Big Machine Records
Taylor Swift’s “1989” — an antiseptic pop album scrubbed of any greasy country music fingerprints — qualifies as a rare and exquisite dud.
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 Swift does it with a cascading refrain that’s pure pop.
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.
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.
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 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.
— Chris Richards,
The Washington Post