‘1989’: Taylor Swift Makes Her Triumphant Pop Debut (Album Review)


The year is 2014, and Taylor Swift has produced one of the strongest pop records of the year in 1989.


Even if you’ve never counted yourself as a Taylor Swift fan (a Swiftie, for the sake of political correctness), it would be irresponsible (or impossible?) to look past her thunderous rise to superstardom over the greater half of the past decade, from sold-out worldwide stadium tours to record-breaking albums to innumerable awards – and of course, the surprise faces that came with each win.

She may have started as a teenage country songbird, but Taylor subtly began ditching the twang with each passing record, toeing the line with chart-topping cuts like “Love Story,” “You Belong with Me” and “Mine” to keep both country radio satisfied and Top 40 pop fans pleased.

By the time the dub-laden “I Knew You Were Trouble” came rolling around on 2012’s Red, it was obvious she’d already transitioned into a full-fledged pop princess — but this is the first time she’s truly embraced the title.

Still, even when Taylor Swift announced (via global livestream on Yahoo, as one does) that her next endeavor would be an “’80’s inspired” pop record (the musical equivalent of incorporating florals for spring — groundbreaking!), followed immediately by the debut of her horn-heavy, hater-shaking and incredibly irritating lead single “Shake It Off,” it certainly didn’t seem like Taylor could be taken too seriously as one of this year’s top pop contenders.

And then “Out Of The Woods” came bursting out in screaming color, and everything changed.

The Jack Antanoff-assisted ode to a certain short-lived, high-profile relationship from Swift’s past marked an extraordinary shift for the singer: At last, she’d ditched the sassy, bratty shtick of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off” to provide some actual justification for her enormous popularity in the form of a heart-racing, wholeheartedly sincere and truly anthemic Big Pop record: a perfect storm of oh-so-Taylor Swift lyricism about moving furniture for dance parties and fateful snowmobile accidents combined with hyper-anxious melodies (“ARE WE OUT OF THE WOODS YET? ARE WE IN THE CLEAR YET?”) and the kind of production that felt, well, epic.

Once again, Taylor teamed up with one of the industry’s most prolific producers, Swedish pop legend Max Martin, as well as Shellback, to craft a majority of 1989. As a group, the trio perfected some of her most radio-friendly cuts from Red, including “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” — but this time around, that Swedish pop influence really started to come through.

Like the rest of us starry-eyed dreamers, Taylor packed up and shipped off to the Big Apple earlier this year. Granted, she did so as an incredibly famous, attractive and beloved multimillionaire. Amusingly, 1989‘s sparkling, Carly Rae Jepsen-esque opener “Welcome To New York” reflects that point of view, written by someone who has likely never sat sobbing into their slice of dollar pizza on a subway bench while staring at a pair of rats dancing in between the tracks.

No, not that New York — nor one described in Jay-Z and Alicia Keys‘ “Empire State Of Mind.” This is a teenage dreamer’s idea of New York City after having seen Sex & The City once with her gay bestie. It’s as deliriously detached from reality as the fanciful beats, yet by the end, there’s something almost charmingly lovable about this ode to her fantasyland. “It’s been waiting for you!” Never has New York waited for anyone, Taylor. What it must be like to see life through your wide and curious eyes!

That being said, Taylor isn’t entirely detached from reality — at least, not from her own.

Her dating history, carefully chronicled by the media in an endless barrage of listicles, charts and graphs of every suitor in her life, has defined her artistry for years, and she’s finally weighing in on the joke (and laughing all the way to the bank) with the instant, ingenious “Blank Space.”

She’s been flaunting her sense of humor throughout the 1989 promo tour, and “Blank Space” is a perfect way of injecting that dry sense of humor into song: With pen in hand, Tay takes on the public’s scrutiny of her love life, playfully painting herself to be a black widow (“I’m a nightmare dressed as a daydream”) while dramatically sing-songing her warning to the next one above a sparse, slapping beat. “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane/But I got a blank space, baby…and I’ll write your name,” she smirks with an ominous click of a pen.

But lately, it’s not just Taylor’s love life that’s riled up the press.

Months ago, Taylor revealed she’d written a song dedicated to a certain female pop star who wronged her. And, in usual #TeamInternet fashion, the culprit was immediately determined to be Katy Perry, reportedly due to some background dancer drama — and maybe John Mayer. Though she danced around a confirmation, there are clues within the vaguely embarrassing chant-along anthem, from the terrible eye-roll lyrics (“We used to have mad love!“) which seem to mock Katy’s so-lame-it’s-fun swagger, to the eyebrow-raising bridge (“You live like that, you live with ghosts”). A Prism reference, perhaps?

In any case, “Bad Blood,” like many of the songs on 1989, plays like something off of Avril Lavigne‘s criminally unheard 2013 self-titled album…with a lot less eye makeup, of course.

The “’80’s pop” influence fades in and out of 1989, but nowhere does it feel quite as prominent as the slick and sleekly produced “Style,” a cooly crooned ode to an on-again, off-again romance. True to her oh-so-cliche idea of romance, Tay paints a tale of her very own James Dean picking her up at night, speeding away and lusting hard in the front seat. She captures the thrill of a bad romance (rah-rah-ahh-ah-ah) perfectly on the tense, lust-filled production and, admittedly, it’s good to hear the 24-year-old songstress finally navigating her sexuality in her “tight little skirt.” Get it, Tay!

1989 doesn’t just provoke nostalgia for the decade it was named after, especially with Max Martin behind the boards: With the utterly euphoric, guitar-led power pop standouts “How You Get The Girl” and “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” the prolific producer reaches all the way back to late ’90’s bubblegum royalty, playing like deep cuts from Britney‘s …Baby One More Time.

Everything is big, bright and beat-driven in Taylor’s world, so it’s almost jarring to hear the tender “This Love” — the album’s only real slow moment — dreamily floats into the speakers. Backed by tender electronic pulsations, Taylor takes it down for a moment of balladry. “When you’re young, you just run/But you come back to what you need,” she softly cries.

Elsewhere, Taylor borrows from more contemporary influences. Well, “borrows” is putting it lightly: “Wildest Dreams” is a fairly shameless copy of the Lana Del Rey formula, from the obvious lyrical bites (“Heaven can’t help me now”) to trademark motifs (handsome bad boys and girls in pretty dresses and red lips), to the string-filled cinematic production. It filters all the way down to that breathy chorus, which almost perfectly mimics Born To Die‘s “Without You.” This isn’t Taylor Swift — it’s Taylor Del Rey.

The regret-filled “I Wish You Would,” on the other hand, is a propulsive moment of nostalgic synth-pop that recalls the punchy stuff of Tegan & Sara‘s razor-sharp 2013 record, Heartthrob. And then there’s “I Know Places,” a slightly menacing Ryan Tedder cut led by soldiering beats, growling delivery and macabre lyricism (“See the vulture circling in dark clouds/Love’s a fragile little flame”). It doesn’t sound too off from that of her brooding BFF Lorde, who has no doubt ever-so-slightly influenced Taylor’s style…as all friends do, of course.

But gone is any trace of that militant moodiness by the time the appropriately light “Clean” comes in to close the standard edition of the album, crafted alongside the incredibly talented Imogen Heap. The collaboration, although unexpected, makes complete sense on record, beautifully incorporating Imogen’s heavenly vocals and gentle beats into a calm breath of fresh air, as Taylor fights her way through toward a hopeful close.

“Clean” also leaves Taylor all alone, but she’s not down about it. And really, that’s the entire takeaway of 1989.

For an artist whose music has often been treated by the media as a guide map to her relationship status, the album, although written largely about love, is written from the perspective of an independent young woman — nay, a Proper Pop Star! — who sounds more ready than ever to revel in that single-girl-in-the-city status and simply shake, shake, shake her way through a sick beat (or ten).

1989 isn’t an entirely perfect pop record: At times, it can be sort of embarrassingly detached from reality, obnoxious and simply trying too hard to be a bit of everything (or everyone) all at once. But then, that’s Taylor Swift for you: “I’m always trying so hard,” she deadpanned at one point while on the set of her “Shake It Off” video.

Even still, 1989 gets it right much more often than most other mainstream pop records this year. Why? Because these are big songs, armed with huge melodies, compelling delivery and rich production. (It can’t be said enough: “Shake It Off” was a fluke.)

In its greatest and wildest moments, there are actual moments of lightning-in-a-bottle pop genius: It’s found in the sugary swells of “How You Get The Girl,” the pulse of “Style,” the defiant yelps in “Out Of The Woods — even that half-second pen click in “Blank Space.”

As this is her first “official” foray into pop, 1989 also marks the birth of Taylor Swift, The Pop Star. And, given the state of pop music in 2014, it’s a thrilling endeavor — and a needed one, at that.

So welcome to Pop World, Tay. We’ve been waiting for you.

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‘1989’ was released on October 27. (iTunes)

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