In an age when fewer and fewer people are buying full albums, Taylor Swift’s 1989 sold 1.287 million copies in the first week of its release. That’s impressive, considering that in this iTunes era, more and more people are buying single songs than complete albums. With 1989, Swift left the comfort of country for a new pop adventure. And so far, it seems to be working out quite well.
First, let me commend Taylor Swift on being able to reinvent herself without compromising her integrity or the minds and hearts of her fans, especially the young ones. Unlike Madonna, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus, who have reinvented themselves through shock and skin, Taylor Swift has (for the most part) kept it classy. As one of my seminarians pointed out, Swift used to sing about how other girls wore short skirts while she wore t-shirts, but now she’s the one in the short skirt – but at least she’s not twerking. Too, I read recently that Swift finds it immodest to expose her bellybutton, which I found fascinating. There’s something about a navel, and Swift knows it. But I digress.
The opening track “Welcome to New York” sets the tone for the entire record and embodies Swift’s musical reinvention. She left Nashville for Manhattan, and the contrast between country and city, and country music and pop music, couldn’t be more clear. Three thick bass notes under a 80s-sounding synth really do sound like a welcome as Swift sings, “Walking through a crowd/ the village is a glow/ Kaleidoscope of loud/ heartbeats under coats/ Everybody’s here/ wanted something more/ Searching for a song/ we hadn’t heard before.” Although the first verse references Greenwich Village, the chorus sounds like the soundtrack to Times Square, if Times Square were to have a soundtrack. It’s big and bright and fun and catchy, which is the nature of pop music.
While researching this record I interviewed a few diehard Taylor Swift fans, whom I learned are known as Swifties. One young woman is a former parishioner who recently received a care package from Taylor Swift in the mail after Swift saw her post a Taylor-tribute on tumblr.
She, like all the Swifties I know, was quick to point out that “Blank Space” is a fictionalization of Swift’s personal life. Swift wrote the song about the character that media portrays her to be, and so lyrics like “Saw you there and I thought/ Oh my God/ Look at that face/ You look like my next mistake/ Love’s a game/ Want to play?” aren’t necessarily autobiographical, but a parody of sorts. If you haven’t yet heard “Blank Space” simply turn on the radio and wait five minutes.
Musically, “Style” sounds like a theme song to a 1980s TV drama, but lyrically it’s about the ups and downs of a dating relationship, a theme which is explored frequently on this record. And there’s a good chance that this song, and many others on this album are inspired by Swift’s former relationship with Harry Styles from One Direction. That this track is actually called “Style” is kind of funny.
The monster jam of 1989 is “Out of The Woods” – hands down. Instrumentally, think of “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds or “The Promise” by When in Rome then add the powerful vocals of Annie Lennox and you’ve got the vibe of this most excellent and tireless track. Lyrically there is excitement coupled with desperation in the narrator’s voice as she thinks back to blossoming romance: “Looking at it now/ It all seems so simple/ You were lying on your couch/ I remember/ You took a Polaroid of us/ then discovered/ The rest of the world was black and white/ We were in screaming color.” I am intentionally referring to Swift here as the narrator, because I tend to think that this song is inspired fiction, and not really a historical account, which challenges what Swift told Rolling Stone back in September. There’s a line in the bridge about the narrator and her ex who lost control of a snowmobile and both wound up in the hospital. Swift told Rolling Stone that this incident actually happened and that no media ever found out about it because she looked the hospital staff in the eye and said, “Please don’t tell anyone about this.” Really? It’s not that I don’t want to believe Swift, it’s just that the best singer-songwriters (Bruce Springsteen, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, etc.) often write their best songs in character, which is the genius of good songwriting. I wonder if Swift has started to do the same but doesn’t know how to break it to her fans. I suggested my theory to a young friend over Thanksgiving break – (who in addition to being a Swiftie is also a fellow at a big-shot think tank in DC) – and she shot me down right away, saying, “I believe her!” I’m not sure that I do, but either way, we both agree that this track is on fire.
“Stay” is lyrically straight forward. It’s a song about girl whose boyfriend broke up with her, and although she may not be exactly sure how it happened, she does know that he drove them off the road. All he had to do was stay – but he left. (It’s noteworthy that Swift never seems to be at fault for breakups on this record.)
Last year Miley Cyrus sang, “We can’t stop/ We won’t stop,” but hers was a jam about licentiousness. Swift takes those same lines and works them into a punchy track entitled, “Shake It Off,” an instant hit about a perennial truth – don’t worry about what others think of you if what they say about you isn’t true. The beat is reminiscent of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and the saxophone compliments Swift’s voice perfectly. The song takes an unexpected but welcomed turn at the bridge, where all instruments pull back sans the percussion and Swift starts talking, and then moves into a little rap. (This bridge makes me think of that Tight Pants skit with Will Farrell and Jimmy Fallon. Both songs have similar transitions that begin with a surprising, “Hey!”) My guess is that we’ll be hearing more and more people tell their friends and family to “shake it off” in the coming year, thanks to Ms. Swift. And that’s not a bad thing.
“I Wish You Would” and “Bad Blood” are both songs about relationships, but the former is about an ex-boyfriend and the later about a female friend who betrayed Swift’s trust. In her own description of “I Wish You Would,” Swift says that she and co-writer Jack Antonoff worked to create a John Hughes movie visual – the tension between two people who both miss each other, but neither say it. It works. “Bad Blood,” once you learn that it’s about a broken friendship with a woman and not an ex, takes on a whole new layer. I imagine that Swifties and women in general will take to this track more than men, because, well… I don’t think we men understand how women fight.
One of my strongest critiques of 1989 is that although Swift sings an awful lot about love, the kind of love that she tends to sing about doesn’t last. But the nature of love is that it does last – love endures. It’s the only thing that endures. In his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI makes a very important distinction between two forms of love, eros and agape. The Christian tradition recognizes and validates both kinds of love, but Swift doesn’t. I realize that Swift isn’t a “Christian artist” or a praise and worship singer, so I don’t expect her to sing hymns (although I really do like “Christmas Must Be Something More” off her holiday album), but she does often leave her listener thinking that the only kind of love is romantic love, or eros, and that love is fleeting. Here’s what Benedict has to say: “Eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but also a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being years.” That’s a long way of getting around to “Wildest Dreams,” which is a love song, but a fatalistic one.
“How You Get The Girl” is my guilty pleasure song off this album. If you happen to see me driving through Cleveland on I-90, there’s a good chance I’ll be singing along to this track – and I realize I that have just emasculated myself. But it’s true. The beat is so catchy, and the hook is so strong that I think it would be hard not to like this song. Musically it reminds me of Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Kiss the Girl” from Little Mermaid, but lyrically it’s an instruction manual from a girl to a boy: “Then you say…/ I want you for worse or for better/ I would wait for ever and ever/ Broke your heart/ I’ll put it back together/ I would wait for ever and ever.” According to John Paul II, Swift has described the cry of the feminine heart, and here she’s helping men understand it. Swift tells us men what women want.
On “This Love” and “I Know Places” Swift does some new things with her voice. She sounds like Sarah McLaughlin on “This Love” as her voice softens while she sings about a love she thought she had lost, but returned. It’s a nice iteration of the Paschal Mystery – it’s only in dying that we rise. Swift sings, “This love is alive/ back from the dead/ These hands had to let it go free/ And this love came back to me.” On “I Know Places” Swift’s friendship with Lorde (Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor) seems to have influenced her vocal style, because she sounds Lorde-like with her hauntingly aggressive vocal: “They are the hunters/ We are the foxes/ We run!”
The last song on the album is “Clean,” and Swift notes that the placement of this track was very intentional. She describes the song as “a completion of the emotional process I’ve been going through the last couple of years.” Co-written with Imogen Ho, “Clean” is about healing from the past and becoming something new. Again, it’s a glimpse of the Paschal Mystery replete with baptismal imagery, which shouldn’t be a surprise since baptism is the Christian’s introduction to the Paschal Mystery. Swift sings, “Rain came pouring down/ When I was drowning/ That’s when I could finally breathe.” If 1989 is Swift’s reinvention album, “Clean” depicts the reinvention process.
Taylor Swift has made an excellent pop record, and she hasn’t lost herself in the process. Actually, it seems that Swift has found herself – or is starting to find herself, which is what is commonly known as maturing. This maturation process is not only good for Swift, but for the millions of fans that look up to her, and she knows it. Taylor Swift has proven that you don’t have to lose your soul – or your clothes – to make a chart-topping record. She is the new queen of pop.