Taylor Swift’s “1989”: Rise of a Benevolent Empire

Swift

“Welcome to New York,” the first track on Taylor Swift’s new album 1989, is not about New York. If you’ve heard the song, you already know why. It’s about a magical place filled with wonder and delight. That place does not exist. But Taylor Swift does, and the song is about her.

“It’s been waiting for you,” she chants. She’s projecting, of course. We’ve been waiting for her.


Since she burst onto the scene with “Tim McGraw” in 2006, Taylor Swift has been on a steady trajectory to superstardom with nary a bump in the road. With 1989, she’s completed her transformation from golden girl of the Nashville scene to savior of the music industry’s commercial fortunes. Perhaps more remarkable, she’s done it without compromising the qualities that make her pop’s most appealing star. Her songwriting remains impeccable. Her voice never gets buried under layers of production hijinks or compromised by the business-minded whims of record label executives. Her relationship with her fans remains as strong as ever. And if she keeps turning out albums as ambitious and polished as 1989, she’s well on her way to reaching the legendary annals of pop icons like Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Shake

It’s not hard to feel that way after seeing the sales predictions for this new album. No one else on Earth – not Beyonce, not Justin Timberlake, probably not even Adele (though we won’t know until at least 2015) – can sell albums like Taylor Swift can. Albums. Remember those? Some artists still release them. Others dribble their new material out bit by bit, appealing to a generation of Spotify and Pandora users who lack the attention span for 45 minutes of one artist’s singular vision. Taylor Swift has always been savvy about turning her albums into events. The pre-album singles are nice, but we really need the full package, and we can’t get it on Spotify. That’s a smart business move and a careful manipulation of her image. She sees you, millennials, and you’re going to come to her, not the other way around.

“Welcome to New York” sets the scene for the album, but its placement in the lineup is canny. It’s the least lyrically sophisticated song on the album, and it represents Taylor Swift in her most naive guise, the one she’s derided for in hater circles (shake, shake, shake). Later in the album, when the emotions are messier, you realize that “Welcome to New York” is a clever feint. If you’re feeling cynical, you might say that Taylor Swift consciously designed this song to supersede “Empire State of Mind” as the modern derivative of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” If you’re feeling charitable, you might say that Taylor Swift starts the album on a shallow note to deepen the stories she tells later. And if you’re feeling reasonable, you might listen to the song, nod your head indifferently, and move on.

After that bouncy but uninspired introduction, 1989 launches into full-on chart assault mode, with one song after another that can only be described as a “hit.”* The pop instincts that flared up on the hit singles from Red bear fruit here. Coupled with Swift’s technical precision and some innovative production work from pop veterans Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff, tracks like “Out of the Woods,” “Style” and “Wildest Dreams” approach grandeur. Swift’s voice has never sounded more dynamic – when she adds an extra syllable to the word “is” in “Wildest Dreams” and flies up an octave on the “in my mind” part of “Shake It Off,” you can hear the human being powering the pop machine.

*(I’ve heard many people sum up their praise for the album by suggesting that every song on it could be a number one hit, and I’ve done the same thing. What a curious bit of backhanded praise. We tend to resent number one hits more often than not, because they’re too ubiquitous or too controversial or both. And yet we’re happy Taylor Swift has made an album full of them.)

And the subject matter, while not radically different from the romantic angst from her previous work, is as self-aware as it is expressive. Swift coyly jabs at her critics on “Blank Space” and explicitly mocks them on “Shake It Off,” but the wit doesn’t feel self-congratulatory or preachy. Taylor Swift knows what you think of her, but she also knows that you’re powerless to resist her charms.


Once again, Swift’s songwriting yields nuggets of wisdom that country music devotees might call “good storytelling.” “How to Get the Girl” is pretty perceptive coming from a woman who has sworn off dating because she can’t so much as swipe right on Tinder without generating twelve headlines. “Shake It Off” wears Taylor Swift’s unshakeable (see what I did there?) nerdiness like a badge of honor. “I Know Places,” which bears some sonic resemblance to Sia’s “Chandelier,” portrays Swift’s frantic attempts to hide her relationships from the public eye as an epic battle of “the hunters” and “the foxes.” How cinematic.*

*(Too bad Swift’s onscreen appearances have proven less than scintillating so far. She’s not perfect after all. No matter – if she were, her fans might not have someone to relate to.)

1989

The album’s home stretch is both retrenchment and evolution. “This Love” and “Clean” sound most likely to fit in on country playlists, and indeed, they bear the name of producer Nathan Chapman, the craftsman responsible for most of Speak Now and much of Red. They’re also the album’s two slowest songs, and perhaps its two most introspective cuts. “Clean” in particular feels cathartic. After a long and profitable career of making public spectacles out of her failed relationships, Taylor Swift appears to be moving on. “Gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean,” she sings, and indeed, this album has fewer outright “revenge tracks” than any of her previous albums.

Swift now claims she’s a feminist, though by many definitions she’s been one from the minute she strapped on a guitar, or at least since she paved her path to success. She also claims she’s a full-fledged pop artist now, though that claim too seems like a foregone conclusion in the wake of “I Knew You Were Trouble” and even “You Belong With Me.” (She left Nashville at the right time, too – the format is currently littered with beer cans and populated by hunky thirty-somethings with big muscles and regrettable hip-hop aspirations.) 1989 reflects her evolving politics and cements her broader genre aims. It’s also very, very, very catchy.

Welcome to New York, Taylor Swift. It’s been waiting for you.

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