A 40-foot Taylor Swift stomps through Manhattan in chelsea boots and a pencil skirt, bodegas and halal carts crumbling under her heels, waving one enormous pinky finger to Jay and Beyoncé as they cower in their Tribeca penthouse. The white steeds of Central Park trail behind her in procession; Woody Allen and Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld lead a racially mixed, apolitical group of New Yorkers from every borough except Staten Island in a Rockettes kick-line. Welcome, they say. She climbs the Empire State Building. She dances without self-concern.
She has arrived, our conquering queen. The line on 1989, shaped by Swift’s pre-album statements and eagerly guzzled by critics, is that it represents Swift’s final rejection of her pop-country roots in favor of radio-decimating pure pop hits. True, the only echo of country music present in all of 1989 is the way Swift sings “chance” in the stunning “Out of the Woods”, but is it really news to music critics that she’s had her sights set on world domination? Did “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” only exist in my dreams? It makes your review a bit harder to write, but call 1989 what it is: the final step in a progression that, once completed, feels quietly revolutionary in its own context. By twisting free of the final touches of genre constraint clinging onto Red’s moments of twang, Swift sends her nearly unparalleled gift for melody soaring into the stratosphere.
1989 begins with a what-might’ve-been glimpse into an second-Earth dystopia worthy of Back to the Future II (1989, natch). Opener “Welcome to New York” is an immaculately produced, relentlessly peppy, synth-driven single as uncannily smooth as a hot dog soaking in a pail of cloudy water. It offers the paradox of a tuneful, undeniably catchy song that also happens to be completely unlistenable. It’s easy to imagine Swift releasing an entire album of “Welcome to New York’s”, utilitarian pop songs with zero personality and hooks that bludgeon you into submission rather than coax you into symbiotic bliss. Fortunately, Taylor Swift is much, much smarter than “Welcome to New York” and a much, much better songwriter. The track opens the record because it’s a manifesto, not an overture. 1989, Swift is saying, will be about celebrating her feelings, reactions be damned.
And here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter that those of us who actually live in New York City without a trust fund or Subway-Pepsi endorsement cash can’t actually listen to 1989 opener “Welcome to New York”, lest we risk cerebral hemorrhage. The song isn’t for us. It’s for the rest of the world, where an imagined life in The City is all bright lights and “helluva town!” gossamer sheen, scrubbed clean of its rats, roaches, and endless parade of human suffering. It’s pop as aspiration and affirmation, problematic socio-economic politics aside (as if I need to say so). 1989 follows suit, with Swift largely dropping the doe-eyed, “Love Story” giggle of her first three albums in favor of a relatively triumphal, me-first, clear-eyed stare.
That’s not to say Swift has totally excised the aspects of her lyrics that leave some listeners calling her a reactionary, or a bad feminist, or an overly precious naïf. Yes, she’s still singing about love lost and imagined, often using “king-queen” constructions or variations thereof, and her concessions to adult content stops at words like “hell” or “damn” and mentioning that she has a dude’s clothes in her room. But Swift’s real-time explorations of what it means, in her subjective experience, to be a 20-something woman navigating the worlds of sex and love are exponentially more interesting than her rarefied contemporaries’ songs about being #flawless.
Revised opener (skip “Welcome to New York,” if that wasn’t clear) “Blank Space,” likely the best of Swift’s career and easily a candidate for the best pop song of 2014, captures the essence of 1989 in all its glimmering, solipsistic glory: Taylor winks at her former deer-in-the-headlights image (“Oh my God, / Look at that face, / You look like / My next mistake”) while telescoping her vision past the excitement of a fresh romance toward its inevitable, painful dissolution to see the entire thing unfold before she’s even said hello. In the world of Taylor Swift, that counts as some serious disillusionment. But she doesn’t indulge her newfound cynicism musically, as “Blank Space” builds as masterfully as a gleaming skyscraper, with Swift and co-producers Max Martin and Shellback adding layers and layers of sounds—here a percussively strummed acoustic guitar, there an “oh!” backing vocal—to the track’s simple, Lorde-lite electro foundation. Weapons-grade, professional pop like this doesn’t come around often. It may sound bright and easy, but it’s anything but the latter to create.
Elsewhere, Swift tries on several fresh styles that fit her like a cashmere-lined leather glove: the immaculate, almost impossibly ebullient and thrilling “Style,” a perfect simulacrum of the Drive-inflected moody synth pop prevalent in the indie world of the last few years but transformed by Swift’s heartstopper chorus into a stadium anthem no mere Brooklynite Korg aficionado could hope to match (it also makes one pray Swift and Johnny Jewel will somehow find one another to pen the cinematic electro-pop album of our dreams); “I Wish You Would” and “How You Get the Girl,” pure bubblegum infused with the nutrients of lush production and Swift’s indelible, sing-song choruses; synth ballad “Wildest Dreams,” which features Swift doing more or less a literal Lana Del Rey impression and managing it with a ventriloquist’s mastery to conjure Del Rey’s moody, sultry atmospherics. She falters with the saccharine “All You Had to Do Was Stay” and “This Love,” which edges too closely to her earlier, girlish balladry to find its place in 1989’s next-level work.
And it’s worth it to buy that deluxe edition. Its three bonus tracks are as good as anything on the standard-issue 1989, and more compositionally daring than most of its material. The epic “Wonderland” features Swift’s best vocal work on the record and finds a melodramatic sweep that would obliterate the charts if someone hadn’t wrongly convinced her to hold it from the proper record. “You Are in Love” is possibly the best ballad Swift has ever penned, all lyrical restraint and cooing, heartrending melody. Meanwhile, “New Romantics” sees Swift indulging CHVRCHES-style indie electro-pop to the max, and in the process proving she can do it better than anyone else.
1989 will sell millions of copies and make Swift millions of dollars, as it well should. It won’t, however, earn her the nearly universal respect accorded to the irreproachable Beyoncé or the goddess-voiced but sonically conservative Adele, two of the only stars who could reasonably be referred to as her peers. Swift is too divisive a figure to reach that territory: her personal life is too messy, her romantic aspirations too traditional, her cheerfulness too easily read as cheerleader simplicity. Let her strangely vicious critics miss out on 1989’s top-notch pleasures, then. Her big-canvass romanticism isn’t fashionable, but that’s the point. The true appeal of 1989, in its perfect evocation of our hugest, most teenage feelings, isn’t the socio-political purity so many critics seem to begrudge Swift for failing to embody, its an aesthetic purity—the purity of feeling, the life-affirming way pop music like hers can force us to drop our pretenses of sophistication for the length of an album and feel on a visceral, unfiltered level. Remember what that was like?