Our current digital age offers us the odd and often cruel opportunity to watch the artists we follow grow up before our very eyes. No longer are we constrained to partaking of just the art, we are now able to dissect the art itself through the lens of a warped reality we construct through social media posts and paparazzi news. It’s an odd game we play that often strips the mystery away.
Therefore, it’s a true joy when the evolution of the art itself trumps the rest and overshadows our perception of the artist. With her latest release, 1989, Taylor Swift has improbably managed to eclipse her own celebrity and rewrite her narrative in such a way as to increase her respect as an artist while still gaining popularity.
1989 is not the greatest album you’ll hear this year, nor does it rattle the well-worn conventions of popular music. It does, however, shine a light on Swift’s integrity, songwriting prowess and ability to craft a damn good song. Most of all, it captures the account of a girl growing up in a way that no tumblr post ever could.
This is a pop album in the truest sense of the word, paying homage to not only the year Swift was born, but the music that defined the era. Gone are the plucky banjo lines that allowed her music to be serviceable to country radio and vanquished are her pouty-face ballads about those pesky boys. When 1989 does address relationships, it’s usually in a stunningly mature and nuanced manner.
That’s not to say that Swift is completely all grow’d up. Opener “Welcome to New York” displays her sonic shift with its pulsing bass, claps and synthesizers while Swift sings as a starry-eyed youngster marveling at the possibilities of the big city. It’s a well-worn convention, but it harkens to a day we’ve all experienced, when we left the comfort of home for the first time. This opener, and to a greater extent, the album itself, is about the potential risk/reward payoff of stepping from the known into the unknown.
The album relies heavily on its 80s influences, melding it with beats that feel relevant to create a welcome respite from the safe confines of princess pop. The music itself allows Swift to explore new territory. “Blank Space” is radio ready with its glossy chorus, but the track is much less a love song than the story of a girl growing comfortable with her own insecurities.
Nowhere is Swift’s evolution more prevalent than on tracks like the sultry “Style”, a song that could have been a b-side on Haim’s Days Are Gone. That’s right, Taylor Swift has written songs that you can dance to with absolutely no guilt. You’re tempted to feel odd at the sudden shift from Swift’s “aw shucks” innocence until you realize that this sensual track feels more authentic and honest than most of her peers could create.
“Out of the Woods” continues the trend with a spacey synthpop number co-written with Jack Antonoff. The song captures the underlying darkness that made fun.’s last record so intriguing, offering up a mature track full of questions and concern reflecting on past young love. “Bad Blood” follows in its footsteps, sounding like a powerful song full of real frustration, written by someone ten years her senior.
For most of the album, Swift is transitioning between a placing a critical eye on the meaning of relationships and acknowledging her own shortcomings coupled with her own understanding of how she’s perceived. These concepts spill out in moments of dance-filled delight and moments of heavy exasperation. Rarely is there indifference, as each moment seems to cling to purpose.
There are times where Swift nearly reverts to her old tricks, like the simple, twangy chorus of “Wildest Dreams” or sticks her toe in the tepid pool of Disney pop with the lazy and out-of-place “How You Get the Girl”. For the most part though, 1989 follows a common thread. She was wise to release the catchy and buzzworthy “Shake It Off” as the album’s first single – a track that carries the album’s heart on its surface, but doesn’t dig near as deep as the meatier parts of the record.
The fact that a song like “Shake It Off” exists at all speaks to the age in which Swift lives. Were 1989 released in 1989 instead of 2014, our perception of the record would exist almost entirely devoid of our knowledge of Swift the person as we have been presented, and would instead hold its merit in light of her past work. There will be no one coming of age moment for Taylor Swift, even though the release of this record comes dangerously close, making her ability to pull off this sort of transparency and transformation that much more astounding.
Whereas some of her contemporaries like Katy and Miley forgo any sort of soul-searching or humanity in favor of a quick hit, Swift carries these qualities in spades and is still able to manhandle the charts. It’s not that this fact didn’t exist before the release of 1989, but this latest work sheds Swift’s usual conventions and tendency to dumb down with such tenacity that it’s opened up a whole new realm of possibility for her career trajectory.
In a year in which not a single artist could mange to go platinum, Swift has done so, and then some, in the span of a week. She’s likeable and she has the available resources to craft massively popular songs. The hidden gem is that she has a relatable soul and a desire to grow her art in such a way as to explore it more deeply and more honestly. This can only mean good things for her future music and the future music of those that follow in her footsteps.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.