Taylor Swift built her career on a country persona—pleasant, unique, and beloved by many. This image of Swift is entirely missing from her latest album. Swift was born in 1989, coincidentally a year when some of the most heavily produced pop-rock music was created. Swift’s fifth studio album takes the year as its title—1989 harkens back to the pop music era in pop and aims for an aesthetic completely different than that of Swift’s past work: 1989 is unapologetically pop.
That said, maybe Swift should be a little more apologetic, because pop is not her expertise. Although it’s admirable that she stepped into a new dimension of music, the results are unfortunate. 1989 is not pop enough to make much sense in the context of the Top 40, and it’s nothing like the music of Swift’s past. Her former strengths—poignant lyrics, vulnerable vocals, and soft instrumentation—are exactly what this attempt at ’80s-inspired pop lacks. With 1989, Swift set all her most prized skills aside to create a product that can better appeal to the masses—and it does not.
In an attempt to capture the anthemic, powerhouse nature of songs from the 1980s, Swift employs frenzied instrumentation and repetitive lyrics. Where her former work incorporated storytelling, Swift’s new songs are far more repetitive, focusing on a moment or phrase for the song entire. Whether in the album’s opening track, “Welcome to New York,” or later on in “All You Had To Do Was Stay” and “Out of the Woods,” a clear pattern emerges. She takes short lines, usually a variant of the song’s title, and forces them—to a fault. It appears Swift thinks that if she repeats the same thing with aggressive, electronic music supporting her, it will make her point heroic. In the end, it’s just lame.
On Monday, the day of 1989’s release, the album was the highest-selling album on iTunes, with its tracks making up seven of iTunes’s top 10 songs. People love Swift even in her missteps, and fortunately for Swift, her appeal as an artist outshines the shortcoming of this particular work.
Swift is still her upbeat, positive self in a few tracks of 1989. “How You Get The Girl” brings out Swift’s cheesy, bubbly image in the same way “Shake It Off” did when released months ago. While the track does not seem to fit well with the album, it does fits well with Swift’s image. The content itself will polarize fans and casual audiences: it’s a cute, young love story set to an upbeat pop background. Longtime Swift supporters will love this track, and those who dislike her will hate her all the more for it. “How You Get The Girl” is obnoxiously cute, and then teeters toward downright annoying—it’s Swift embodied in a song, and it is a pain.
The strongest tracks on the heavily produced pop album are ironically the most stripped down, focusing on Swift’s artistry and lyrics rather than manufactured ’80s overtones. “Wildest Dream,” for example, has more modern-pop flare than most songs, and it shows the potential that Swift could have reached if she approached her record in the right way. Instead of trying to be a theatrical throwback anthem, “Wildest Dream” adopts the smooth, computer-enhanced sound popularized in today’s mainstream.
“This Love” is another track that shows off a side of Swift we can actually appreciate. A subtle, melodic pop background highlights Swift’s vulnerability as a vocals. It’s a story of heartbreak—the subject of many of Swift’s best music—and shapes up to be a powerful, relatable ballad. It doesn’t use harsh, overdone instrumentation as a crutch, and instead features Swift’s vocals at the center of all production.
In general, though, a majority of 1989’s songs are mediocre. When Swift ventures into the already-exhausted world of pop, she falters. “I Wish You Would” and “I Know Places,” for example, feel so unnecessary that the final product is nothing more than amateur. They take on cheap, overly manufactured beats, blending into the oblivion, and ultimately lacking any dimensionality. The two songs are virtually the same, and neither is particularly enjoyable.
Looking at 1989 as a legitimate pop record will result in pure disappointment. The album is more about Swift than it is about music—she has created a product that fans will enjoy, if only for the reason she created it. In the context of her career, however, 1989 poses real questions of how long Swift can stay relevant in a saturated pop landscape.
Featured Image Courtesy of Big Machine Records