On Tuesday, Taylor Swift released “Welcome to New York”, the second promo single for 1989, the country singer’s first official foray into true blue pop music. Following the release of “Out of The Woods”, I have to admit that my expectations were pretty high. I figured that “Shake It Off”, which I derided last month, was a fluke and that her pop album might actually be something worth spinning.
Unfortunately, it appears that “Woods” was the fluke. It also appears that Taylor Swift doesn’t think much of pop music and what it can do creatively. The truth is, Taylor Swift was making better pop when she was making country.
“Welcome to New York” is a bizarre, lifeless track, with listless 80’s style production and lyrics ostensibly about the wonder of New York that don’t really say anything of value. The dry synths would’ve been interesting if Swift was sending up New York for its perceived artifice, but it all falls flat. As an introductory track, it’s quite bad.
“Lifeless” is a bit too aggressive to describe “Shake It Off,” because at least it has some great production backing it. However, there is something lacking in her “pop” offerings that made her previous work so universally popular (and bonafide pop hits). The most notable absence is her songwriting. Taylor Swift is known especially for her ability to tell relatable stories in her music and craft irresistible hooks. Listening to “Shake It Off” was disappointing because it lacked her distinct identity, and sounded so beneath what she’s capable of. Surely she could’ve taken on bullying of her celebrity in a more clever way, or at least a way where she isn’t singing “haters gonna hate.” The same feeling comes across with “Welcome to New York”; there could’ve been something more interesting to say about moving to a new city, some kind of emotion. Instead we get repeating of that boring chorus.
There is a lot of repetition in the songs we’ve heard so far. In “Out of the Woods”, it is useful and exciting, adding to the song’s overall aura of urgency. Elsewhere, it is uninspiring at best and lazy at worst. I know Taylor Swift is talented, so why serve us this very underwhelming material and call it pop? It leads me to think that, in her interpretation, pop music isn’t meant to be as complex and multi-layered as her Grammy-winning work of Fearless, Speak Now, and even Red. In other words, to achieve the most Top 40-friendly sound, Taylor has to put material that anyone else could record, also known as being generic, pop’s favorite put down.
Now it’s certainly true that a lot of pop music is generic and microwaveable and indistinct, and for another, newer artist, Swift’s assumed artistic compromises might be necessary. But Taylor has proven she can be her guitar-strumming self who wrote about lost loves and not only sell like gangbusters but also score multiple top 10 hits. And even for other artists, what is acceptable on pop radio is expanding more and more, if Lorde and Tove Lo are any indication. It seems like Taylor is dumbing herself down to be a pop artist, and she doesn’t need to. In a world where “You Belong With Me”, “Mine”, “I Knew You Were Trouble” and more exist, what we have heard so far from this era pales in comparison. I can appreciate an artist expanding their horizons, but it shouldn’t be to the behest of their artistic DNA and abilities.
1989 is released next week, so we’ll see if the album lends itself more to “Out of the Woods” than the other tracks, but right now, a pop Taylor Swift isn’t looking too promising.