What a burden, to be Taylor Swift. She captured the hearts of the country world — arguably mainstream music’s most conservative genre — at the age of 16, some kind of songwriting prodigy whose lyrical vocabulary suggested she’d grown up reading the dictionary for fun. And then, eight years later: “Sorry, I changed my mind. All those CMAs are on a dusty shelf in my parents’ house in Nashville if you wanna come pick ‘em up.”
Of course, this expertly branded human took an approach that, while blunt in its declaration of 1989 as her “first documented pop record,” was nuanced. The obliviousness was part of the act. Taylor Swift’s been more of a pop than a country star since 2010’s Fearless, but she was always a crossover act whose wide-spanning success was something the country world could count as their own — a “look at our girl go” moment. With 1989, Taylor Swift’s pop success is her own. After the self-discovery it sounds to have taken to get her here, she’s earned it — flaws and all.
After 2012’s Red, Swift could teach a master class on satisfying her core demographic (via country radio singles “Begin Again” and “Red”) while still seeing what else is out there, in at times adventurous ways (see: the EDM stylings of “I Knew You Were Trouble”; the alt-rock swoon of “State of Grace”; her folkie duet with Ed Sheeran, “Everything Has Changed”). That album was positioned more than a few times as her coming-of-age album; “No More Kid Stuff for Taylor Swift,” was how The New York Times phrased it in their headline. The narrative was facilitated by the fact that Swift wrote the album shortly after she came of legal drinking age — a point she hammered home on songs like “22” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” where she took responsibility for what the public perceived to be her hot-mess love life. Overall, Red was an album cast in the new-school pop star mold: throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. And though Swift’s country radio singles — particularly “Red,” which also reached No. 6 on the Hot 100 — did as well as usual, something had changed. Everything had changed, and by “everything,” I mean our story’s protagonist. She moved to New Yawk City, for god’s sake — and just needed to freak out about it in the most clichéd way for a second.
1989 is not an album about the weak ending to one of pop’s greatest decades. It’s the sound of Taylor Swift, now nearly 25, expanding her worldview as a grown-ass adult — and a grown-ass woman, not the adorkably posi underdog trotted out for “Shake It Off.” She says the album isn’t about her ex-lovers, but it’s sure as hell about someone’s ex-lovers. Between lines that position the narrator as “a nightmare dressed like a daydream” (“Blank Space”), dress her up in a “tight little skirt” (“Style), and beg a future ex to think about her “tangled up with [him] all night” (“Wildest Dreams”), Swift is giving voice to Adult Fun in a way she never has. Whether these songs are about her own experiences or others’, their bolder declarations of mature-yet-playful sexuality punctuate a number of 1989’s most enjoyable moments.
Musically, this darker, sexier subject matter lends itself to Swift’s exploration of on-trend genres previously left untouched: pal Lorde’s #darkpop, which is defined by its electronic minimalism; ’80s soft-rock synths; and Lana Del Rey-style dramatics (i.e. strings, meet synths). She’s not singing atop a DJ Mustard beat, getting ILoveMakonnen or even Iggy-Iggs on the track, sampling Sampha, being produced by Arca, or embracing C+C Music Factory too much, but there are ways in which Taylor Swift is trying to sound like forward-thinking pop music right now, often without her trusty guitar. At times, her references are surprising in their freshness, particularly her songs with New Wave revivalist Jack Antonoff (Bleachers, fun.), “Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would.”
I once heard a bad Brooklyn comedian feel the need to comment on this topic: “Taylor Swift makes albums about love that sound like she’s never had sex.” It felt vulgar at the time (two years ago), and it still feels gross — but it definitely feels untrue now. Now Taylor’s writing about love like she hasn’t really fallen in a while. Like she can remember that it feels like fucking magic, but not specifically how it feels with a real person instead of an imagined proxy. Four, maybe five, out of the album’s 13 songs aren’t about love… which, for Taylor Swift, feels like a substantial shift in subject matter. Beyond that, these romantic tales are often vague with few identifying details that link the songs to a specific celebrity boyfriend (besides “Out of the Woods,” which is about Harry Styles). These weak new songs — like “How You Get the Girl,” “I Know Places,” and “All You Had to Do Was Stay” — are oddities in Swift’s discography of highly descriptive songs about love, which has fueled the “national pastime” perception of her dating life with famous male leads. “I don’t like it when headlines read ‘Careful, Bro, She’ll Write a Song About You,’ because it trivializes my work,” she told Rolling Stone, flexing her newfound feminism. For good measure, Swift offered up that it’s been a minute since she’s had “her heart irreparably broken” — a side effect of enduring enough breakups, and a rite of passage endured by worldly women throughout their twenties.
What I hear in 1989 is a woman leveling up in the world by reclaiming part of her own privacy, while simultaneously embracing new interests, influences, and creative collaborators. It seems as if Swift has had to learn a lesson that’s common among writers naturally inclined to treat their work as personal confessionals: at a certain point, you may become embarrassed that you had to be taught to not reveal all your own secrets. It’s not quite that important that people feel close to you. (I can only imagine the conversations Taylor has about this topic with her new Cool Girl Cabal, particularly Karlie Kloss, a supermodel whose work often requires she physically bares herself, and Lena Dunham, who bares herself all-around by choice.) The only downside is that Swift has lost a piece of her distinctive voice in the process, making the album’s latter half a collection of semi-generic pop songs that, at their worst, are neither salvaged by hooks nor interesting production.
Playing the victim, or at least the underdog, has long been a lyrical strategy of Swift’s. The approach has certainly counteracted her personal brand as music’s Tracy Flick — but at least a relatably awkward one! Ditching this security blanket in her lyrics on all but a few tracks, and thus embracing her own strength as a grown woman, can mess with one’s perception of Swift as a pop star. (Of course, it’s a job that’s as much about cult of personality as it is musicality.) So in this sense, 1989 has reached the highest level of pop reinvention albums: it’s changed the way the world perceives her, not just as a musician but as a celebrity. Whether individual listeners think Swiftian synth is a good idea or a bad idea is somewhat irrelevant in the larger sense. The point is that she finally made us realize she’s changed: she’s not *necessarily* the girl swooning over rom-com love with her acoustic guitar. And when you’re Taylor Swift, that about-face seems crucial in a quest for long-term artistic credibility.