Photo: Still of Taylor Swift from the "Shake It Off" music video (dir. Mark Romanek)

The Flipside #7: Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’

With "Look What You Made Me Do" and other songs soon to be plastered over the airwaves, the Flipside boys look back on Taylor Swift's 1989 and whether it lives up to its reputation.
Taylor Swift
Big Machine

Sawdey: Mr. Ezell, we live in a time when due to the fracturing way we consume media, we can potentially avoid tired-and-true media narratives, forging our own path. But really, when it comes to celebrity worship and gossip-driven chronicles… are we out of the woods yet?

Well, when it comes to Taylor Swift, no, we are not.

With “Look What You Made Me Do”, the Right Said Fred-aping, Peaches-posing lead single from her new album Reputation, the country-starlet-turned-pop-diva has once again attempted to tackle and master her own narrative, not letting recorded phone calls with Kanye West, frequent accusations of playing the victim in large-scale controversies, and utterly boring tabloid beefs with pop divas approaching the horizons of irrelevance get in the way of her coming out on top.

The back half of Ms. Swift’s catalog has very much been self-reflexive, making pop hits about her own controversies which in turn leads her to become even more famous, leading to more controversies, etc. It’s a cycle of seeimingly never-ending returns for all parties involved. Thus, it was a surprise when “Look What You Made Me Do” was critically rejected upon release, spawning Twitter memes and thinkpieces abound all while it (as of this writing) still sits at #1 on the charts. Mark Harris of Vulture even went as far as to call it “pure Trump-era pop art”, as in a charged 2017 climate, yes, everything must be viewed through a political lens one way or another.

Yet the narrative that is present-day Taylor Swift was summed up for me no better than by Sady Doyle in a truly remarkable piece for Elle. In it, she notes how for all of the people rejecting Swift’s new bad-girl persona, it follows an old and tired routine of building up the girl next door as a role model before invariably tearing her down again. Miley Cyrus is a prime example of it, but what made Cyrus’ “downfall” unique was how brazenly, openly, and decisively she embraced the narrative, absorbing media attention like a twerking sponge (Editor’s Note: ensure Evan never writes again after that image) and turning it into multiplatinum pop hits.

In Doyle’s piece on Swift, she notes that the criticisms are things even casual observers know: “Her narrators frequently seem petty, self-absorbed, and entitled. She elevates herself by portraying herself as a perfect patriarchal subject — white, polite, and virginal, or at least “romantic” — while bashing other women for their perceived impurity and carnality. Her racial politics are more than tone-deaf. She uses feminism to promote her work, but is not politically engaged when it doesn’t benefit her financially.”

Doyle goes on to note that “All of that is true — but it was true before 2017, too, and back then, she was untouchable. The timing of all this seems to have less to do less to do with Swift’s objective merits, which are more or less unchanged, and more to do with our pre-established narrative for female pop stars, in which any sufficiently massive success must be followed by an equally devastating public implosion. 1989 was a massive, decade-defining album; Swift, who was already famous, became inescapable for two straight years. The backlash is arriving right on schedule, and at the same epic scale.”

The whole article makes for a great read, but Brice, amidst all the hype, both merited and forced-upon us (thanks for nothing, UPS), this week’s Flipside is dedicated to that very controversy-riling and inescapable cultural sensation that was 1989, an album sold 1.2 million copies in its first retail week, spawned three chart-topping singles, and won the Album of the Year Grammy to boot (Swift’s second). Now, here, at the dawn of Swift’s latest media-savvy iteration, does 1989 hold up to its accolades, or is it just a crystallized moment of pop sensationalism that is, already, worn-out and faded?

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Ezell: “Look at What You Made Me Do” indeed, Evan … you made me talk about an album whose praise I can never understand. I have avoided writing about 1989, but here I am, in the woods.

Swift enjoys something that few on this earth will ever get to experience: global adoration, financial success beyond the normal person’s imagination, and an increasingly breathless critical appreciation — recent detours into Right Said Fred-isms notwithstanding.

Yet, for some reason, much of her career has been shaped by an “underdog” narrative, which paints Swift in a position of inferiority. She’s the band geek, and everyone else is the cheer captain. As I’ve argued before, the idea that Swift needs to battle against anything is at the very least factually dubious, and worst a manipulation of what her career has been. Hell, 1989 openly embraces her transformation from sheepish nice girl to domineering cheerleader.

PopMatters‘s own Corey Beasley accurately captures Swift’s ascending to the musical mountaintop in his review of 1989, which begins with the striking visual, “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 Beyonce as they cower in their Tribeca penthouse.” The groveling performed by critics awed by the gargantuan shadow of 1989 feels the same as it did at the time: to borrow the words of Dayna Evans, it exhibited a positivity “in that cracked-smile way that makes it seem like every writer was forced to write with a gun to his or her head.” 1989 was Swift’s critical and commercial peak, whether everybody liked it or not.

I think you’re right to bring up Doyle’s analysis of Swift’s career. To that, I’d only add an observation made by Forbes and Noisey critic (and a PopMatters alum) Gary Suarez, who caught on to an interesting trend in the response to “Look at What You Made Me Do”: people began linking Swift’s music with a kind of conservatism, resulting in what Suarez calls “a Trump referendum”. Swift does buy into patriarchal cliches, as Doyle identifies, but pegging Swift to any conservative political movement is all too easy, which is to say misleading. With Trump’s presidency activating dozens of artists who might have otherwise been silent on matters of politics, the broadly appealing pop of Swift can seem like the kind of apolitical trifle that we should dispense with in times like these.

Yet while my issues with Swift’s music do involve her lyrics and politics, my main concern with the critical exultation over 1989, in particular, have to do with the quality of the songwriting itself. No matter how many ways I spin 1989, no matter how many times I let the FM radio dial halt when a 1989 track comes on, I can’t escape the feeling that everything about Swift’s fifth album is well-produced but ultimately mediocre. Swift hits all the right notes, and nothing more.

That is what gets lost in discussions about Swift all too quickly. In reading Swift’s career as a case of the “good girl gone bad” narrative, in which the internalized misogyny of Western society must ultimately tear down the women it once proclaimed as great, Doyle writes, “We spent years building up this woman as an image of impossible perfection, only to gleefully rip her to shreds the moment we learned that her ‘perfect’ image was something she put work and artifice into creating.”

It’s the last clause of that sentence that stands out to me the most, with work and artifice being the operative words. Swift understandably leans on essentialist gender tropes: the crazy ex-girlfriend (“Blank Space”) and the meek nice girl (“You Belong With Me”) being two prominent instances. She dutifully appropriates them to her own ends, and for that reason, it’s little surprise that she’s been able to sell out arenas on what seems to be every continent. Insistent hooks, an affable personality, a strong understanding of basic pop and cultural tropes: Swift is the apotheosis of most-common-denominator pop.

“Welcome to New York” operates as a synecdoche for what 1989 does in crystallizing Swift’s brand of pop. (Anyone who tried to frame 1989 as Swift’s “abandoning of country in favor of pop” has never heard a Buck Owens record, and is therefore illegitimate in that opinion.) The song boasts a catchy but banal chorus that’s glossed with production whose MO was clearly “no one who hears this will be offended.”

If it had been the case that the city of New York had commissioned this song as the official tourist anthem of the Big Apple, I’d certainly not be shocked. At the level of composition, Swift’s music rarely commits any musical sins — though, as Doyle notes in her piece when it comes to music videos Swift succumbs to the sin of racial “tone-deafness” — but it also, for me, rarely amounts to anything gripping. 1989 sounds like an album that got more than one focus group treatment. Maddeningly, the relentlessly “utilitarian pop songs” of 1989 — to use Beasley’s phrase — somehow translated into Swift’s final public ascendancy. Am I missing something here?

Sawdey: Um, you’re missing several things here, Brice, including, most importantly, that one time in 2014 that she was declared New York City’s tourism ambassador, her highest-ever honor to date.

I kid, of course, but while 1989 was her “first official pop album,” the truth is that despite its radio-conquering intent, this was not groundbreaking stuff. It was a surprisingly lean little pop record, with “Welcome to New York”, the opener and worst song on here, using an astoundingly minimal set of synths and drums to get its message across, her reedy voice betraying descriptive and fun lines like “Walking through a crowd, the village is aglow / Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats”.

This album didn’t break any ground whatsoever, but when it chose to be, it was fun and emotive. “I go on too many dates / But I can’t make ’em stay,” she winks during “Shake It Off”, the still-stunning single that launched TayTay into the stratosphere. When not sonically boosting up the NY Tourism Council or getting down with this sick. beat. (a phrase that, incidentally, she would attempt to trademark), 1989 plays to her true strength: that of writing sweetly romantic (and completely innocuous) pop tunes.

One forgets that as a pop songwriter (and despite the fact that she could never write a bridge to save her life) Swift’s tunes always work on a level above her peers, avoiding “like” similes to convey poetic imagery. It’s not “You burned in my mind like a lantern” during “This Love”, no: it’s “Lantern, burning, flickered in my mind for only you”, and it’s that kind of deft, pointed lyricism that makes her songs inherently more meaningful at surface-glance, and — let’s be honest — easy for anyone to cover or sing along to and imbue their performance with intent.

Yet marveling at Swift’s pop instincts doesn’t take away from the fact that “Bad Blood” is one of the more atonal choruses to ever top the Hot 100, or how the Jack Antonoff-produced “Out of the Woods” rides a weak metaphor to a chorus that, by the end, feels like it was repeated into infinity. Despite its acclaim, a great majority of 1989‘s songs don’t hold up to genuine scrutiny, even when covered by Ryan Adams.

Unfortunately, Brice, Swift is too interesting a lyricist to dismiss as “utilitarian,” but 1989‘s songs, like most of Swift’s output, sounds strangely out of time. While a good amount of the pop singles off of Red aped trends rather blatantly, 1989‘s streamlined approach never approached any particular trend nor did it influence any pop music that came after it. Sure, “Style” features a good amount of ’80s gloss over its trapped-in-plastic electric guitars, but Taylor Swift’s each iteration sounds only like Taylor Swift, a notable strength in a market where every pop star is trying their darndest to appease the radio gods (‘cos while YouTube plays are one way to gauge popularity, the financial benefits of a genuine radio smash still does wonders).

At the end of the day though, 1989, for all its fussy aesthetics and warm intent, leaves me cold. I’m not going to sit here and call it a bad album, but I’m not going to call it a generation-defining classic either, no matter how many platinum certifications you lay upon it. That being said, even a cold, cynical heart like yours surely has got to beat to some tracks? Maybe even the tossed-off final single “New Romantics”, a bonus track that doubles over as the single greatest pop song she’s ever crafted?

Ezell: No matter how generous I’m feeling, nothing on 1989 moves me, not even in an “Oh, that’s catchy!” way. At best, I can imagine myself humming along to the muzak renditions of “Wildest Dreams” or “Shake it Off” in an empty elevator one day -– and yes, those muzak versions will exist, if they don’t already. But at that moment, my humming along would have nothing to do with the quality of the music, and everything to do with the gargantuan media campaign that baked 1989 into everyone’s consciousness, whether they wanted it or not.

Some of these songs prove grating, particularly “Bad Blood”, which is marred by an odd (a)tonality in the chorus and awkward vocal phrasing. That Swift chose to open the song a cappella only highlights its weakness. On the whole, the high level of craftsmanship put into 1989 exhibits only that: its being well made and well produced. No one can fault Swift for her knowledge of pop tropes, or for her ability to conjure up an effective hook. (On 1989, the standout hook belongs to “Shake it Off”, a song whose legacy will forever be undercut by its problematic music video.)

To me, I don’t hear “aesthetics” or “warm intent” when 1989 comes out of mall PA systems, the aural equivalent of taupe wallpaper. You’re quite right to use the word “cold” in describing how you feel after listening to the album, though I don’t know I’d even go that far in ascribing emotion to this music. Above all else, 1989 is a product, produced and marketed by a woman whose true skill is not in music but in advertising. Before I heard a note of “Look at What You Made Me Do”, I saw immediately that Swift was back at it again, releasing a track that’s not so much a song as it is a rebranding. I think Doyle’s argument about what a sexist culture expects of a female pop star holds true for Swift, but I also think Swift herself happily plays into those established narratives. Criticize Swift all you want, she definitely knows her audience.

1989 features the kind of music that comedian Bo Burnham lampoons on his song “Repeat Stuff”. I’m thinking specifically of the lyric where Burnham talks about how so many Top 40 songs are so vague as to allow just about anybody to interpret them to their own emotional ends.

Swift genuinely has musical talent and isn’t a passive agent who does what her label executives and image handlers tell her to do. But everything about 1989 exhibits a too-manicured approach to image control and based on the meticulous rollout of the record and its many singles Swift clearly knows how a pop star of her caliber should manage her image. She paints in broad brush strokes, all wildest dreams and wonderlands. Specificity runs the risk of exclusion. When Swift appears to allude to a personal experience of hers, which fans and critics alike greet with saliva pooling on the floor beneath them, she does so opaquely, giving the listener just enough rope to see how Swift could be talking about that while skirting a full exploration. Ultimately it doesn’t matter: her songs are blank spaces: intricately written, glossily produced blank spaces.

I’m reminded of an extremely odd closing line to a review of Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, written by Corban Goble for Pitchfork. Goble’s primary argument against Jepsen’s critically exalted LP mirrors my own critique of 1989: namely, that Jepsen writes proficient pop devoid of any interesting personality quirks. Goble concludes his review with a line that regrettably invokes the “pitting female celebrities against each other” playbook: “…but E•MO•TION as a whole sounds like a slab of blank space. If only Jepsen had written her name.”

Goble’s decision to appoint himself the commissioner of the poptimist police notwithstanding, his argument better describes 1989. (Speaking to the technical composition of the music, and not to Swift and Jepsen personally, I can say that “Making the Most of the Night” trounces any song on 1989 handily.) Swift’s “turn to pop” represents the triumph, not of a particular sound, but rather a managerial approach (on Swift’s part) to the modern top 40 pop album.

Swift isn’t new in this respect, of course. Corporately managed artists and bands pre-date 1989; one need only look back to the boy band era for some shiny examples of that phenomenon. There are also examples of artists who have put out challenging and even revolutionary music who display a knack for self-promotion and image control, Madonna being a good case study. Yet that kind of artist, the Madonnas of the pop world, uses their corporately-financed music productions to innovate – think to the incredible work Madonna did with her music videos in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Swift, by contrast, uses the vast resources at her display to write music that never rises above middle-of-the-road. That’s why I say that my primary reaction to 1989 is that of indifference: an album like this can only be outright bad if it takes risks.

Sawdey: Harsh words, Mr. Brice! It’s admittedly strange to talk about this album a few years removed from its peak of influence, as we sit here in our echo chamber parsing out its flaws, all while its power remains mostly undiminished. Don’t you dare put me in the role of defending this, but one does have to wonder how can something so opaque and coy still be as massive as it was? You refer to these songs as “aural wallpaper,” but what is it about Swift that connects with people while divas like Jessie J put out songs that basically sweat eagerness, trying so hard to please and be relevant that their overlabored workings end up leaving them feeling like you forgot them the moment that they’re over?

At the end of the day, it all comes back to one of pop music’s key rules: personality. Jessie J, diva vocal runs and all, is nonetheless a fairly forgettable singer. Taylor Swift is not. By playing even the slightest hints of self-referencing narrative in her work, she infuses it with personality, and as sly as she may try to be in speaking about acknowledged nemesis’ or events without calling them by name, she weaves her public persona into it. Certainly, the further you tumble down the celebrity gossip hole, the more perceived meanings you may find (omg is this one about Calvin Harris????), but when you have a platform as large as the one that Swift occupies, a vast swath of people even vaguely attuned to pop culture will know not only who she is but probably can recount a story or two about her.

Yet as snarky and dismissive as we may get, goddamn if “New Romantics”, flawed metaphors and all, isn’t a stunner of a song, all galloping drums and rising anthemic choruses, resulting in the kind of pop fireworks that a small contingent (myself included) wish the rest of 1989 sounded like. While she made the transition from mainstream country to mainstream radio pop with surprising ease (and make no mistake, it’s not an easy move to do: just ask Faith Hill or Shelby Lynne), the discussion with 1989, as with most pop albums, centers more around the singles than the album tracks. After all, the people who set about dissecting the tabloid turmoil that helped fuel the worldview of “Shake It Off” certainly aren’t spending their time talking about “I Know Places” with the same baited breath.

So yes, 1989 was a monster pop monolith, but outside of landing Jack Antonoff a hell of a lot of production work (see our recent column about Lorde’s Melodrama), its influence on the musical landscape is surprisingly slight. Its hand in building and continuing Swift’s self-designed mythos, however, cannot be understated.

I understand you might have bad blood, that this album has problems, but take a look at what you’ve duh-uhn, and give us your closing thoughts, Mr. Brice. (Oh, and your favorite T-Swizzle song while you’re at it because I know you have one.)

Ezell: Swift, one of pop music’s best PR minds, knows that she has two main things going for her: (1) a popular collection of tunes whose lyrics showcase a kind of universality that allows her to reach fans across the globe, and (2) a private life that drives a whole sub-industry of tabloid speculation. How can an artist like Swift maximally capitalize on both of those things? It’s simple: write broad songs with vague, seemingly personal details that give fans and critics plenty –- but not too much -– to work with in interpreting her lyrics.

So your question about the opacity of 1989‘s lyrics –- “How could they connect if they’re so opaque?” -– misses the mark. It’s precisely because of their opacity that Swift’s songs connect. The songs of 1989 tell stories that Swift’s fans can relate to, and perhaps allude to Swift’s own life, and yet they’re not exactly about either of those. Such broad lyrical applicability, such scientifically precise universality: that’s the method behind Swift’s music. With those things down, all you need are some decent-to-strong hooks and a bevy of credentialed producers, and you’ve got yourself an unstoppable juggernaut.

I appreciate adventurous, sophisticated mainstream pop –- Lorde’s Melodrama is a great example –- and it’s for that reason I can’t get behind much of her music. I admittedly already had a distaste for Swift’s songwriting before 1989, due primarily to the false marketing of her sound as “country” in any way beyond “I went out and bought a hat and cowboy boots this weekend.”

Just as Mumford and Sons revealed their true selves when “transforming” from an ostensible folk band into the generic alt-rock group they actually were all along the year after 1989‘s release, Swift’s “pop turn” amounts to an affirmation of her core songwriting techniques. “Country” was just window dressing, and she sported it for as long as it was useful to her career. She didn’t leave country because she was never there.

Were I to choose any of Swift’s tracks as a standout, I’d have to go with “Wildest Dreams”. It’s certainly a part of my main critique of the album, yes, but it does effectively represent what Swift excels at: anthemic, catchy choruses, crystalline production, and a kind of wide-screen grandeur that could rouse even the most cynical of personalities –- and yes, I’m including myself. If I’m judging 1989 on its pop merits, I first go to a basic question: “Which song is the catchiest?” By that standard, “Wildest Dreams” –- pseudo-colonialist music videos aside -– gets my vote. “New Romantics” is pretty good, too; I’m surprised it didn’t end up as an album cut. But then again I don’t want 1989 to be any longer than it already is.

I know my criticism of 1989 can come across as harsh, but in reality, I have no strong emotions about it. I take a firm stance on it largely because the critical reception of the record was so breathless, which still confounds me to this day. Everyone from small indie publications to major newsstand standbys proclaimed 1989 Swift’s masterpiece. Certainly, 1989 is thus far the apotheosis of her musical method. But a masterpiece? I think Swift could end up making something like a pop masterpiece in her career, but for now everything about her music and the narratives she weaves through it plays it safe, unwilling to venture beyond the playbook that’s gotten her this far.

Sawdey: Thankfully for us, Brice, our pseudo-witty repartee may never go out! of! style!