It would seem that the post-Gaga pop landscape has come to be characterized by a certain mediocrity, a plush inoffensiveness. Last Fall was dominated by the Miley-Gaga-Katy royal rumble of mainstreamed outrageousness, only to have Beyoncé retroactively deprive said matchup of any legitimate relevancy. With “Fancy” solidly (and mercifully) in the rearview, the only narrative we have to go on this Fall is, perhaps, Ariana vs. Taylor, and that’s just about as far as we can get from the antics of (relatively mild) pop-provocateurs like Miley, Katy, and Gaga.
But when it comes to Taylor and Ariana, there’s not much to say to compare the two; Grande’s mark on pop culture, though promising, is still far too undeveloped to bring her into real contention with a legitimately titanic figure like Ms. Swift. Furthermore, boiling the two artists down to pop embodiments of country/R&B isn’t just reductive, it’s a bit out of touch in 2014.
So much for framing this review with anything other than a negative value, but it’s true: none of this has been particularly interesting as of late, at least compared to last year. But while recent mainstream output may seem like a bit of a step back for pop, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy it; I loved Ariana’s My Everything, despite its obviously run-of-the-mill, cautious approach to pop R&B.
Concerning Taylor Swift’s new album 1989, I must insist you start enjoying it. Immediately.
To begin, let’s call a spade a spade: the opening track and most recent single “Welcome To New York” is essentially intolerable. This has to be stated. When El-P said as much on Twitter last week, my initial reaction was that such commentary was unneeded, mean, and quite beneath him. But, he’s also right. This song shouldn’t really be listened to by anyone, and it’s far beyond the pale for any 27-year-old man to be listening to. Even if that 27-year-old man is me.
But the great news is that the album immediately recovers, with “Blank Space” and “Style” representing two of the best songs on the album. Upon first listening, I was beside myself with the sonic pleasure at work here. These two songs (both co-written and produced by the legendary Max Martin) work so well that it’s kind of ridiculous that “Shake It Off” was the lead single, or that “Welcome to New York” was released as a single at all.
These two upbeat, extremely energetic pop gems lead into the truly excellent second single from the album, “Out of the Woods.” I’m a huge fan of this song; it strikes me as a mixture of Katy Perry at her most self-serious (read: best) and the kind of epic sentimentality that Lea Michele still hasn’t figured out how to effectively exploit, tied together with shrewd synth-pop production (syvology music contributor Julia aptly describes it as “Taylor does CHVRCHES”).
After the delightful “All You Had to Do Was Stay” keeps our blood pumping, the ineffable “Shake It Off” forms the playful, ironic nucleus around which an otherwise characteristically sentimental album circulates. I was a bit critical of this song when it dropped back in August, and I still feel it’s a song far too catchy for its own good.
The second half of the album feels populated by a lot of filler (see, e.g. “Wonderland,” and “I Know Places),” but even when the record drags its feet a bit through “Wildest Dreams” and “This Love,” it’s all still pretty good.
And truly, the latter half has some major highlights. Co-written by Imogen Heap, “Clean” flows by smoothly like a lost Postal Service track; subdued, pretty, and earnest. The romantic functionalism of “How You Get the Girl” is as entertaining as it is problematic, preoccupied as it is with the quasi-Freudian* view of masculinity and femininity as a split between activity and passivity. “Bad Blood,” though somewhat of a stupid song, is notable if only for its imminently repeatable maxim, “band-aids don’t fix bullet holes.”
I’m usually against bonus tracks, but this review will proceed to them, and I will strongly urge the reader to make sure to gain access to the Target/international deluxe version (it should have 19 tracks). The already-notorious “voice memos” are fascinating, but mostly, I’m talking about one particular song that has inexplicably been relegated to “bonus track” material.
The best song on the album is “You Are in Love,” which was co-written with Fun’s Jack Antonoff (as was “Out of the Woods”). This legitimately moving track, with its Phil Collins vibe and unyieldingly maudlin lyrical position (“You keep his shirt/He keeps his word”; “You can hear it in the silence, You can feel it on the way home, You see it with the lights out, You are in love”) is at once endearing and heartbreaking, as such fictive nicieties are brought to life if only to demonstrate how absent they are.
Reading this song (and other tear-jerkers like “Out of the Woods” and “This Love”) alongside the album’s intermittent moments of levity like “Shake It Off,” “Style,” and “Bad Blood,” the listener is left wondering who the real Taylor is on 1989.
The dominant narrative surrounding this album is that not only has Taylor evolved sonically into a straightforward pop singer shorn of her country roots, but that she’s also matured emotionally. In interviews, she’s claimed to be “over boys” and more interested in real “men” (a dubious distinction in 2014, as NYT‘s A.O Scott recently argued). She says, “I think it’s important to find romance and magic in your life without there being a relationship that constitutes that.” Meanwhile, publications like The Atlantic have noted that “Taylor Swift Is So Much More Fun Now That She’s Jaded.”
But is she jaded or more romantically quixotic than ever? What does this album, taken as a whole, really say about this supposed “progress” in her emotional subjectivity, as a person and an entertainer?
To my ears, it sounds like far less has changed for her than the dominant narrative may have you believe. The twanging guitars may be gone and she may have found new humor in the self-referential nature of her pop, but this still feels very much like a Taylor Swift album.
This is true in both style and substance. Other than perhaps “Shake It Off” and the throwaway bonus track “New Romantics,” there’s little on the album proper that’d feel particularly out of place on 2008’s Fearless, lacking any distinct stylistic departures in the vein of “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Rather, this is mostly the same old Taylor that we’ve come to know so well, the one who dances awkwardly at award shows and feels so comfortable letting us in on her successive romantic struggles.
But far from backing herself further into the commonplace narrative forced on her, namely that she still struggles to forge an independent feminine identity for herself, and that she needs learn to view herself through a lens other than the emotional gaze of the men in her life, on 1989 Taylor succeeds not by deconstructing this characterization, but by embracing and reconfiguring it to integrate more fully her status as a desiring subject.
It is Taylor’s very desirousness that makes her so attractive to us; as a culture and as individuals, we’re drawn to her because of a certain authenticity to her continuing, engagingly nonsensical state of desire.
Our culture’s interest in her love life, downright voyeuristic at times, is animated not by disdain or malice, as is the case with so many other perennially scrutinized female celebrities (e.g. Britney, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes). Rather, Taylor’s unique appeal lies in our intuitive fascination with her own quaint yearning; for years, and on 1989 more than ever, we’ve been watching someone stuck in the same circuit of human want as we are.
*Freud himself found this account of sexual difference unsatisfactory.