If there is one consensus opinion about Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989, it’s that “Tswift goes Pop” is the new “Dylan goes Electric” and thus her most mainstream album, which I immediately have two fundamental problems with:
This line of thought implies Taylor Swift was the epitome of country music. I recently did a quick run-through of her discography before the new album dropped and it confirmed that besides her first album, at no point was Swift country. She was frequently “country pop”, most notably on Speak Now, meaning there was often a country inflection, usually the addition of a pedal steel or a guitar finger-picked Nashville style, that was never big enough to swing the whole of the work too far away from its pop center. She was perhaps country enough but nowhere near to that genre what Dylan was to folk.
Equating Taylor going pop to going mainstream is wrong because while she goes pop on this album, she goes farther away from “Pop” than she’s ever been.
Confused? You should be, because this album is a turning point in a movement that’s been growing steadily for years, shaking up the music world. Frequently, in the English language we are blessed with many words that capture the differences between generally similar ideas that allow us to be specific in describing the world around us. So while “shy” and “coy” mean the same thing in the most general sense, we understand that there’s a huge difference in which one you pick to describe someone. Unfortunately, we sometimes encounter the opposite, where two different but vaguely similar things are both described with the same word. When we talk about pop and when we talk about “Pop” we may actually be talking about two different things and we have for a few years now.*
With the rise of “poptimism”, which basically states that pop music is as culturally and musically important as any other genre such as rock and jazz and thus worth serious critical thought, we started looking at our “Pop” stars differently – but more importantly, we started looking at our indie musicians who liked “Pop” stars differently. Synthpop became not just a respected genre in the indie scene but one of the most prominent. Artists like Passion Pit and Ellie Goulding, who in the past would’ve been brushed aside as wannabe “Pop” artists or, at best, “Pop” artists who were too talented for their own good, became serious artists instead of one-hit-wonders. Likewise, those “Pop” artists who had influenced them became the ones influenced and took from the indie scene more and more until everything became so blurred that we don’t even blink when we see Sky Ferreira and Icona Pop opening for Miley Cyrus and we accept Lorde as one of the biggest stars in the world.
But there was still a line. The “Pop” stars were too enamored with their place in the “Pop” world to understand what the serious indie musicians did: that great pop music needed a certain tongue-in-cheek understanding. Its simple structured nature is what allowed it to be such a potent tool in taking on bigger ideas and too many successful musicians didn’t have the understanding to comprehend what they were doing.
Until now. On her new album, Taylor Swift shows a self-understanding of her music, herself, and, most importantly, her public image. When I first heard about “poptimism” it immediately reminded me of Patrick Bateman’s extremely deep readings of numerous 80s “Pop” albums in Bret Easton Ellis’s classic novel, American Psycho. And reading Molly Lambert’s piece on 1989, which compared Swift to Bateman, confirmed this for me. Taylor Swift is the artist that serves as the definitive meeting point between pop and “Pop” because she understands the very constructed nature of those things and the implications therein.
This becomes immediately apparent on the opening track, the much lambasted “Welcome to New York.” Few have a problem with the song’s musical merits, which combines a strong synthbass line with spritely staccato keyboard strokes that recall many early MTV 80’s hits, so you immediately understand that choosing the album’s title was because of much more than it being the year Swift was born. The derision has come from the supposed simple lyrics that portray an overtly cliché image of the city, not understanding that that is entirely the point. It’s pretty plain to anyone who spends extended time there that the idea of New York City has now become so engrained into the consciousness of everyone it now outweighs what New York City actually was. It has become its own cliché. “The village is aglow” with a “kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats” way more now than it is of any of the cultural history that once defined it. People have certain expectations of New York City and that’s what they want, so that’s what the city eventually gave them. It’s telling that it’s the opening track because this serves as the metaphor for what Taylor does to herself on this album.
Few stars have such a rigid image as Taylor Swift does. She is the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme made real. A Taylor Swift song is rarely released without everyone immediately asking whom she wrote it about. When someone from Taylor Swift’s hometown told me a boyfriend she had back in high school apparently had to file a restraining order on her, I chuckled knowingly. For any other pop star that would be a shocking revelation, but for Taylor it’s par for the course. She’s defended against this in the past. “Everyone else is the problem” she always seemed to be saying – but no more. Her opening single, the perfect “Shake It Off” was the last rally. She’s done defending herself. She has problems but they are hers to take on, and boy does she on this album. Taylor splits into two personas on this record. The first, a version that gives in to everything ever said about “TSwift” more than ever before, the perfect representation of her “Pop” image; the other an aware Taylor pointing out and sneering at the cyclical foolishness of the first, long before any of her critics can, and dropping 80s beats along the way, the perfect representation of what we love most in serious pop musicians.
TSwift gives us what we expect in spades on tracks like “All You Had to Do Was Stay”, which screams the “don’t you understand all you had to do was love me!” message louder than ever before with lines like “Let me remind you this was what you wanted, you ended it, you were all I wanted” while the other Taylor layers the track with Annie Lennox-like yells. Lennox being, of course, one of the grandmommas of modern female synthpop.
The other Taylor gets full reign on upcoming single “Blank Space.” She acknowledges she knows entirely what she’s doing. “’Cause you know I love the players and you love the game” she states in the chorus because it wouldn’t be catchy to say “I am aware of how my actions come off but I’m just the kind of person who likes falling head over heels as much as possible in life and I am more than happy to take the heartache that comes with it. Yes, this is my fault. Yes, I do not care.” Even better, when she sings “got a long list of ex-lovers” it sounds a lot like “God, lonely Starbucks lovers”, a little wink at how her image is so crucial in the rise of the so-called “basic bitch.”
Of course, the back and forth between these two Taylors doesn’t always work. The first is a bit too loud on the tiring “Bad Blood”. Occasionally, none of this posturing matters and she just drops a great song regardless of how it’s read like the heartbreakingly beautiful “Wildest Dreams.” She gets a lot of help achieving a balance between the polish of mainstream “Pop” and the throwbacks of indie pop with some great production by the likes of Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff and Max Martin who helps Swift get that Drive soundtrack sound, an album that made an incalculable influence all over the synthpop scene, on “Style.” If you’re one of those people who consider Wilco to be more country than anything played on Nashville stations, then technically she’s gone more country than ever on “This Love.”
But perhaps best of all is one of the songs Swift actually co-wrote with Antonoff. I believe the way to address the merits of a song outside of any prejudices you may have is to wonder if an artist you liked performed it live and you hadn’t heard it before, would you assume it was by them? By that criterion, “I Wish You Would” is the greatest song Sky Ferreira never wrote. It’s got Depeche Mode drums, Killers synths, and Lights-like harmonies all as the two Taylors merge to realize that breakups are always the fault of both people. Coming approximately halfway into the album it is the centerpiece that keeps all the ideas, of the music, of Taylor, of the movement she’s now apart of, together.
All of this contributes to a turning point. 1989 is the moment the great modern pop music movement became “Pop.” Though it almost happened with Lorde’s breakthrough, she still exists separate from what she’s inside, too odd to be fully embraced by the mainstream. The system needed to be changed from within. Swift has taken so much from the indie scene, musically and conceptually, and filtered it through her own undeniably locked place in “Pop.” The album title gives it a certain essential nature, as if Taylor was born to make this album. She was always meant to make pop music just as she has always been on an indie label, and great pop music was always meant to dominate “Pop” and soon it will. Totally.
*Using the term “pop” with a lowercase p for specifically referring to the genre’s musical characteristic and “’Pop’” with a capital P in quotations for the mainstream construction is in no way the official way to refer to this distinction. There really isn’t one.