Taylor Swift has come a long way from gently kind of slut shaming her friend Abigail in “Fifteen.” In advance of the release of her latest album Swift has made it clear, from her move to a New York City that is essentially unrecognizable to non-billionaires, to her high profile friendship with outspoken feminist Lena Dunham, that she is Growing Up. These changes scream “Yeah, I get it, the princess proposal fantasies are so two thousand and late” and whisper “Also, while I’m at it, so is country music.”
I hated “Fifteen” and I resisted liking Taylor Swift for a long time, mostly because she seemed like the apotheosis of The Girl You Went To School With Whose Perfect Penmanship Was Overpraised By Teachers (can you tell I was not that girl? That’s the other thing about Taylor — reviewing her seems to reveal a great deal about how you feel your life is going), for a long time. Then she released Red and suddenly my life was scored by a constant refrain of “TROUble, TROUble, TROUble.” It was starting.
As Swift seems to have realized (that’s another thing about Taylor — reviewing her seems to require that you take stock of where you are, developmentally, in comparison), as one matures, admiration for success becomes a much more attractive reaction than jealousy, and just as the girl who once sang “She doesn’t get your humor like I do” has made strong female friendships a prominent part of her new public image, so too has my irritation with Taylor morphed into respect. Even in “Fifteen,” which I still loathe and will never not loathe, I have to admire how she pinpoints (inadvertently?) the well-intentioned but still patronizing and superior tones we can employ to describe our friends’ choices. And poor Abigail’s story taps into something else deeply attractive to my inner teenage girl — the glamour of sadness and heartbreak. Oh, to have these particular problems, rather than my own loser, heretofore-never-immortalized-in-a-ballad problems!
I realize that this move into pop stardom might be disappointing to people who love Original Recipe Taylor. My best friend, who is having a reaction to her evolution as an artist that is the inverse of mine, stormed out of my room when I played her the music video for “Shake It Off.” Silly as the song was, and though I agreed with her at the time that it was Not Great, if I’m being honest, it was already growing on me. And with the official release of 1989 on Monday, I am all in. I don’t know how it happened, but I think I am obsessed with Taylor Swift. And, come to think of it, with Harry Styles.
I listened to 1989 on my subway commute home from work, and as the train emerged from a tunnel into golden early evening sunlight I was moved to think about how, even with this move into the pop sphere, Swift is still set far apart from her contemporaries by her meticulousness, down to the liner notes where she leaves cryptic messages for her fans. Although her image is one of hyper-feminine hyper-competence (baking cookies for her fans at listening parties? Come ON) she’s saved from full GOOP-y obnoxiousness by her willingness to admit to failure, usually of the romantic variety. But even as she’s blowing up her own ultra-successful image (“Like you, I’m not perfect! Like you, I too yearn for Harry Styles!”), she turns her heartbreak into hit songs, exerting a kind of control over her own life and the people in it that most of us will never be able to achieve. It’s impressive, fascinating, and not a little bit scary. AND I LOVE IT.
Many of the songs on 1989 seem engineered to score private moments to an almost creepily precise degree. The album’s opener, “Welcome To New York,” while definitely an asinine and rather cynical nod to Swift’s new adopted hometown, is also ideal, with its decisive tempo and sharp “dee dee dee dee” pokes from the synthesizer, for striding purposefully down a crowded city street while gazing up at tall buildings with a certain amount of awe and a LOT of opening-scene-in-a-romcom pep in one’s step. “Blank Space,” with its cheeky pen-clicking sound effects and what passes for a sexual boast from Swift (“I can make the bad guys good for a weekend”? Do their…virginities grow back, or something?!), is made to be scream-sung in a packed car while directing knowing hand gestures at your friends who are also scream-singing.
It’s one thing to make a pop song designed to be played in the car. It’s quite another to evoke such a specific experience. “Blank Space” might be my favorite song on the album, with Swift going from ironic to sticky sweet to menacing (get ready to see “‘Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” show up in your Instagram feed courtesy of your most basic friend) while a very un-country skittering snare takes you into the next verse. Oh, and then a knife is suddenly plunged into your heart (“Find out what you want/ Be that girl for a month.” I mean.) as Swift reminds us of how terribly sinister the romantic motivations ascribed to her by the gossip press are. Taylor, how are you doing this?!
With “Style,” Taylor gives us all incurable crushes on Harry Styles, which I guess we should have seen coming. “Just take me home!” you can picture a bunch of teenage girls screaming on repeat, hoping that if they listen to the song enough times their number one crush will somehow telepathically get the hint. We’re barely given time to deal with our full blown Stylesmania before he breaks our collective hearts in “Out of the Woods.” You should have been more careful on that snowmobile, Harry!
“Blank Space,” “Out of the Woods” and “Style” are such a strong trio that “All You Had To Do Was Stay” suffers in comparison. The biggest takeaway from the song seems to be that no matter how big of a dirtbag Taylor’s latest boyfriend is, he always, ALWAYS comes back at least once. Such is the power of the Swift. She is different than you and I. I didn’t think I liked this song and yet while I listened to it on the subway I found myself sinking into a contemplative pose nonetheless. Damn it, Taylor!
Problematic video aside, “Shake It Off” was brewed in a lab specifically to score millions of teenage girls dorking out in their bedrooms, shimmying aggressively at the furniture and, if they’re fully committed to the makeover-montage-in-a-movie vibe, trying on a variety of hats. “I Wish You Would” is sort of an answer to “All You Had To Do Was Stay” in which Taylor speaks for all of us by yearning for her ex to come back to her (…we’re all still picturing Harry Styles in this scenario, right?) while also maintaining the queenly stance that she is too good, too wronged and too brokenhearted to be the one to explicitly ask. It also has a somewhat interesting circular structure, with each verse offering a different take on what happens at 2 AM. A Rashomon pop song feels very on-trend to me, for whatever reason. Maybe Taylor got hold of some screeners for The Affair?
“Bad Blood,” rumored to be Swift’s Godfather kiss to Katy Perry, is a little bit boring in that it isn’t about the love of
my her life, Harry Styles (or, you know, a Stylesian everyman boyfriend stand-in, don’t sue me, but we’re all picturing Harry, right?!), but it is interesting that it is the angriest track on the album. Swift isn’t just good at evoking romantic feelings — she’s great at channeling the volcanic anger that can come from being betrayed by a friend. Even uninspired lines like “If you’re coming my way/ Just don’t” are invigorated by the way she yowls “IT’S SO SAD to THINK ABOUT THE GOOOOOOOD TIIIIIIMES” immediately afterward. I can picture her singing that line while her eyes glow red and she expands to fill up a room like a vengeful parade float/Alice turning into a giant before she confronts the Queen of Hearts.
“Wildest Dreams” feels like kind of a failure in that it doesn’t feel like Taylor being Taylor, but rather Taylor executing a rather obvious Lana del Rey impression, but it’s still a jam so whatever. I can also forgive the del Rey-ian intonations of “A-gain” and “PRE-tend” since Taylor also repeatedly sings “KEEEEE-ISS” in such a way that I couldn’t help but be reminded of Faith Hill’s “This Kiss”, and that is now my preferred pronunciation of the word. “Wildest Dreams” is also probably the most longing song on the album, leading perhaps to one picturing herself, however inadvisedly, as the Daisy to someone’s Gatsby.
“How You Get The Girl” is for when you’re ready to switch from the “You’re a sad but beautiful girl walking home in the rain in the last third of a romantic comedy” daydream to the “You arrive at your charming apartment, soaked but BEAUTIFUL AS EVER, and you see that Harry Styles is sitting on your stoop, smoking/brooding. He looks up when he hears you approach and smiles sheepishly, ready to EAT SOME MOTHERF****** CROW” daydream. Also, LOL at “it’s been a long six months.”
Needless to say, I was an emotional wreck by the time I got to “This Love” and was thus a tad underwhelmed. The sonic placidity of the song (its kind of gently-rolling-wave quality reminded me a bit of Beyoncé’s “I Miss You”) doesn’t suit Taylor as well as more manic emotional states. This song made me want to watch a sunrise over a lake while wearing a gigantic cable knit sweater and holding a ceramic vat of tea, and I’m not ready for Taylor to take me to that place. YET. It would also be ideal, if you were thirteen or just feeling very thirteen, for lying on your bed and attempting to cry prettily while pretending to be in a sad movie montage. Go away, Mom, I’m FINE! Etc.
We continue the emotional comedown with the deeply silly “I Know Places” which A. shares an unfortunate vocal “ah ah ah” tic with Celine Dion’s “Loved Me Back To Life” and B. whose “the paps are bringing us down” theme is sliiiightly less relatable than the other scenarios laid out for us in other songs on the album. Counterpoint: having people give you crap about who you’re dating is kind of a Top Five problem from pre-K to college and beyond. You win this one, Taylor.
The closer is “Clean,” which attempts to tie up the many emotional loose ends that have unspooled over the course of the album like so much yarn being strewn around the room by Taylor Swift’s cats (ugh, see what I mean? I’m a mess). It shares some problems with the similarly watery “This Love” in that it presents too tidy of a resolution for our girl. Sure, she might finally be ready to stop chasing after relationships in favor of working on the one she has with herself (I know, I hate me too) but if Taylor has taught us anything it’s that old wounds and old temptations have a way of worming their way back into our lives no matter how much lip service we pay to the idea of “moving on.” Also, LOL at “10 months older.”
As much as I liked this album, more than anything else it made me look forward to what Taylor Swift is going to do next. After all, she’s still only 24, on the younger side of the quarter-century divide and a little ways away from the angst that realizing you only have a couple more years during which you can pass off your nonsense as “youthful mistakes” engenders. I need the Taylor Swift album about what happens when all of your friends start getting married, having babies and making you feel weird for wanting to hang out on a school night.
She might stick with pop, go back to country or release an album of nothing but white noise, but her ability to tap into universal feelings, regardless of genre, gives her an awful lot of leeway. She had my number emotionally in such an effective, all-consuming way that I wondered, an hour after listening to the album, when I had some emotional distance from it, if it maybe wasn’t as good as I thought. And then I listened to it again, and she had me. I don’t know how she does it.