Taylor Swift became arguably the biggest pop star in the world in an odd fashion; by not being a pop star. She came up through the country ranks, and challenged the modern notion of pop music by continuing to play an instrument and write songs that had more of a connection to singer/songwriters than corporate hit-makers. She was the lone star able to straddle the fence between the old and the new, a crossover artist who could appeal to everyone. That is what made her rise possible, and it’s why “1989” is such a risk.
“1989” is not a record that will appeal to everyone in the same manner that “Speak Now” or “Red” did. Those albums dabbled in modern pop, but still had elements of other sounds so that people who weren’t enamored with the current Billboard chart could embrace her. This time, Taylor has abandoned all pretense of who she has always been, using “1989” as an experiment to see if her music could translate beyond the borders of the Taylor Swift persona. By traveling back in time to the synthesized sounds of the 80s, and by applying a lacquer of fake instrumentation, Taylor is trying to reveal the humanity behind her songs.
Perhaps that’s too deep a reading of the album. Maybe “1989” really is just Taylor wanting to have fun and record some pop songs. Whatever the reason behind the shift, taking such an abrupt turn with her music is a definite risk, the kind that you seldom see people selling so many records make.
What distinguishes “1989” from everything that came before is that it is a synthetic, icy, computer-driven record. The only thing through these tracks that sounds the least bit human, or musical at all, are Taylor’s vocals. Against a backdrop of homogenized drums, cut up into easy to digest beats, Taylor’s vocals are the ray of sunlight trying to melt the ice. There are times when she does this, where she can turn what is a pedestrian backdrop into a stunning pop song through the sheer force of her personality. These are few and far between, however.
The majority of the album doesn’t feel like a Taylor Swift album, nor does Taylor feel like herself. In trying to play the part of the modern pop star, who plays second fiddle to the producer manning the boards, Taylor has robbed her music of it’s best element; her. Instead of using the production to put a different gloss on her music, to highlight the strengths of her songwriting, she gets swallowed by the same sonics that drive every other female pop star currently on the charts. Her lyrics are never given a chance to shine, dumbed down to fit the rigid constructions, to the point where “Out Of The Woods” repeats so often as to sound like a demo waiting for the lyricist to finish writing the actual words.
What makes “1989” maddening is that while there are such glaring errors and missteps with the direction and execution of the album, the hook are so sharp that it’s hard not to get sucked in. Taylor has always had a knack for writing melodies, and she and her collaborators come up with some great ones here, writing earworms that are going to dominate the charts right through next year. Even though I don’t like this style of pop, I have to say that I found myself playing “Blank Space” in my head when I least expected it. This album has a way of digging in and hanging on for dear life, infecting you like a pop music parasite.
Before you know it, you’re under the spell of this record. I can’t explain how it happened, but I found myself enjoying “1989” far more than I know I should have. It goes against everything I believe about music, but “1989” is too enjoyable for even me to hate. If that doesn’t prove Taylor Swift’s power, I don’t know what does.