When Taylor Swift announced that her latest body of work would be an entirely pop album, approximately no one was surprised. Her fifth album, 1989, out today, shows Taylor unapologetically leaving behind any last vestige of her country roots and carving out her place in pop music. Though this album is her first official offering to the pop world, it’s clear that she’s already doing it better than almost any of her peers.
Pop music was always Taylor’s destiny. From the very beginning, she was groomed to be country’s crossover darling. Every country single she released was accompanied with a “pop mix” that was more suited for Top 40 radio, which is not uncommon. But in doing so, they created a monster, because Taylor found out just what works for her and ran with it.
The earth-shattering bass drop in the chorus of 2012’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” was Taylor saying “Look what I can get away with.” Where did she get off putting elements of dubstep onto what was supposed to be a country album? When it sounded that good, it didn’t matter. That chorus alone was Taylor Swift’s middle finger to the confines of any one genre, and a veritable “to be continued” stamp at the end of the "Red" era, promising she was about to show us what she’s really capable of.
"1989" opens with the shiny, bouncy “Welcome To New York.” Though one of the album's least spectacular moments, it’s a cute look into the life of a young, single girl who is living in a New York that is most certainly not everyone’s New York.
Don’t roll your eyes for too long, though, for fear of missing the breathtaking and infectious “Blank Space.” It’s a playful wink at everything the press has been saying about her for so long, that she’s a serial dater, a man eater. Instead of writing another song about another ex-boyfriend, she’s writing a song for everyone who told those guys, “Don’t date her, bro, she’ll put you in a song.”
“I’ve got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane,” she warns in the chorus, “but I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name.” WINK. Predictably, she’s already getting heat for the nature of this song, saying she’s self-obsessed, narcissistic. So she can’t write a song about her love life, but she can’t be in on the joke and have a laugh at her own expense, either. The girl can’t win.
Taylor is clearly unbothered, though. She's one of the only artists who is smart enough to let her music do the talking for her.
Speaking of writing about her exes, the not-so-subtly titled “Style” is up next, fading in with a menacing, ominous guitar riff. Taylor’s sultry vocals tell the story of SOME BOY with James Dean-esque style, with dark verses that explode into a saccharine and flirty chorus. If “Blank Space” was infectious, “Style” is straight addicting.
This is what makes Taylor Swift so fit for pop music. Having come up in country, she’s part songwriter, part storyteller, which is a staple of country song writing. As much flack as she’s gotten for writing takedown pieces veiled as hits about her high profile exes, she’s folding these details into her music, making them feel personal to not only her, but the listener as well. She paints a picture so vivid that it feels like living the relationship firsthand. Add to this one of her unforgettable melodies and you’ve got another instant hit.
On the astounding “Out of the Woods,” she sings:
"Your necklace hanging round my neck,
When we decided,
To move the furniture so we could dance,
Baby like we stood a chance,
Two paper airplanes flying.”
Taylor crafts these moments, time after time, that feel so palpable that you could almost reach out and touch them.
When you take the most evocative songwriter in music and put her work into the hands of the biggest producers in pop like Max Martin, Shellback and Ryan Tedder, the final product is track after track of these colossal titans that shake your core as easily as they’ll shake a stadium.
To say that this is a pop album by Taylor Swift does not mean that this is sixteen different versions of, say, “Baby One More Time.” 1989 is not Taylor’s take on Bangerz, this is not her Prism. Pop music has given her the freedom to explore and expand her own sound as far as her imagination can take her.
Even at her most pop, her uptempo hits have much more depth (lead single “Shake It Off” removed, perhaps.) The mid-tempo slow burners such as the transcendent “This Love” are still as genuine as ever, but one thousand times more interesting with the addition of a synth in place of a band. Pop has given Taylor the chance to diversify her sound in a way that she couldn’t with country, and she’s doing a damn good job.
What makes this record so good is that Taylor has managed to create something that stands alone from anything else that’s out there. 2014 has been an exciting and frustrating year for pop music, offering tons of innovating and exciting new sounds, as well as some of the most derivative and straight boring music from some of pop’s biggest artists.
Then here comes Taylor, stomping into Q4 with a shiny, new, cohesive body of work that’s devoid of all of the usual tricks and crutches of a pop album, no Pitbull features, no will.i.am production credits. It feels like a record that’s authentic to where Taylor is in her life, a snapshot of a single girl living in New York, hanging with her girls and not really caring all that much about the boys. Most notably, it feels relatable, even though the New York that Taylor is living in is most certainly not the typical 24-year-old’s New York, and the aforementioned girls and boys are supermodels and rock stars like Karli Kloss and Harry Styles.
Another one of the album’s standouts is the stripped down “Clean,” where Taylor goes IN on the metaphor likening a stagnant relationship to a drought, finally being cleansed by a downpour. “You’re still all over me, like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.” This could have easily turned into a drawn-out metaphor gone on for far too long, but with Taylor's expert hand twisting the lyrics and melody and the production that feels actually like getting caught in the rain that she's singing about, it’s a hypnotizing come down from a great ride.
1989 is a portrait of an artist at her very best, and still growing. It's not just another new album, another entry into her already expansive catalog of hits, it's a new era for Taylor with no limits and endless possibilities. 1989 is an absolute triumph. It's the best album of Taylor's career, and it's also the best pop album of 2014.
Tynan is listening to Taylor Swift on Twitter @TynanBuck.