The best pop stars are sponges. Ever present, they absorb the viscous lava of contempo culture through their pores, let it course through their veins ‘til a diffuse plexus of melodies and rhythms form, and then release the bubbly potion onto an unsuspecting audience. They’re malleable, altering their form to the fickle world around them, embracing the chaos of reinvention. Sometimes, their mercurial nature can backfire, as in the case of a twerking, tongue-wagging Miley Cyrus, or that time Madonna rap-rhymed “soy latte” with “double shot-ay.” Others, you get something quite magical, like Taylor Swift’s latest LP 1989.
Taylor Swift has long been a pop star of the first order. And in an era where the lion’s share of pop divas have songs served up to them on a platter by expert hitmakers—Rihanna’s “We Found Love” was written for Leona Lewis, while Britney Spears foolishly turned down “Umbrella”—the Nashville native is something of an anomaly. She penned every damn song on her 2010 breakout album Speak Now. Her last one, 2012’s Red, went quadruple platinum (this year, by comparison, there have been zero platinum albums) and cemented her status as the world’s preeminent pop diva-in-training.
Much has been made of Swift’s gradual shift from country to pop. It’s silly, and uninformed. Comb through Red and you’ll see precious few vestiges of country, and frankly, what most consider “country” today is really pop music dressed up in boots and spurs. If the late Johnny Cash took one hard look at the state of “country” today, he’d surely go back to Folsom—for murder.
Much has also been made of Swift’s private life. As a teenager and twenty-something, she wrote songs inspired by her most powerful emotional experiences—which, as any teen or twenty-something can attest, usually involve relationships. Male rappers can drone on about “bitches” they treat like disposable pieces of flesh, while rockers like Eric Clapton have been lauded for ballads pining over other men’s wives. In a cruel bit of hypocrisy, Swift was branded the Jennifer Aniston of pop; a young woman scorned who was constantly “playing the victim,” milking her revolving door of heartbreak and that one time Kanye West immortalized the phrase Imma let you finish, but… at her expense.
That was all pretty much bullshit.
Swift is no pop interloper; this brand of tuneage has been in her all along. And 1989 is far and away her most self-aware (and self-effacing) album yet, poking fun at her boy-crazy reputation and endless shellacking in the media.
But the album gets off to a pretty rough start.
It’s already attracted its fair share of vitriol due to her much-publicized change of scenery, but “Welcome to New York” is an absolutely brutal paean to the Big Apple; a tourist trap of a tune about starting over that sounds like it was penned by a tween Carrie Bradshaw (“And you can want who you want / Boys and boys and girls and girls!”). Even the harmonized choral accents are hackneyed, ripped straight from her previous mega-hit “You Belong with Me.”
Fortunately, it’s an aberration—like a cruel toll you’re meant to suffer through before accessing the album’s proper goods. “Blank Space,” with its lo-fi beats and sing-along chorus, resembles a beautiful marriage of Lorde and Swift, the Goth and the prom queen. Even the inflection toward the end, “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” is to the New Zealand prodigy what Sia’s reggae-tinged delivery on “Chandelier” is to RiRi. The song just screams pop hit.
Like the best pop stars, Swift has borrowed from a plethora of genres and influences. In addition to Lorde’s minimalist stylings, there’s “Style,” whose hypnotic beats are ripped straight from Cliff Martinez’s Drive soundtrack, and the melancholic ballad “Wildest Dreams” sees Swift channeling Lana Del Rey’s sultry croon to dazzling effect. Plus, problematic video aside, “Shake It Off” is catchy as all hell—an infectious amalgam of “Thrift Shop” horns and “Happy” gaiety.
Meanwhile, “How You Get the Girl” boasts echoing whoas that rival Bastille, while the layered, hushed vocals of “This Love” clearly recall Frou Frou’s “Let Go”—you know, the ballad that played over a bevy of artful montages in Garden State.
Swift is a rhythmic and melodic kleptomaniac, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. In the same way Tarantino artfully lifts dialogue and shots from classic films and blends it into a delectable pop culture tapestry, Swift has culled bits and pieces from her musical contemporaries in the pursuit of something vibrant, and timeless. It’s this timelessness, too, that’s integral to Swift’s success. While her lesser rivals (*cough* Katy Perry) cram their songs with dateable references, the songs here deal with universal themes of love, longing, and lust for life.
One low point—“Welcome to New York” aside—is “I Know Places.” Whereas the rest of the album is comprised of ace production, courtesy of knob wizards Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic), Jack Antonoff (Fun.), and pop chemist Max Martin, to name a few, as well as clever turns of phrase and soaring choruses, this one seems vacuous and, worst of all, generic—like a disposable, CW-primed pop anthem.
The 16-song pop treasure chest comes to a thrilling close with “New Romantics,” a remix-ready stomper crammed with witty lyrics. “It’s poker / He can’t see it in my face, but I’m about to play my ace,” Swift sings.
Despite the unrelenting hype, 1989 delivers. A beautiful union of past and present, it’s as appetizing a pop album as you’ll find in this day and age. For an amorphous music machine like Swift, it seems there’s no better place to start over than the buzzing, turbid, and resilient City of New York.