Available on: Big Machine
20 years from now, if my kids want to know what pop sounded like in the Instagram era, I’ll hand them 1989. Taylor Swift’s latest – her first “documented, official pop album – is the musical equivalent of a ’80s photograph cropped, filtered and reposted with a #tbt caption. The question on people’s lips when Swift announced the concept of her new record was “how does someone born in 1989 make an album that pays homage to what the late ’80s sounded like?”, but they missed a crucial fact: people born later than Swift do this every single day, with the filters on their iPhones.
This sounds like a criticism, and when Swift shared the first three singles from her upcoming album, it was meant as one. It seemed, from the repetitive drive of ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Out of the Woods,’ that she had condensed her lyricism from her usual narrative style into a string of pretty aphorisms that could almost have been written to become perfect social media updates (they then actually performed that purpose, later in the build-up to 1989‘s release). Swift teased the album by saying it was her “most sonically cohesive” ever, and the more that was shared of it, especially the lifelessly twee ‘Welcome To New York’, the more that seemed like something to be wary of. The 1980s theme felt like a colour filter rather than a meaningful tribute, and the motif-heavy lyrics seemed like a step back.
However, as Taylor sings on the album’s effusive bonus track ‘New Romantics’, “life is just a classroom,” and it’s hard to criticise her for documenting memories as romantic, filtered snapshots when she does it so well. It’s also not so far away from what she’s been doing for a long time. Past single ‘Love Story’ hinged on the tableau of Swift in a white dress dancing with a her first love at the prom, a scene she dutifully recreates live again and again; on ‘Mean’ she dealt with the sting of present criticism by projecting the image of a city skyline onto her future; ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ hinged on one “exhausting” phone call.
Early on in my notes on 1989, I wrote that Swift had “emojified” herself, and now I’m not so sure that that’s a bad thing. Swift’s gift has always been the ability to capture the scape of a teenager’s imagination with the succintness of a teenager’s Twitter feed; she illustrates the mundane moments in the lives of millions of young girls, and in a world where those young girls do that for themselves everyday via social media, she’s evolved with them. More than a direct pastiche of the ’80s, this record is a pastiche of our current obsession with documenting and developing nostalgia for our lives as they happen, and that’s how Taylor Swift has managed to make an album that’s both called 1989 and devastatingly on-trend.
Having worked on the three stand-out singles from Swift’s Red, Max Martin is back as executive producer, and his influence plays no small part: this record is far more consistent than any of Swift’s previous. The album is front-loaded, however, with ‘Blank Space,’ ‘Style’ and the cavernous ‘Out Of The Woods’ all crashing into one another, and things wear thin whenever Ryan Tedder gets involved. His two co-writing contributions are the album’s most hollow: opener ‘Welcome To New York’ manages to reduce an entire city to a pristine skyline seen from a top floor window, and ‘I Know Places’ sings of knowing places to run to but goes nowhere. Whereas Martin seems to get that Taylor’s goofy leftfield moments (spoken word interludes, shutter clicks) are a key part of her persona, Tedder simply shoots for “epic” every time, working through a shopping list of generic hooks and chord changes.
No longer writing love stories that naively set out to rival Romeo and Juliet, the Swift on 1989 is very aware of the transience and the fun of everything she’s writing about – but she’s also aware that that doesn’t mean it can’t sound larger than life. On ‘Blank Space,’ one of her most enjoyable songs to date, she’s basically saying “sure, I go on a lot of dates – and can’t that exploration be just as romantic and exciting as some great love?”. Polaroid camera in hand, she’s out to reminisce about her flings and flushes when they’ve barely begun. On ‘Out Of The Woods’, Swift is singing about a relationship in retrospect, singing about photographs they took where “the rest of the world was in black and white, but we were screaming colour.” On ‘Wildest Dreams’, she sees herself as a memory in the mind of a lover who’s gone on to other things, hoping he’ll “see me in hindsight” wearing a pretty dress and staring at a sunset. It leans heavily on the doomed romance tropes and style of Lana Del Rey, who is the reigning queen of not-quite-nostalgia that Swift nails on this album, but Swift is the only popstar I can imagine who would be singing sexlessly and sweetly in 2014 about “standing in a nice dress” with “red lips and rosy cheeks.”
“I go on too many dates, but I can’t make them stay – that’s what people say,” she winks on ‘Shake It Off’, letting her critics in the paparazzi press know that she’ll always have the upper hand as long as she can spin their nonsense into perfect pop songs. This album is perhaps Swift’s best, because it’s unapologetic and shame-free: it draws a line in the sand under the old Swift who could be accused of slut-shaming in her lyrics and who always seemed to waver somewhere between self-aware and unaware. On 1989, she makes mountains out of molehills, but this approach feels one part the ironic distance of the digital generation, one part sincere embracing of the impact of life’s speedbumps. Nothing could be more 2014.