By Michael James
With only a few days of 2014 left, I decided to put my violent hatred of the mainstream on hold for forty minutes or so and listen to Taylor Swift’s 1989 with an open heart. I wanted to hate it. I despised Taylor Swift, mostly because every one of my exes had made me listen to Swift’s awful, awful tween pop in the car on our way to anywhere. I hated pop, and I hated country, so a hybrid of the two was unwelcome. When 1989 was released, I didn’t understand why this unoriginal multimillionaire’s shift to an even more commercial sound was being called brave. Then I listened to the album.
The second track (and also the second single), “Blank Space,” is about heartbreak. Not a surprising topic for Swift. But there’s a darkness to it that isn’t just melancholy; it’s more sinister than anything she’s put out before. Exhibit A: “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” Is that arrogance or self-deprecation? I don’t know, but it’s clever enough to be quoted by a million Tumblr pages.
Then there’s the lead single, “Shake it Off.” There’s a good reason its music video has, last time I checked, almost 400 million hits. That reason may or may not be that the hook is as funky as all hell. If you didn’t already know, the song’s about ignoring your critics and doing whatever the hell you want. We’ve seen it before in Gaga’s “Born This Way” and on and on down the line all the way back to the Who’s “My Generation.” So it’s an old trick, but it works. Her rapping is a bit of a hiccup, but, like all hiccups, it’s conveniently temporary.
The album closer, “Clean,” co-written with Imogen Heap, almost reaches a higher plane. Not only is it the closest to sounding like something that might have actually come out of the ‘80s, but the opening lines are downright killer: “The drought was the very worst / When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst.” The song goes on to use recovery from addiction as a metaphor for nursing a broken heart. And that’s when I couldn’t help thinking of a series of What If’s. What if this album had been Swift’s comeback after suffering the forced self-destruction almost inevitable for female pop stars? What if she had fought drug or alcohol addiction and then paired that experience with her former reputation for having a luckless romantic life? She would be a legend, that’s what. But the tune is ok as is, too.
Honestly, the deep cuts aren’t great. “Style” is catchy, and “Wildest Dreams” is adorable, but everything else is play-by-the-book pop that’s just plain boring. So in its entirety, it’s not groundbreaking work, and the singles will get played to death by DJs and fans alike, as is the nature of pop. Sure, she could have recorded exclusively on equipment from 1989 and used way more synth, blah blah blah. But 1989 is important because it’s an opportunity to shut up about artistic innovation for a minute and let our over-serious psyches relax into the comfort of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-break-chorus. So thank you, Taylor, for your significant contributions to my New Year’s Eve playlist.
My resolution: find at least one other artist so good at being normal she deserves respect, even from her enemies.