opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
When Dolly Parton first reached a mainstream audience back in 1977, she made a point to soothe the nerves of longtime fans and Nashville’s record industry. “I’m not leaving country,” she famously vowed with a scarlet smirk, “I’m just taking it with me.” Taylor Swift opens her fifth album 1989 with a contrary pledge, to leave her successful past in a Tennessee junkyard. “Welcome to New York” is, on the surface, a paean to her recently adopted home. But as is her wont, the song also plays as a meta-statement about Swift’s life choices, both artistic and personal. “Everybody here was someone else before,” she sings without a whiff of regret. Lest anyone misunderstand the point, Swift follows with 1989’s fundamental credo. “It’s a new soundtrack,” she warns, while lost in whirling sonic euphoria. And then, a crucial addendum: “I can dance to this beat…forevermore!” The times have a-changed, y’all.
Taylor Swift’s vast and diverse fanbase has long anticipated the prospect of a Total Pop Reinvention, either with nagging gloom or escalating delight. For those who still regard Taylor Swift and Fearless as her purest works to date, the other shoe has dropped at last. And it lands with a pulsing synth chord. For the rest of us – we who’ve cheered as she’s abandoned banjo-and-fiddle confessionals, little by little, first on Speak Now and then on Red – our perseverance has paid off. Swift’s abundant promise is finally realized, with delirious brio, on 1989.
The big question has never been if Taylor Swift would become a twang-free superstar diva,but how that transformation would unfold. The first hint at an answer came a few months ago, with a shrewd bit of misdirection. “Shake It Off,” the pop music equivalent of a caffeine overdose, seemed to confirm everyone’s suspicions and fears. Lighter than helium, but with a chorus sturdy enough to bore through titanium earplugs, 1989’s lead single presented Swift in a familiar context, one that goes back to “You Belong with Me”: the precocious beauty, the unselfconscious dork, the whip-smart everygirl, the outsider punching bag. “Shake It Off” has become a smash – so, mission accomplished. It’s also totally unrepresentative of the album it heralds. Therein lies the song’s logistical brilliance. It acts as a point of entry into alien territory for Swift’s core audience, a demographic no doubt unfamiliar with 1989’s stomping grounds, the kaleidoscopic contours of an FM landscape that reached a pinnacle right around this album’s title date.
“Shake It Off” isn’t merely a gateway drug to much better stuff. It has a secondary purpose, to shove back at a threadbare narrative. The artist who looms high above 1989 is no meek Jane Doe, a young woman on the defensive. Taylor Swift is at her most effortless and assured here, buoyant and full-blooded at once. She’s the former girlfriend you’re afraid to call, as you drive past her place late at night (“I Wish You Would”). She’s the current girlfriend who will see you through a life-threatening mishap, even though she’s been ready to dump your dumb ass for some time now (“Out of the Woods”). She’s the jilted friend, responding to a betrayal with bile and a killer melody (“Bad Blood”). She’s the maneater, a “nightmare dressed like a daydream,” adding her next target to a “long list of ex-lovers” with a vicious pen-click (“Blank Space”).
1989 has less in common with the latest Billboard juggernaut than Taylor Swift’s earlier works. But it doesn’t stand alone in 2014. 1989’s rebellious elder sibling is Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence. Don’t be surprised by the connection; it goes beyond “Wildest Dreams,” Swift’s homage to Del Rey’s unique vocal phrasing. Both albums are interested in world building, right down to their cover art, while also remaining far apart from current sonic fashions. Where Del Rey sways along with the sounds of classic Hollywood, Swift finds her inspiration in the music of Pet Shop Boys, Book of Love, and Roxette. Forget Gwen Stefani, if “Shake It Off” is indebted to anyone, it’s Toni Basil. And just as Del Rey cannily tapped Dan Auerbach to shape her silver-screen fantasia, Swift’s DeLorean pulled into all the right driveways (those of Max Martin, Shellback, Ryan Tedder, and Jack Antonoff) before heading skyward. (Our destination? My birth-year, fellas!)
1989 is a fabulous pop record. It’s not perfect – I’m looking at you “Shake It Off,” and you too “This Love.” But it comes so close (play “Style” on repeat for a bit, and see if you still disagree). How often do we stumble across pop perfection, anyway? 1989 would have been just as impressive thirty years ago, against much fiercer competition. It’s also proof that an expert songwriter, one who happens to sing and dance (somewhat less expertly), can rule our dreary charts. Taylor Swift stands atop names we haven’t bothered to learn and then forget. 1989 isn’t a “crossover” success. It’s the album every subsequent blockbuster must now reckon with.