A couple of days ago, I wrote that Taylor Swift might not understand pop music. After the release of three songs from 1989 ahead of its release, it seemed to me that Taylor was lessening her craft to fit into the pop landscape, which led to shockingly disappointing material that would tarnish her reputation as a prolific songwriter of our time.
Luckily for her, and the music industry as a whole, 1989 is much better than the songs she previewed (except for “Out of the Woods”; that song ranks among her best). In fact, it might be one of the year’s most solid pop albums.
So much for not knowing pop, right?
As it turns out, “Shake It Off” was pretty much a fluke, even a fake out. 1989 is certainly not the generic, shapeless record one could’ve expected upon hearing that first single. Even in its weakest moments, the album is a proper addition to Taylor Swift’s catalog, with each song carrying her stamp of quirky but earnest songwriting with her indelible earworms called hooks. Even with the executive production of pop’s chieftain Max Martin, the album rarely falls into anonymity. Swift clearly knows what kind of pop music she wants to make, and even the steady hand of the biggest music producer won’t sway her.
The kind of pop music that Swift has chosen to make isn’t too far removed from her country roots. Acoustic guitars have been replaced with electric and percussion has been sprinkled here and there. It’s a surprisingly fresh sound that isn’t country, but definitely elevated from the music flowing through the radiowaves. That sound is best exemplified on “Style”, a chill mid-tempo chugger that radiates easy warmth, and “How You Get The Girl”, a bright and shiny track that harkens back to her Fearless days in the best way. Swift is at her best, and most charming, when there is an optimistic bounce to her songs, even when the lyrics aren’t. What’s new in her repertoire is an urgent pulse to her songs that calls to mind the lite-rock of her birth decade. There is standout “Out of the Woods”, which is a brilliant rush of 80’s euphoria that has Taylor recalling a reckless love, as well as “I Wish You Would”, driven by an energetic electric guitar that is abruptly halted by a swathing chorus that holds that momentum. Even her lyrics reflect this newfound persistence. She’s still singing about love, and she still believes it can sparkle, but there are more mentions of love that’s messy, complicated, and even dangerous. It’s a very welcome, grown-up change from the fairytales of songs past.
Taylor Swift does indulge a bit in dream-time, particularly in “Wildest Dreams”, her attempt to channel Lana Del Rey that is as successful as its muse, and “This Love”, a pretty but unremarkable swooning ballad. Most of the time, however, she is embracing her darker side, like on the trippy “I Know Places” and “Blank Space”, where she describes herself as a “nightmare dressed in a daydream”. That’s doubtful, but at least she’s cheeky about her “long list of ex-lovers”. She tries for the nightmare act again on “Bad Blood”, the much-publicized attack track allegedly aimed at fellow superstar Katy Perry. If this was supposed to ether the candy-coated pop princess, Perry has nothing to worry about: any promised bite lacks fangs. Taylor Swift should leave her slights for those ex-lovers, because she just isn’t compelling as a mean girl. She works because she is relatable, even when it gets long-winded at times (like her VMA performance last August). It’s one of the reasons why “Shake It Off” fails so spectacularly.
The fear was that Taylor Swift would stop being herself upon her transformation into full-fledged pop princess. Minus some growing pains, it’s a very successful one. The lyrical, musical growth from her previous work is gradual, but undeniable. She doesn’t toss what made her successful out of the window: instead, she is using it to try new things, and 1989 is proof that fears about her viability as the megastar she is striving to be are pretty much baseless. She has moved past Nashville to mainstream pop. How far can she truly go? I guess we’ll see when her next album comes out.