With “1989,” Taylor Swift casts off whatever semblance of country influence she has ever had. In this album named after her birth year, Swift casts away her Nashville roots for the glamour of New York City. While this album is undoubtedly a Swift album, it’s a long way from the girl crooning about the teardrops on her guitar. Don’t doubt it: Taylor Swift has grown up.
Taylor Swift became famous for her album being a teenage diary set to music. She was praised and loved for warbling about her ex-boyfriends and heartbreak, but then, after four albums of it, the media turned on her. Suddenly, Swift wasn’t the underdog who was unlucky in love anymore. She was thin, pretty, rich, and had an adoring fanbase. Swift was now a jealous, clingy, immature and crazy ex-girlfriend.
The problem was that Taylor Swift was leaning on the image she built for herself at 16. Compared to Lorde who, at 17, showed maturity beyond her age, Swift’s “Red” made it seem like she was stuck in arrested development, forever harkening back to small-town football games and high school boyfriends. However, in “1989,” Swift ditches the banjo backtrack and finds bubblegum pop.
Taylor Swift was never really a country singer. Even her most country songs like “Tim McGraw” could have been pop songs with different references and a faster beat. Swift is no longer interested in Nashville. Swift’s new hometown is New York, as made apparent by “Welcome to New York,” which is quite catchy despite sounding like it was written by the tourism board.
Regardless of its very pop feel, “1989” is Swift’s most mature album. The new seriously pop vibe of the album makes “1989” sound like something Haim or Lorde would put out with a little less edge. Swift has never been a great innovator but is a solid performer nonetheless. The vibe of the album is less histrionic than that of Lana Del Rey and a little less bubblegum than that of Katy Perry. While “Red” and “Speak Now” were progressively more complex for Swift, they were still very much within her wheelhouse of country-pop blend. Although going squarely to pop doesn’t seem like much of a risk, it represents a definite change.
Singles off the album like “Shake It Off” and “Welcome to New York” are inescapably catchy pop songs. “Blank Space” is her darkest song yet, featuring lyrics like “I’m a nightmare dressed like daydream.” Her songs “Out Of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would” which were produced by fun.’s Jack Antonoff, have a slightly more indie vibe to them and more dimension than other Swift songs. While most pop now leans on hip-hop influences, Swift’s pop harkens back to the pop of the 1980s. There’s no guest verse by Pitbull; but rather a pleasant dance break in the middle.
Swift has never been a vocal powerhouse. Though talented, Swift’s fame came primarily from her content and her ability to show emotion in her singing. She does not have the pop talent of Robyn or the smooth voice of Lorde. The production of “1989” takes Swift’s ordinary, pleasant voice and uses it as a strength. The album doesn’t rely too heavily on auto-tune, and the backing tracks help to make her voice seem more powerful.
The lyrics have a sense of self-awareness about them as well. No longer is Swift blaming the evil other girl as before in songs such as “Speak Now” and “You Belong With Me.” There’s no more slut-shaming like in “Better Than Revenge.” There are plenty of love songs on “1989,” and there are plenty of songs about ex-boyfriends. But they seem less direct and biting. Swift is no longer interested in exacting revenge on her exes, but she instead focuses more on depicting the condition of a relationship. She’s not looking for the love of her life anymore, but remains interested in love itself.
While Swift’s music has always connected to women, Swift herself seems more genuinely interested in developing friendships with women in her real life. Instead of musings on love and getting over heartbreak, Swift mentions her friendships with model Karlie Kloss and Lena Dunham. While in the past Swift has avoided being called a feminist because “she loves guys,” Swift proudly declares it now. She has started addressing the double standard the media has for her.
Though “1989” is markedly better than her previous ones, it’s important to remember the carefully crafted image around Swift and her album. After a collection of break-ups and media criticism, Swift’s star seemed to have fallen. More importantly, she was a less profitable commodity than before. Swift’s entire image has changed leading up to the release of this album. Swift started living with a supermodel and suddenly her entire style has changed. Gone are the overly sparkly dresses with flowing blonde tresses. Swift is now a formidable fashion presence with her sleek bob, signature red lip and solid, bold outfits. This clean-cut minimalist style jives better with “1989” than her previous looks. Suddenly, Swift is on tumblr, reblogging and commenting just like her fans.
It’s especially hard to distinguish Swift from her handlers as Swift recently pulled not just “1989”, but her entire discography, from Spotify. While her official statement is that the Spotify model is unfair to musicians, Swift’s management has been pushing the physical copies of her album intensely. Swift puts secret messages in the liner notes of her albums, which is especially enticing when you can figure out whom the song is about. Buying a CD also means you can enter a sweepstakes with a chance to meet Swift. The production team behind her knows that her fanbase of teenage girls idolize Swift and would do anything to support her. This marketing has actually worked as “1989” is the only album of 2014 to go platinum. It’s hard to reconcile Swift’s cat-obsessed, girl-next-door image with someone who is definitely ready to manipulate her fans for profit.
Swift is no longer the girl writing about “livin’ in a big ol’ city.” Swift has arrived. She no longer depends on stories of ex-boyfriends and a twangy mandolin in the background. However, her songs are still about being young and about romance because, even though Taylor Swift might be more mature, she’s still Taylor Swift.