The defining moment from Taylor Swift’s fifth studio album comes midway, on none other than the omnipresent lead single “Shake It Off”. Amid crashing cymbals, an infectious saxophone hook, and a backup chorus sing-shouting along, Taylor sings:
“To the fella over there/ With the hella good hair/ Baby come on over here/ And we can shake…shake…SHAKE.”
Every teenage star needs to transition from innocence to adulthood, and that sassy, snappy innuendo demonstrates once and for all that Taylor Swift is ready to move past the country days of Tim McGraw and teardrops on her guitar, and into the realm of true pop music.
The transition has been a long time coming. Swift was 16 when she released her eponymous debut; she is now 24. Since the release of her previous album “Red”, Swift has made cameos in the popular TV show “New Girl”, and in the major motion picture “The Giver” (where she appears in several scenes, fittingly playing a piano). She has partnership deals with Target, Walgreens, and Diet Coke. Her celebrity figure has rapidly expanded in the past couple of years, and her music has been slowly changing to reflect that. “Red” was known for singles such as “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “22”—unmistakably pop songs that were country in the same way Panda Express calls itself Chinese.
Swift herself has gone on the record saying that “1989” is her first official pop, non-country album. Musically, the album is marked by a departure from acoustic strings and country twang in favor of synthesizers and autotune. But the instrumental changes aren’t the only noticeable difference—throughout the album, Swift experiments with different pop styles, producers, and musical trends, trying to create a new sound that resonates with people as much as her old music does.
Expectedly, her first experimental efforts are more misses than hits. The opener “Welcome to New York” aims for a Kylie Minogue-like elegance, but cartoonish synthesizers and cliched lyrics make it sound more like a forgotten Ke$ha B-side. Lines like “It’s a new soundtrack/I could dance to the beat” are neither Taylor Swift-grade songwriting, nor particularly easy on the ears. Disappointing songwriting mars other promising songs; on the cringeworthy “Bad Blood”, accompanied by a garbled, grating choir, Taylor manages to sound like an even more obnoxious version of Demi Lovato wailing one-liners like “Did you have to ruin what was shiny?/Now it’s all rusted!”
Even when she heads in an interesting direction, other factors seem to bog Swift down. Specifically, the second half of the album’s running order makes decent standalone tracks sound awkward. For example, the melodramatic, Lana-Del-Rey-angsty “Wildest Dreams” and “This Love” sound downright uncomfortable sandwiched around “How You Get the Girl”—a more upbeat track that sounds self-parodying because of its placement on the album.
As it turns out though, “1989” is at its best when Swift infuses pop music with her unique brand of lyricism and personality, rather than letting pop trends overpower them. Case in point: the aforementioned “Shake It Off” is an irresistible ditty, as Swift cleverly brushes off people dissatisfied with her musical direction and makes fun of herself in the process. The track is produced by Max Martin—whose resume includes work with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson—who manages to find the perfect mixture of fun, mischievousness, and swagger. Elsewhere, he produces the anthem “Out of the Woods”, which sounds like a OneRepublic song tailored specifically for Swift, showcasing good old-fashioned songwriting. The chorus is timeless—urgent, fast-paced, and dark in ways that Swift has never experimented with (my friend on her first listen: “It’s so emo sounding…”).
Elsewhere, there are tracks that instantly sound familiar, adhering to but updating the formula that Swift has spent years perfecting. On the power-pop tracks “Style” and “All You Had To Do Was Stay”, Taylor is right at home singing about her classic off-and-on-again boy-next-door. You can easily reimagine the songs sans synthesizers and pop production— something about them is still quintessentially Taylor, just updated for the sonic present.
Critiques aside, the real question regarding 1989 isn’t whether or not Taylor Swift can pull off her newfound pop sensibilities—she’s been living off a hybrid of country and pop music for years, and given the current state of pop music (think Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”), her new sound is far from sonically revolutionary. But rather the question is: can make Taylor Swift make pure pop music while maintaining her previous success? Is her current music as compelling fans as much as her past music did?
If sales are any indication, I bet she will be just fine. “Haters gonna hate,” but 1989 has already sparked a number one single, and is predicted to sell more copies in its first week than any other album has over the entire year. And that’s nothing to shake off.