Album Review – Taylor Swift’s “1989”

taylor-swift

“This site’s called savingcountrymusic.com. Why are you talking about Taylor Swift? She’s not country. She never was. Now she’s even saying she isn’t.”

Well guess what, tough titty. This is my damn website, and if I want to talk about Taylor Swift, I will. And guess what, you’ll probably read about it.

It’s true that Taylor Swift has officially left country, and the majority of the country music media needs to ween themselves off the Taylor Swift click bait and recuse themselves from running features on every Instagram picture she posts. But I can make the case that when it comes to this specific album, 1989, it is the most relevant, most important album released in country music in the entirety of 2014, let alone in music overall, and for a host of reasons, even though it’s not country. Thinking otherwise is vanity, and ill-informed, to the point where it would be almost irresponsible not to broach the subject of this album, and the potential repercussions it could have on the country genre at large.

For starters, if you trace  back to the origination point 1989, it will lead you to the corporate headquarters of Big Machine Records—an independent label located at 1219 16th Ave South in a portion of the City of Nashville known by locals as Music Row, aka the mother brain of the country music industrial complex. Not to mention that said Big Machine Records also happens to be up for sale according to reports that first surfaced the third week of October, and have subsequently been stoked anew, and specifically name this album, 1989, it’s success, and the success and contract status of Taylor Swift as linchpins to the entire deal.

taylor-swift-album-coverBut let’s not bog down in business jargon and behind-the-scenes details. The reason 1989 is important to country music is not in lieu of Taylor Swift declaring herself and this album pop, it is because of it. Country music isn’t mad at Taylor Swift for leaving the genre, they’re mad because she blew their cover. Of course she’s not country, and never has been. Nor is the majority of what is clad in country clothing. It just happens to be that Taylor Swift is the only artist with the balls to say it, and the balls to admit she wants to make pop music. Oh my heavens, what a shock! Meanwhile the rest of country is syncing up banjos with drum machine beats, and singing about getting high in the bathrooms of downtown clubs. Say they’re not country though, and they’ll admonish you as a closed-minded purist, and claim what they’re doing is “evolution.” If nothing else, give Taylor Swift some damn credit for being honest with herself and her fans. That’s one big monkey off her back … at least for now.

But genres aside, 1989 has already revealed itself as transcendent from a commercial perspective. I don’t know if it’s even possible for us to quantify what kind of feat this album has achieved by selling more albums in a week than any other project in a dozen years. When you factor in the unchecked flight from physical product and now even downloads that is absolutely ramrodding the music marketplace into a downward spiral, this feat is nothing short of miraculous. Would this be the equivalent of selling 2.5 million records on debut in 1989—the year the album is named for? Three million? More?

The decision to not make 1989 available on Spotify proved to be a smart one, as 14-year-old girls all across the country crashed their local Target stores to obtain their copy. Remember the Taylor Swift op-ed from the Wall Street Journal and her fearful plea? “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free,” she said. “In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow… It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album…”

Unless you’re Taylor Swift.

Why is Taylor Swift’s 1989 relevant to a country music website? Because it is relevant to any music website, because we very well may be looking at the very last American album sold in a physical form that permeates the entire population. Vinyl collectors will tell you, if you crash any given pile of records, whether at a garage sale, a thrift store, etc., you always see the same revolving titles: John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass for example. It’s uncanny, and doesn’t matter where you are in the country. It’s because everybody bought those records. Or at least the people that bought records did. 1989 may be the last record of that lineage, and the only person or album that might have a chance at besting or repeating this deed would be Taylor Swift in two years when she releases her next one. It was Taylor Swift’s last album Red that 1989 broke the record for a debut week initially, until the tally of 1989 sales started to reach past 1.25 million, and we had to go all the way back to 2002’s The Eminem Show to find a peer. That is an illustration of how Taylor Swift truly is the artist of a generation, even before factoring music’s dramatic sales slide. And the fact she accomplished all of this after declaring herself no longer country is a footnote worth not glossing over.

taylorswift-1989polaroid-02How did she do it? The Spotify embargo helped, but she also did it by showing love to the physical format. The cover of Swift’s 1989 is fairly nondescript, but purposely so, and you can almost squint and tell how over time it could become iconic with its retro attitude. But it really was the little treats Taylor Swift put inside each package that made her many fans and even passers by decide to go physical. In each package is a card that enters listeners into a sweepstakes for a chance to meet Taylor Swift. A Willy Wonka golden ticket so to speak. It also comes with a little package that says “Photos” that includes 13 cards, or mock Polaroids of Taylor Swift, each numbered as part of a bigger sequence, with the lyrics to songs scribbled in Sharpie on the bottom.

This all gives a physical representation to the incredible amount of social traffic Taylor Swift generates. It’s something tangible that separates her from the virtual stars of today. Like the spinning cover of Led Zepplin’s III‘s original album cover where you could change what’s peeking through the windows, it shows imagination, and effort.

The problem with 1989 though is that it is just not a very good album. Country, or not. The analogy employed for Taylor Swift albums by this country music critic for her previous releases was that of an Italian food critic sent to a Chinese restaurant, and asked to judge the Chinese food … as Italian food. Clearly the result would be a failing grade, and that is what Taylor Swift received, regardless of how good the music was as pop. But judging it as pop music specifically, it was hard to not admit that the music had its moments, and its depth and value.

1989 has some depth too, and some value here and there, but overall you feel like you’re getting the worst of all those older Taylor Swift albums—the unabashed pandering to the public at large in smash singles, and some of the self-ingratiating sentimentality—all condensed into one. There are respites, and as Taylor Swift says herself, this is the most cohesive album she’s ever made sonically, and that may be true. But I’m not sure that is something to be boasting about when this is the result.

Taylor Swift’s 1989 could have been great, and you get a sense that it almost was. The idea of this retro, 25-year throwback perspective personified in new music is probably a worthy one. That 25-year marker is thrown around regularly as the measurement of when music of the previous generation reaches its apex of emotional virility and maximum memory response in its listeners. Before the 25-year window, the music feels unfashionable. Beyond it, and it feels outmoded. 25 years is the sweet spot, and that is why country music is seeing a revival of its “Class of ’89” artists like the recently-unretired Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson who is going on a 25-year Anniversary tour.

25 years ago was a big time in country music, or at least the time of a big freshman class. But what about pop? 1989 was the year of Milli Vanilli. The 80’s were already an era of music that would be called lost by some, and laughable by others. Why does a lot of commercial country today sound like bad 80’s hair metal? Why did Taylor Swift’s Big Machine record label release a Mötley Crüe tribute album this year? Because it hits on that 25-year sweet spot. But hair metal and Milli Vanilli were godawful, just like much of 80’s music.

If you wanted to look for what has withstood the test of time from the 80’s era of pop, you look to New Wave, and one hit wonders. Yes, this was the era when synthesized music took hold in earnest, but it was also the time of tantalizing melodies and arrangement—guilty pleasures for Audiophiles and ear worms galore for the masses. And we’ve already seen Taylor Swift tap into this retro music magic, and rather successfully ahead of the 1989 release.

Jack Antonoff

Jack Antonoff

A song like “Enchanted” from Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now has that 80’s synth pop thing going strong. On 2012’s Red, a perfect example of this is the song “Starlight.” And the single that preceded this album called “Sweeter Than Fiction” that appeared on the soundtrack of the film One Chance also found Taylor Swift revitalizing the New Wave vibes that marked some of the best moments of 80’s pop, and doing it with Jack Antonoff as producer—the guitar player for the band Fun, and the man who also co-wrote and produced two songs for 1989, including one of the lead singles, “Out of the Woods.”

Listening to “Sweeter Than Fiction” and some of Swift’s other synth-pop songs from the past, you though that if this was the direction 1989 took, the results could be quite tantalizing. Taylor has proven to be adept at re-imagining the 80’s. But I hate to say, this album did not take that direction, really whatsoever. If “Sweeter Than Fiction,” or even “Starlight” or “Enchanted” were included on this album, they would immediately become the best tracks by far. One of the surprising things about 1989 is how much it resides solidly in the here and now, startlingly so. There’s not really any retro vibe. Instead we get Max Martin/Shellback smash single formulas, a fairly lackluster, unimaginative, and disappointing performance by Jack Antonoff, and only a few songs that really simulate any intrigue to the discerning ear.

1989, just like the year itself, is sort of a bore. The cohesiveness of the album eliminates any spice or suspense. The modes of production are transparent, and the melodies are rendered powerless by rhythmic seizures, excessive repetitiveness, and poor decision making in the composition. This album is just kind of a mess in places, guessing at what might make a song a smash hit instead of doing the inspiration justice.

It’s been the assertion by Saving Country Music that all popular music is slowly transitioning to simply being noise scientifically formulated to stimulate the highest possible dopamine response in the brain. Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback—who joined Taylor’s team at the behest of Scott Borchetta during Red—are the precursors to this impending era. They were responsible for Red‘s three huge pop hits, but like Taylor accurately picked up on, their compositions came out of nowhere on that album, like interjections to the listener, and hurt her overall effort, regardless of the success of the songs themselves. She avoids that same mistake here, but unfortunately she does it by enacting this Max Martin/Shellback composition-by-formula across the board on these 13 tracks.

Whatever the original melodies to these songs were, we’ll never know. Taylor herself has probably forgotten them already. I have little doubt most of the words are her own. But then she brought them into the studio, was asked to sing them a certain way, and then they were summarily dumped into a sound file, cut and pasted like text from a Wikipedia page into a student’s history report, and then used as the producers wished to craft what they believed would be infectious patterns for mega hits. The result is that any and all inspiration behind the songs has been scrubbed from the performances. Taylor Swift’s words and voice are just another sonic elements to fit into a pre-arranged composition optimized for mass consumption. The curly-haired awkward girl sitting in her bedroom writing down her feelings while playing her acoustic guitar was not only lost in this process, she was murdered.

What’s the most shocking about this is that we can expect this kind of behavior from the music cretins like Max Martin and Shellback, who along with Joey Moi and other producers are really at the heart of destroying American popular music. But Jack Antonoff of Fun, and Ryan Tedder—the OneRepublic frontman who also co-writes and produces a couple of songs on this album—seem so eager to play ball with this formulaic approach. This was possibly the fatal flaw of bringing in Max Martin on not just as a songwriter and producer, but as the executive producer of the project. Everything was exposed to his corrupting mandibles, aside from maybe the song “This Love” that Swift did with her long-time original producer Nathan Chapman.

Max Martin

Max Martin

In fact the guest producers do such a poor job and this album is such a lowering of the bar overall, the songs that shine the brightest are arguably the ones Max Martin and Shellback had the heaviest hand in—a complete role reversal from Red. Even Imogen Heap’s contribution on the final track “Clean” feels tired, forced, and unimaginative. However, this is nothing close to praise of the Swedish pair. It’s just happens to be that a few of the songs they didn’t completely suffocate the melodies or ruin the songs with rhythmic pap, though many of them they still did.

The song “Style” works well as a modern pop song, and the theme about being classic and above style trends is really smart, while the song also conveys the story of a passionate romance. The other standout of the album is “How You Get the Girl.” Despite being hamstrung by the annoyingly-rhythmic confusion at the beginning of the song, it rallies to evidence one of the most catchy moments on an album that is curiously lacking in them for a pop project. “This Love”—the only solo write by Swift on the entire album and produced by Nathan Chapman—is alright, but is a little too flat and Enya-like to hold the attention for very long, even though for once on this album you get the sense you’re listening to something very personal.

Other songs like “All You Had To Do Was Stay” would have been good, buy why, why choose to put some ridiculous banshee yawp enhancement on the final “stay” of every phrase to take a perfectly fine pop song and make it polarizing? “Wildest Dreams,” “I Wish You Would,” are just okay, and don’t even get me started with the album’s lead singles: “Shake It Off,” “Out of the Woods,” and “Welcome To New York.” These songs are just bullshit. “Out of the Woods” can’t be saved by the inclusion of a personal narrative because it is simply caustic to the ears with its rhythmically disjointed repetitiveness. “Bad Blood” is downright annoying. The entire project is so racked with poor rhythm decisions, repeated words and sounds, Shellback loading up Taylor Swift’s voice in a memory bank and playing it back on a MIDI controller like a Moog, it’s just objectionable to the ear in many places. 1989 is the worst album Taylor Swift has every made.

But how about the words, is there any redemption here? Sure, maybe. But once again we’re asked to praise Taylor Swift the songwriter when her words have been buried beneath layers of synthesizer beds and over-production that screams out for the predominant attention, while the lead single of the album is built around the vacuous “Players gonna play, and haters gonna hate” über cliché of our era. If Taylor Swift wants respect as a lyricist, she needs to put the material out front that flatters these attributes, not that refutes them. Yes, there are some good lines, and good sentiments on 1989‘s lyrical set. But we’re not seeing Taylor Swift evolve. When she was fifteen, we were amazed at the maturity and self-awareness she embedded in her cute little pop songs. Now you’re starting to wonder if and how her fame has stunted her emotional development.

That doesn’t mean songs like “Wildest Dreams,” “This Love,” and “I Know Places” don’t have a little something. But songs like “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” come across as immature and self-indulgent. Let’s not forget that Taylor Swift is still only 24. But where before she was a 15-year-old writing as a 24-year-old, now it feels like she’s a 24-year-old writing as an 18-year-old in segments of this album.

Where does 1989 rate when it comes to the great pop albums of this generation? It’s fate is probably secured in being considered top grade simply because of its commercial performance. Hell, the City of New York has already named Swift their “ambassador” for the next two years based off of 1989‘s lead song and Swift buying and apartment in Manhattan. But I’m sorry to say, “Welcome to New York” as a song offers nothing. At all. 1989 held up against Lorde’s Pure Heroine, or Adele’s 21, or even taking a further step back and looking at Nelly Furtado’s Loose for example, and you feel like it would be patently unfair to compare those projects to what Taylor Swift has offered up here. It’s more on par with Ke$ha’s Animal—simply a collection of digital production performances and studio magic with some flashes of fair writing.

Swift seems to think that to loosen the bonds of country, she had to completely go away from instrumentation. Virtually the entirety of 1989 was sequenced on Mac computers, and you can feel that in the results. Yet you listen to where the rest of pop music is headed, and you see it beginning to favor instrumentation more and more, like the standup bass in Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” that has consistently bested Swift’s “Shake It Off” in the charts.

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There are some decent moments on this album, and I don’t want to downplay this opinion. And I would be interested in hearing the songs that did not make the cut, as I’m sure there were many fleshed out in the studio that we’re not getting a chance to hear.

But it’s over. That young girl with big dreams and an acoustic guitar sitting on the edge of her bed writing silly little heartfelt songs that became America’s sweetheart has become just a franchise name for dubious-intentioned producers to do with what they will. Max Martin finished the job in 1989 he started on Red. The fact that Taylor Swift still writes most of her lyrics is simply a facade that she has complete control over what is transpiring, misleading not just her fans and the public, but more disappointingly, herself. The problem with money and success is that you can always have more of it, and this is usually where the compromising of principles occurs, trying to best records you’ve already broken. When you attain goals by reaching outside yourself, the losses are greater than the gains.

1989 does not represent the year Taylor Swift was born, it represents the moment her music died as a form of her original expression.

1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.