Even if you enjoy the new, bionic Taylor Swift, a relentless dance-pop machine with phasers set to “profit,” you have to feel for the country fans that thought she would stick around a little longer. Nashville was the first outlet for the humble Pennsylvania girl-with-a-guitar. The country crowd lauded her as a beacon of hope for a fading genre, and clung to her even when she released a “dubstep” single. Swift was the one to finally break ties.
In a dramatic livestreamed announcement, Swift announced that her fifth album, ‘1989’ would be her “first documented pop record,” retroactively filing her last few singles as something other than pure pop. She said she wanted to recreate the colorful flashes of the 80s, express a new era of her life, and – in not so many words – bury her Nashville past in a shallow grave.
The lead single, “Shake It Off,” is a flimsy stab at the haters (who do, in fact, hate) that is just catchy enough to hit number one on the charts without much effort. The song seems just faintly aware of its own inanity, with Swift winking at her awkward Insta-nerd persona and clumsy dance moves. She makes herself the underdog while maintaining the power of the mean girls who allegedly keep her down.
Swift followed that up with “Out of the Woods,” which tucks well-written verses between a dry, exhausting chorus. The trifecta of promo singles is completed with “Welcome to New York,” a song that makes Swift the small-town girl dazzled by the big city, where anything is possible, even boys dating boys. The glossy production from Ryan Tedder matches the awe of stepping into a metropolis, but pop clichés like “lights so bright” fade into the background and do little to make Swift sound like an adult who should have her own Manhattan apartment in the first place.
Cleverness does sneak in when Swift lashes back at her media reflection, like on “Blank Space.” She makes herself a parody of the hungry man-eater that appears in the tabloids, and she actually sounds as genuine as ever with goofy lines like “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend,” delivered with an audible wink-y face emoji. The stark, echoing beat sounds like the result of hanging out with Lorde, and the restraint is welcome among the mess of glitter and synths. Up next is “Style,” which sounds like Olivia Newton-John at her most sultry, and dutifully references James Dean and red lipstick to paint the portrait of timelessness.
The busy arrangements force more narrative songs into the ‘1989’ mold, like “Wildest Dreams” which begs for the mandolins of Swiftian past. She tries to spice up the love letters with the confrontational “Bad Blood” – another Lorde-influenced number – but lands on childish again with schoolyard taunting and vague accusations toward her new radio peer, Katy Perry. Apparently the two had a falling out that bloggers are dying for either to divulge, but Swift keeps the details at arm’s length and instead delivers a wishy-washy girl hate anthem.
“Clean,” a collaboration with Imogen Heap, sounds suspiciously like 90s alt-pop for an album dedicated to the previous decade, but the lyrics are some of Swift’s most mature. “You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore,” she moans in a rare reminder that she is a full-grown woman.
One issue with the album overall is that Taylor Swift draws energy from the drama of her real life, and her most recent relationship with One Direction’s Harry Styles doesn’t seem to be a real nail-biter or pulse-raiser. “Clean” could be a painful ballad for getting over lost love, but she doesn’t seem to have been all that invested anyway.
The most apt comparison I’ve seen for Taylor Swift isn’t Alanis Morisette or Joni Mitchell – it’s Bruce Springsteen. Both have a knack for relatable songwriting that resonates with a huge chunk of middle America, and their sincerity speaks louder than the flaws in their voices. Of course, the musician that young girls relate to will always get less respect than the everyman for the working class man, but the real difference is that Swift received as much recognition as Springsteen before she turned 21. By the age that Swift was Instagram-ing her Grammy awards, Springsteen had a whole life to write about, a life that he shared with the kind of people who loved his music.
Springsteen was never tempted to “cross over” into pure pop territory, though he surely had the talent for it. Swift has been a part of the machine for her whole adult life, and will take a few detours before writing her ‘Nebraska’ or ‘Born to Run.’ Right now she’s earning millions on cotton-candy radio fluff, but she’ll find a way to clear her sphere of influence and settle on the sound that fits her comfortably.

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