This past April New York Times Magazine published Saul Austerlitz’s venomously spot-on article entitled “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism” which shed light on the reality of music critics not doing their jobs. With the release of Taylor Swift’s “first official” pop album 1989, it seems that is still the case, and a tsunami of Swift apologists (pun intended) have made it difficult for contrarians to even get a word in, considering that those apologists are Rolling Stone, Billboard, and NPR.
Granted, the album is ultra catchy from start to finish, thanks to the genius pop-production repertoire of Max Martin and Shellback. But we are all old enough to understand that catchiness alone was never all there was to Madonna or Beyoncé. The truth is, there is nothing clever or cool or double-edged about Swift’s lyricism on 1989, which is usually the redeeming power of contemporary pop. Some argue that she isn’t trying to be any of these things, which then begs the question, what is Taylor Swift’s agenda? Sure, the new album is not as diaristic and heartbreak-oriented as usual – something she is for some reason receiving praise for now – but that constituent has a catch that critics are overlooking. While her lyrics in 1989 aren’t as irritating and upper-class white-girl bratty as her older material, somehow the removal of that kind of specificity feels even more formulaic and profit-oriented than before, as if she and her team are trying to sneak past in hopes that we won’t notice differences too major, the kinds of differences that Miley took the heat for when Bangerz arrived. For someone who claims to be America’s everygirl that just wants to write songs about her feelings and be happy, this non-agenda comes off as nothing but subtle, incremental deception, like forcing your child to eat one broccoli tree, then two, then three, until he no longer minds. This specificity catch creates a very empty form of pop – but not in the intentional, self-aware way – yet for some reason Swift is being applauded for toning down her boy-craziness and sappy whines as if it has something to do with maturation and nothing to do with a larger target audience.
One of the most obvious problems with 1989 is that it has two Avril songs and it has a Lana song and it has a Kesha song and a Katy song and a Gaga/Ariana song and two fun. songs and an Imogen song and a Pat Benetar song and a Robyn song and a Lorde song, yet Rolling Stone, Billboard, and NPR all concomitantly say she’s “just being herself,” i.e. dismissively cheerleading when actually what she’s doing is not being herself and is instead trying to appeal to (almost literally) every Pop audience sensibly thinkable. But when I cons sider the songwriting from say Penguin Prison’s self-titled album or Charli XCX’s True Romance or even Gaga’s Artpop – which, as Forbes explained in “Artpop Goes the Weasel,” took a much heavier beating than was warranted – I ask myself, why is Swift being praised for things that other artists are being criticized for? For a pop-enthusiast like myself, Swift’s music has always represented an unfortunate double standard that NPR is disguising behind a “well why can’t a woman make the music she wants to make and still be herself?” defense when really the issue is “why is Sky attacked for cultural appropriation, Miley for channeling music that ‘isn’t hers,’ Gaga for having so many personas that no one knows the real Gaga, when Swift is also guilty of all these things?” She’s still writing about crushes and daydreaming which I “guess” helps disguise her and still constitutes as her being “her,” but Betty Who, Saint Pepsi, and Ryn Weaver take the same love-angle and somehow avoid the safe side of contrivance Swift has always flirted with. More importantly, when Gaga is writing about gay rights and Miley is singing positively about the dying institution of marriage and Kesha is writing about nihilism and death and Sky is writing about taking responsibility and Lily is writing about sexism and cyberbullies, I can’t help but wonder, is Swift’s attempt to write music that completely ignores her contemporary milieu really praiseworthy? At least these other artists are addressing social problems masked by the plasticity of pop instead exploiting that plasticity and ignoring real issues. What’s worse is that Swift herself was quoted saying she doesn’t want to make “evil pop” with ambiguous meanings, insinuating that this overlooking of social reality was actually intentional. Hence the gluten-free baby-food musical that is 1989.
The album is just perpetuating a younger generation’s problems of Western bubble-world self-importance and fantastical expectations about love and perfection. We need more critics like Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz, who wasn’t afraid to be objective in her review “Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ Is Her Most Conservative Album Yet.” So I guess this is primarily why the majority of 1989’s reviews are so baffling. What is there not to critique in the paradox that is conservative pop?
Give me the cool Irish punk nods of Charli’s “London Queen” over “Welcome to New York”; give me Lily’s ribbon-like wit in “URL Badman” over “Bad Blood”; give me Lorde’s… anything over “Blank Space.” Because in reality, 1989 is proof that other artists have been doing what Swift is just barely discovering, both for a long while and on a much more interesting caliber. Good for her for finally getting here, but as a friend once said, what does it mean when someone from a farm towne basement lab in Salem, Utah announces in 2014 that he has discovered the impact of gravity on earth life? Maybe he deserves a pat on the back, but more importantly, he’s not contributing to any worthwhile conversation and his discovery will justly be dismissed. 1989 returned me to the path from which albums like The Fame Monster, Electra Heart, and Night Time My Time emerged, reminding me of what solid, revolutionary, meaningful pop sounds like.
Aswad, Jen. “Album Review: Taylor Swift’s Pop Curveball Pays Off With ‘1989.’” Billboard, 24 October 2014, http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6289405/taylor-swift-1989-album-review [accessed 31 October 2014].
Messitte, Nick. “Artpop Goes the Weasel: 3 Glimpses into the Deflation of a Superstar.” Forbes Magazine, 13 December 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmessitte/2013/12/13/artpop-goes-the-weasel-3-glimpses-into-the-deflation-of-a-superstar/ [accessed 31 October 2014]
Powers, Ann. “The Many New Voices of Taylor Swift.” NPR Music, 30 October 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2014/10/30/360129727/the-many-new-voices-of-taylor-swift [accessed 31 October 2014].
Sheffield, Rob. “’1989’ Review.” Rolling Stone Magazine, 24 October 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/taylor-swift-1989-20141024 [accessed 31 October 2014]
Zoladz, Lindsay. “’1989’ Is Taylor Swift’s Most Conservative Album Yet,” Vulture, 27 October 2014, http://www.vulture.com/2014/10/album-review-taylor-swift-1989.html [accessed 31 October 2014]