A couple of weeks ago, I shuffled into a conference room with some other music journalists. For about 20 minutes we sat facing each other in total silence, staring each other out. Then, we each put on a pair of headphones, and they pressed play on Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989.
With each passing Taylor album she has drifted further away from twangy FM radio ballads and closer towards the top tier of global pop. This is mostly a good thing: her songs have become richer, her personality more defined, her production stadium-filling and world-class. Red, her last album, felt like the perfect balance of sheen and progression, while retaining an element of twang that defined her early career. Best of all, it shook off the innocense and naivaté of her early career and showed a fully-formed adult human. Part of that was freeing herself from the confines of mainstream country and embracing the notion that, yes, Swift was one of the biggest stars in pop, and should make a record that reflected that. It follows that this record, which has been pitched to Swift’s fans as her first “non-country” album, would allow her to sound bigger and better than ever.
But it’s also cause for concern. To me, the best moments on the last two Taylor albums haven’t been the big chart-topping pop slayers, but those slightly-corny country moments. It’s as though she was learning all these new skills to become a full-blown popstar, but it’s when she chucks out a quick country number on the fourth single to keep the red states happy, that her hard work and expertise really shined.
That’s why, as good as “Mine” is, it’s not as good as “Mean”: a song in which Taylor Swift plays a massive banjo and calls someone a prick. It’s also why “We Are Never Getting Back Together” doesn’t have a patch on “I Almost Do”: a super soppy ballad about wanting to call an ex after a break-up. Would 1989 prove that country was a necessary constraint to help guide Swift’s creativity? Or could jettisoning the banjos and fiddles allow her to truly spread her wings?
So anyway, we were only allowed to listen to the record once and had to make our notes there and then. I scrawled across two bits of paper manically. Those bits of paper are all I have to refer to now as I write this.
Here are some things I’ve learned. I can now say, objectively, that “Shake It Off” is the sixth best song on the Taylor Swift album.My note on “How You Get The Girl” simply says “DIDN’T WRITE MUCH ABOUT THIS ONE BECAUSE IT’S SO LEGIT. THE “BOUND” 2 OF THE TAYLOR ALBUM. 1 4 THE HEADS” so that’s good.There is, I think, a real life swear word on this record. It is fuck. Could this be the first Taylor album to be marked as Explicit on iTunes? Or am I just misreading my notes? I’m like 98% sure that “I Know Places” is written from the perspective of Carrie Mathison in the first two series of Homeland. Seriously the whole vibe is “I know places we can hide”, “loose lips sink ships” and “they’re trying to track us down.” I need to listen to it again but I’m pretty sure there’s stuff about fleeing the country while being chased too.
There are a few big “statement” tracks on the record that really seek to undermine the public perception which she may have played up to in the past. “Blank Space” is a swinging response to the idea that she falls in and out of love all the time. In it, she is basically saying, “Don’t put your shit on me.” It’s about boys who only want love if it’s torture, who long for the pain of pining. There’s a great campy line in it, when she’s talking about how she lures them in: “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a dream”—which is her basically saying, “You want the drama and I sure know how to give it to you, but it’s only you who can’t handle the heartbreak.” In essence, she’s hinting that she actually quite likes a good break-up.
“Style” swings in the opposite direction from “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” It’s a song about how you can’t fucking escape this relationship, even if you wanted to. “We never go out of style, we’ll come back every time,” she says to an unnamed boy who seems to be under the misapprehension that it’s over. As on the previous track, it seems like she isn’t so involved in the heat of the emotional moment, but focusing more on the long game. On “Out Of The Woods” she’s basically doing the same thing in a slightly more panicked manner, rather than trying to judge someone by each little thing they do, she just wants answers: WHERE IS THIS GOING? ARE WE A THING OR NOT?
I know some people were a bit concerned after hearing “Welcome to New York,” because it sounds like the song a Time Square hostel might use on their poorly edited YouTube ad. The good news is it’s probably the weakest track on the record. There are few other bum notes dotted around though, particularly how much she talks about being a “good girl” (including moderately risqué line that she’s a “got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.”).
This isn’t quite a party record, and it’s not really a falling in love record either. Even the boys mentioned on the album feel like bit players. This is much more of a one-woman show. For example, on “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” she tells a story we’ve all seen happen: boy gets too big for his boots, thinks he can do better than his girlfriend. Dumps girlfriend. Then comes back a shrivelling, weeping mess two weeks later, begging for her back. This track is Taylor saying you had your chance and you fucked it up, buddy.
It is, undoubtedly, a glistening pop album with superproducer Max Martin’s kitchen-sink production on most of the tracks and nothing you could really call country, except for the final ballad “Clean.” But my fears about it becoming too polished were entirely allayed by the two best tracks: “I Wish You Would” and “Wildest Dreams.” Both of these songs demonstrate that however big Taylor gets, she’s still going to do her. In the former, she’s full of regret and loneliness, tied up in knots about something that happened weeks ago. It’s pretty perfect and the only song I can still sing three weeks later having only heard it once. The latter almost sounds quite Kate Bush and has Taylor singing: “Say you’ll remember me, standing there in a nice dress.” Only Taylor Swift could pull off such a brilliant non-description and have it make perfect sense.
For all the bombast of its release, 1989 is a straightforward pop record. There are no big collaborations or wild shifts in genre. I guess you could say it’s her most pop album ever, but I would say that in this day and age writing big adventurous pop music is almost riskier than scribing ten country ballads. What I love most is how ridiculous it would sound if anyone else had recorded it. Yes, it’s a record about growing up and being less under the spell of boys. But it’s also cements a very clear idea of who Taylor Swift is. She’s made the hardest maneuver of all, from the travelator of child stardom, to grown up pop star, and into that separate plane of knowable human being. When Beyonce songs about the power of women or Kanye says something obscene about oral sex and an ancient civilizations, it’s almost unsurprising, because those things are part of our public perception of them. I think you could now say the same of Taylor, standing there, in her nice dress, being Taylor.