seems odd that Swift would want to write a song about a celebrity beef. Also a bit disposable is “Wildest Dreams,” a dreamy slow-burn that sounds like Taylor’s attempt at writing a Lana Del Rey song. Del Rey is an interesting influence for Taylor to adopt, but the song ultimately feels too imitative for its own good, and Swift’s authorial voice gets misplaced in her struggle to sound like someone else.
Arguably the record’s best co-write, though, doesn’t belong to Martin or Antonoff, and certainly not to Tedder. Instead, the award goes to Imogen Heap, who helps Taylor deliver four and a half minutes of ethereal magic to end the record with “Clean.” “You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore,” Taylor utters in the first few moments of the song. It’s the best line on the record, and it kicks off a finale that captures all of 1989’s themes in heartrending fashion. When Taylor says she’s “finally clean” in the chorus, she’s not talking about an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Instead, addiction serves as a metaphor here for Swift’s long cycle of relationships in recent years. And while she’s stopped dating and gotten “clean” to avoid all of the gossip and bullshit, it’s a sacrifice she’s not entirely happy with.
“10 months sober, I must admit/Just because you’re clean doesn’t mean you don’t miss it/10 months older, I won’t give in/Now that I’m clean, I’m never gonna risk it.” The bridge gets right to the heart of the matter: Taylor misses the personal connections she forged in her love life, but is afraid to seek those connections again because she’s tired of getting hurt, tired of being made out to be the bad guy by the media, and certainly tired of never having a shard of privacy in any part of her life. It’s a dramatically different “final statement” than Swift’s past closers, which echoed with uplift and resilience. Instead of paying tribute to her band or basking in the rays of a new love, she’s weathered and world-weary here, steeling herself for another battle while all the while knowing that she’s lost something precious in the war. And as this album proves time and time again, she wants that something back…even if she has to fight against her own fame to find it.