Posted on 15 December 2014.
As a long-time supporter of Taylor Swift’s music, the release of her new “purely pop” album was eagerly anticipated. I did my best to remain unbiased during the discussion of her new sound or her change in music genre, and I have ultimately been incredibly impressed by ‘1989.’
The album is a tribute to the electro-pop that dominated radio 25 years ago – in 1989, coincidentally the year that Swift was born. However despite the album being interpreted as a dramatic change in genre, in ‘1989’ Swift hasn’t moved far from her music roots. Underneath the heavy drum patterns and synth melodies are songs that could conceivably be strummed on an acoustic guitar alone in a room, which is how Swift began. ‘How You Get the Girl’ mixes up the best of her old and new tricks, as she plays an acoustic guitar aggressively over an upbeat disco surge. There are obvious flares of her old sound in other songs too, with well-formed verses and catchy choruses (most notable ‘Style’ which presents distressed, melancholy verses combined with a repetitive and fast paced chorus). At the heart of country music is an engagement with the grit of real-life struggles, and this remains Swift’s lyrical terrain. On the other hand, ‘1989’ also doesn’t incorporate as many genres as Swift’s most previous albums Speak Now and Red which mixed country with rock, and in Red flashes of pop such as within hit singles like ‘I Knew You Were Trouble.’ The risk Swift took with her new sound paid off, hooking many listeners and making the album a success.
However, Swift has worked hard to separate herself from pop stereotypes, saying she has “no female role models in music.” Her songs are certainly unlike other pop musicians of today such as Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. There is no production by Diplo, no guest verse by Drake or Pitbull. Swift’s idea of pop music harks back to 1980s synth pop. However, I would liken some of the sound to Lana Del Rey’s music or early Ellie Goulding – in particular ‘Wildest Dreams’ is very Lana Del Rey-esque.
‘1989’ is mature, the album on the whole feels less diary-like than her previous work, emphasising Swift’s more grown up attitude to singing and songwriting. It has a new found levity – Swift rises above the haters (that’ll “hate hate hate hate hate”). She shows impromptu support for the LGBT community in the opening song on the album ‘Welcome to New York’ – claiming “You can want who you want, boys and boys and girls and girls.” There are also casual digs at the media and the way they have portrayed her present in the album – lines such as, “I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me.” Most notably, there is the bouncy ‘Blank Space’ which hyperbolises her portrayal in the media as an overly attached man-eater who dates for song writing material. “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane, but I’ve got a blank space,” she coos before a clicking sound like a pen, “and I’ll write your name.” The comments regarding the media aren’t limited to the chorus in this song however, Swift also writes in the first verse “I can read you like a magazine, ain’t it funny, rumours fly and I know you heard about me.” ‘Blank Space’ is funny and knowing – not only is Swift in on the joke; she also relishes it, showing her intelligence and wit.
The magic of the song extends into the music video, released on the 10th of November and has already accumulated over 42 million views. Swift’s disapproval of the male character being on his phone, and then dropping said phone in the water correlates with her disapproval of the digitalisation of the music industry – made most clear by her refusal to have 1989 on Spotify or any other music streaming sites. This decision caused controversy across the web, and initially was a decision Swift’s producers disagreed with. However, it all added to the ‘1989’ hype and worked to Swift’s advantage. Furthermore, some have suggested the choice of food in the video sends out the message we and we alone control our bodies, and that we and we alone are the only people our body shapes need to please. (I think this could be a dig at Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ and Trainor’s suggestion that it’s ok to be curvy, but it’s only ok because boys like it.) The dramatic irony of eating unhealthy foods in the picnic scene yet both the characters being so slim has been interpreted various ways. Slim and attractive on the outside, perhaps, but ugly on the inside. Swift also sends out the message she does not agree with the objectification of women in pop music – by cutting out the nipples of the male character’s shirt. Swift describes herself as a feminist and many have interpreted this part of the video as support for the #FreeTheNipple campaign. Finally Swift displays her enthusiasm for green energy. She has stated in recent interviews she, “has not driven a car in six months,” and this message is exaggerated with her smashing the male character’s car, and the scene of the couple cycling inside.
Swift sending out messages like this makes her an excellent role model for women around the world – independent and willing to stand for what she believes in, an excellent reason to listen to her music. Her motivation and work ethic are clear from the process of creating the album. Swift talked in her interview with TIME Magazine about her fight to get ‘1989’ the way she wanted; describing how she, “got some kind of interesting side-glance looks” when she presenting ideas for the album which when they were taken on were, of course, a success. Swift spoke about, “When I wanted to call the album ’1989,’ people on the team questioned that,” making her driven personality is blatant. Swift is empowered by music – and hasn’t been the type to ask permission in her career, but she has long seen herself as a stranger to the grand-scale fame that New York signifies. “Someday I’ll be living in a big old city” she taunted on ‘Mean,’ from her album ‘Speak Now’; and here she is, living in New York, even writing songs about it. Swift also certainly knows how to market songs, playing to the media with her wit and intelligence by entitling one of her songs ‘Style’ which is of course 5 of the 6 letters in Harry Styles’s last name. The song hasn’t even been confirmed to be about him but it without doubt gets people interested in the album and the drama encircling ‘Haylor.’
Ultimately, 1989 is a powerful album written by a powerful and intelligent young woman. It benchmarks Swift’s journey away from country music and into pop through compelling, energetic songs. Her talent for song writing has not faltered, lyrics such as “Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats,” reminding listeners of Swift’s inherent talent. Her confident and robust entrance into pop music emphasises her versatility between genres. I would recommend 1989 to anyone, from those wanting a lyrical journey to those just wanting songs to dance to. I think 1989 is one of the best albums of this year so far, and most importantly is just as great as all Swift’s previous work.