Review of Taylor Swift’s 1989: The Perils of the Low Road

It’s 2014. The last pop album to go platinum in its first week, as of this moment, is Red, Taylor Swift’s genius pop/country hybrid that busted up every radio station in the nation for months on end with “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

That happened in 2012. I was well aware of Taylor’s reign at the time– even a year later, when I was working as a cashier at Yogurt Guru (whose management insisted that we exclusively play the SiriusXM Top 40 station through the store’s sound system) I ended up listening to Swift’s songs over and over again, as they stubbornly stayed on top of the charts.

Red smashed everything. In fifty years, we’ll be pointing to Red in the same way that we’re pointing at Thriller today when we talk about the ’80s. Red‘s throne has been untouched for two years. That is, it’s been untouched up until now.

The good news is, Taylor Swift is the one threatening to unseat it. Says Forbes.com: “Swift is on pace to sell more than 1 million copies of 1989 in its opening week—a feat no solo artist has achieved since Swift herself did it two years ago.”

So, I don’t know, I guess I had high hopes for 1989 when I became one of the (almost) one million people to download it on iTunes this week.

As I listened to the album, glitzy pop song after glitzy pop song rolling by, I started putting the pieces together. And the conclusion I resigned myself to was a little bit… disappointing.

really want Taylor to be a pioneer of our exciting new feminist, digital, niche-market music culture, awkwardly dancing into the future of what “pop” can be. But listening to the album, all I can hear is echoes from the rest of the billboard. “Wildest Dreams” is dripping with the sultry sound of Lana Del Rey. “Blank Space” and “New Romance” has hints of Lorde. “Welcome to New York” could have easily been sung by Lady Gaga or Robyn, and I wouldn’t be the wiser.

Says the Wall Street Journal: “For the most part, the music of “1989” adheres to a modern commercial model—chipper but with a hint of danger, synth-dominated and rigid. Ms. Swift’s voice—strong and sweet, if occasionally cloyingly so—withstands the electronic bombast, but it is rarely her friend.”

There’s a lot of less-than-interesting vocal hooks, in some cases hovering around one note in an annoying monotone. For the first time, her voice is cloaked in digital effects (is that autotune??) and heavily stacked, like most pop vocals are.

Much of the album, really, would fit right in on a (dare I say it) Katy Perry album. Where Red defined Taylor as a unique artist, 1989 tosses her into the bucket of “Female Pop Singer/Partial Songwriter.”

To be clear, I don’t want to bash that bucket. It’s not my cup of tea, but obviously there are lots of people (mostly young girls) who love to listen to that kind of music. But my criticism is separate from that. If Swift had made a weird, sudden shift to generic-sounding dinner jazz, I’d be the same degree of disappointed.

Of course, the record has exceptions. There’s Swift’s single “Shake It Off,” which has racked up 225 million views and 1.5 million likes on YouTube (all of them very well deserved).

I also dig “New Romance” and “All You Had to Do Was Stay.” But they’ve lost the thing that made Red great: honesty. At least, the guise of honesty.

On NPR yesterday, Taylor told Melissa Block: “In the past, I’ve written mostly about heartbreak or pain that was caused by someone else and felt by me. On this album, I’m writing about more complex relationships, where the blame is kind of split 50-50.”

Swift celebrates Halloween at the NPR studios in New York

So, despite the adorable unicorn costume, she’s growing up, she’s changing the starry-eyed beliefs of her youth, the ones that used to be the foundation of her personal, relatable lyrics. I guess I commend the effort she’s taken to stay true to how she feels. But listening to the album, it seems as if she’s simply taken up the belief system and lyricism of every other pop artist. Her lyrics are no longer heartbreaking or remarkably quirky. They’re just… regular.

I’ve puzzled over what all of this means, and unfortunately I think the backstory here is much simpler than I would like it to be. Red was incredible. But the songs that did the best on air were the glitzy, pop ones. Swift has summed up her intentions behind 1989 by simply saying “I wanted to make a pop album.” Unfortunately, tragically, I think that Taylor is seeing more dollar signs than she would lead us to believe.

The great thing about the album is that while almost every white pop artist has succumbed to appropriating hip-hop to retain the spotlight (Katy Perry, Jessie J, I’m looking at you), 1989 is a fun, sort of ’80s retro set of songs, without a hint of weird appropriation. The white takeover of hip-hop is completely in swing at this point, so there’s something to be said about the fact that Swift has decidedly not hopped on that bandwagon.

And we need to keep in mind that Taylor is still only 24, and hopefully she has many, many albums ahead of her to hone in on her new style. Will 1989 destroy the radio in the way that Red did two years ago? I don’t know, maybe. I’m not in control of the billboard. The album might do well because it’s an effective pop record. It also might not do well, for exactly the same reason.

And honestly, because I’ll always be in Swift’s corner, I kind of hope the album flops. I hope that Swift, like me, can see what the record lacks, and where the music still has room to grow. I hope she can see that 1989 should only be the beginning.

*UPDATE: As of last night, 1989 has sold $1.2 million copies, becoming the latest album to go platinum in a week since Red.

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