Can I first just say, regardless of how anyone feels about Taylor Swift’s music, that they ought to empathize with her for how pathetically people are attacking her as a person? That the common complaints go from rampant idiocy at best to blatant misogyny at worst?
“She only sings about relationships!”, spoken by someone who didn’t learn the “write what you know” rule in Writerscraft and who would probably stammer into silence when asked what was the most common topic that the Beatles sang about.
“She needs to grow up!”, spoken by someone who enjoys listening to the Rolling Stones, yet is perfectly okay with Mick Jagger singing about fucking girls on their periods when he was 26 (“Let It Bleed”) or a woman who could make “a dead man cum” when he was 38 (“Start Me Up”).
“I liked her more when she was country!”, spoken by someone who’s running back to listen to Red as we speak, getting lost in the dubstep drops of “I Knew You Were Trouble” that was oh, so country, right?
“She’s a racist!”, spoken by some asshole who didn’t bother watching the music video of “Shake It Off,” or else they would have noticed that Taylor Swift’s backing dancers included people both black and white, and would have noticed that they satired multiple forms of dance – most of which are “white.”
Actually, lead single “Shake It Off” reminds me of Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” of 2013 in that both have great music videos and both are answers to the haters with commendable aplomb. And “Shake It Off” is a great song: great in terms of production values, melodies and harmonies. In terms of production, the drums are simultaneously spacious and hard-hitting, and the first measure alone will attest to both. Meanwhile, producer Max Martin, responsible for the saxophone hook that made Ariana Grande’s “Problem” so great, does it again: the entire song is laced with an undercurrent of sassy brass. Melody-wise, the song is unstoppable, with verses arguably catchier than the choruses (“Mmm-mmm”) and harmony-wise; lose yourself in the whirlwind of vocals after the song’s bridge.
“The lyrics of “Shake It Off” are all clichés!”, spoken by someone who wouldn’t know irony if it spanked him/her silly.
After “Shake It Off,” one of my favorite songs off 1989 is one that seems to get the most vitriol: “Welcome to New York”. In his review of 1989, Slate’s Carl Wilson describes it as “dismal,” “jingle-like” and “perhaps the lousiest opening track to a great album since “Radio Song” on R.E.M.’s Out of Time.” I wholeheartedly disagree on almost all fronts (especially the bit about Out of Time being a “great album”). The robotic vocals and drums compliment each other wonderfully (compared to “Bad Blood,” the true rotten egg of the album), and more than just geographically reminding us that “we’re not in Nashville anymore,” the song’s hook’s melody (“I can dance to this beattt”; “You belong with meeee”) recalls “You Belong With Me” and asks us to examine what’s changed in between – a lot, it seems, making it the perfect opener. Her vocals counterpointing with the synth line makes for one of the album’s best choruses, and her lyrics move from New York disillusionment (“Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats / Everybody here wanted something more”) to Taylor Swift’s rare unending optimism in the face of it (“Took our broken hearts, put them in a drawer / Everybody here was someone else before / And you can want who you want”), and she’s probably the only person in the history of people to successfully sing the word “Forevermore.”
Other highlights include “Style,” whose groove follows the success of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance”; “Out of the Woods,” somehow more anthemic than “Shake It Off” and possessing the album’s best bridge and closer “Clean,” with the album’s best drum programming (subtler than anything that came before) and best lyrics (“And the butterflies turned to dust they covered my whole room”). But one of the best songs on the album wasn’t even included on it properly! I’m talking, of course, about “New Romantics” (delegated as a bonus track). It’s this song most representative of the album’s title’s referencing both the year Taylor Swift was born (and thus, how much older she is than “22”) and the decade wherein mainstream pop music as we know it was born; it sounds like two people spinning around in a skating rink and I get dewy-eyed from such nostalgia. The humanity explored in the chorused “The best people in life are free” deserves more than superfluity.
Elsewhere, I was at first decidedly against follow-up single “Blank Space” because it sounded like Taylor Swift emulating Lorde, not just in the big boom of the sparse drums (the opening measure sounds like you’re about to listen to a hip-hop song), but also in vocal delivery (check out the weird way she sings “Boys only want love if it’s torture”). Meanwhile, the verses themselves feel like they were an afterthought to the punchlines (instead of the other way around): “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend,” “Cause darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” But upon repeat listening, I’m converted: the “YOU LOVE THE GAME!”-ending of the choruses are to be reckoned with, as are the harmonies leading out of the bridge.
So it hurts me to say that 1989 isn’t perfect: whereas she emulates Lorde on “Blank Space,” she successfully copies Lana Del Rey on “Wildest Dreams” (compare the way she sings “Say you’ll remember” to the way LDR sings the same line on “Blue Jeans”); it’s not a bad song, I just wish Taylor Swift stayed true to herself as she has all this time instead of copying others. Meanwhile, as mentioned, “Bad Blood” is just bad; Taylor Swift normally owns her choruses, so there’s no excuse for them being as awkward and melodyless as they are here (it doesn’t help that there’s nothing happening musically to distract). And broadly speaking, Taylor Swift is guilty of lazy bridges (“Blank Space,” “Shake It Off”) and over-singing (“I never miss a beat-UH!” on “Shake It Off”; “I’m about to play my ace-UH!” on “New Romantics”).
But all in all, a good album; one of the best of 2014. The rockists won’t hear it because they’re too busy living in the past. The hip-hop heads won’t hear it because El-P said “Welcome to New York” sucks and they treat his word as gospel. The hipsters won’t hear it because Pitchfork refuses to review albums by white pop artists (Katy Perry and Taylor Swift) unless they’re cool (Lorde) or unless they’re doing R&B (Justin Timberlake). I submitted an application to write for them earlier this year and that sentence calling them and their readers out will probably cost me in the future, but I think it was worth it in the end.