But above all, it’s shrewd. The album’s first single, “Shake It Off,” preemptively shushes any criticism Swift may have shouldered for officially renouncing Nashville — and she does it with a cascading refrain that’s pure pop. “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” she chirps. “Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake — shake it off.”
She sure sounds comfy inside that armor. Which is weird, right? One of the most powerful entertainers on the planet shouldn’t have to sing in a defensive crouch. But in addition to penning real-talk mega-hits about breakups, make-ups, flame-outs and happily-ever-afters, Swift is always honing the illusion that she’s an underdog — a global superstar earnestly beseeching our sympathies, our ears and our dollars.
“1989” makes that illusion seem more ridiculous than ever. Named after the year she was born, the 24-year-old’s fifth album has all the pomp and razzmatazz of a big career pivot. But as a pop record, it’s ultimately a declaration of conformity. Swift wants to sound like everybody else. And she wants to be the best at it, too.
In a society that seeks constant validation through social media, “1989” serves as a conformist power fantasy that might resonate more than we’d like to admit — because it’s also a big, dull gesture we’re expected to applaud no matter what. Clap a little louder or be excommunicated to the valley of the haters. Those are your options in this ludicrous world.
Sonically, the world Swift curates on “1989” couldn’t sound more familiar. She’s assembled an arsenal of weapons-grade radio pop, largely with the help of Max Martin, the Swedish producer who knows how to make Swift’s hooks sound like reincarnated new-wave hits. Drum machines and synthesizers good; acoustic guitars and decorative mandolins bad.
These new environs feel light-years away from old Nashville, and they invite Swift to twist her voice in new ways. Unfortunately, her mild vocal acrobatics frequently expose the clunkiness of her lyrics. “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” she talk-sings with an awkward wave of the finger on “Blank Space,” a buzzy song that rightfully bites back at the bogus, boy-crazy image the tabloids have been burnishing of Swift in recent years.
Meantime, her worst lyrics lurk in the album’s book-ended odes to life in her new home of New York City. The chorus of “Welcome To New York” rings out like a desperate and over-caffeinated tourism jingle (“Welcome to New York — It’s been waiting for you!”), while the hook of “New Romantics,” a feisty bonus track, registers somewhere between moldy emo and the back pages of a high school literary magazine. (“Heartbreak is the national anthem/We sing it proudly.”)
She’s gone from describing adolescence like an adult to describing adulthood like an adolescent — all of which begins to undermine the long-running Swiftian myth that there’s a secret power in being profoundly uncool. Where is Taylor taking us on this grand odyssey of uncoolness? To a rom-com fairy-tale Manhattan that doesn’t actually exist? To a new wave ’80s she never got to live through? To contemporary pop music’s most tame and mundane center?
For a hint, flash back to 2008 when Swift was memorializing the battle for some forgotten boy’s heart on “You Belong With Me,” a masterful song about the misfit life: “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts/She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.” In light of “1989,” that second line is the prophetic one. Young Swift wasn’t off doing whip-its behind the Wawa or reading Kafka at Starbucks. She was on the sidelines, wishing she fit in, standing by.
And now here she is, ruling over all of popland, projecting the dim aura of unimpeachability. Because yes, Swift is a woman thriving at the summit of a pop culture largely shaped by men. And yes, she’s a truth-telling songwriter who’s done some truly brilliant work. And yes, she’s only 24 and her future remains bright and unwritten. All of those things are true and good.
But is it wrong to wish that Swift — at this point — was just the itty-bittiest bit cooler? Is it wrong to wish “1989” didn’t sound so anonymous? Is it wrong to demand our leaders not make follower music? Is it wrong to feel disoriented and disheartened by the effusion of suck-uppy articles dutifully praising these unimaginative songs? Is it wrong to squirm knowing that those same songs will likely saturate our public spaces for years — or maybe even the rest of our lives?
Asking these questions doesn’t make you a hater. It makes you a listener.