There’s a reason why Taylor Swift is the most successful musician right now with her fantastic new record 1989. Modern radio pop is called ‘professional,’ ‘consummate,’ and ‘well made,’ these words often lobbed as back-handed compliments for declaring the music as ‘soulless,’ ‘overproduced,’ and ‘formulaic.’ However, it’s Swift who injects a bit of humanity into the Pro-Tools-lacquered world of big budget monogenre music. So forget the gossip for a moment and let’s take a look at why 1989 is just great.
In the forward to 1989, Swift graciously declares, “I needed to change the way I told my stories and the way they sounded,” and throughout the record this desperate glee shows. With aid from pop music nerds Jack Antonoff (Fun.) and Imogen Heap, and her new mainstay producer Max Martin, these songs couldn’t be arranged any other way. Can you imagine lead single “Shake It Off” with twangy guitar and a rock ’n’ roll drums? The brashy 808-esque handclaps and punchy synth horns only reinforce the Toni Basil-meets-Tumblr vibes of lines like, “Just think while you’ve been gettin’ down and out about the liars and the dirty dirty cheats of the world/you could have been gettin’ down to this sick beat!” Groan all you want, but this song will be a karaoke banger for years to come.
Compared to the artisanal phoniness of Urban Outfitters’ finest (Chvrches, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Local Natives), Taylor Swift’s Target-brand self-awareness is downright refreshing and incredibly relatable. On “Wildest Dreams,” over silky synths and dreamy pads, Swift coos with slight vocoder flourishes, “Say you’ll remember me/standing in a nice dress/staring at the sunset, babe/red lips and rosy cheeks/say you’ll see me again/even if it’s just in your wildest dreams.” When the song kicks into sixteenth time and the bass hits, it’s simply devastating.
Taylor Swift’s natural and casual delivery create a through-line that makes more bombastic songs like “Style,” “Out Of The Woods,” and even the a capella stomp of “Bad Blood,” work for me. Lines like “You got that James Dean/daydream/look in your eye,” and “The night we couldn’t quite forget/when we decided/to move the furniture so we could dance/baby like we stood a chance,” read like dorm room ambitions instead of stadium naval-gazing. Swift is clever enough to never mistake generic platitudes for universal truths. Instead she’s using the language of the community to craft a living, breathing world of her own.
“All you had to do was STAY!” squeaks Swift in defiance during the chorus of a song about a fickle lover. Lord knows I would have been blaring this song on repeat, screaming along, while I was twenty-two, in college, and lovesick. In picking up this record I didn’t need to know the messy details of her life to relate I have plenty of details to fill in on my own. 1989 is Taylor Swift’s first great record, but it’s only the beginning. Embracing pop music has never sounded so good, and so human.