Rating:1989 is Taylor Swift’s pop album. That is the buzz around the singer-songwriter’s fifth record, that it is her departure from her brand of confessional pop country and into the mainstream. But what does that mean? There is no single figure in the modern musical world that is as widely marketed and accepted as Swift; even as a country star, she commanded the attention (and buying power) of millions. That’s not even hyperbole, it’s simple math: her previous four albums combined have gone 19 times platinum according to the RIAA. Clearly Swift is popular. Is that what makes 1989 pop?
You could argue that it’s pop simply because it’s mainstream. Swift is no longer playing country music, but even Swift’s most fervent fans must admit that it has been a long time since her music existed in pure country terms. Her 2012 album, Red, had about as much to do with Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter did with a dying neutron star, which is to say that they technically both existed in the same universe. In 2014, pop is a catchall term, so broad as to be essentially meaningless. As of this writing, the Billboard Top 10 includes entries from an Australian rapper (Iggy Azalea), a rock group fronted by a TV talent show host (Maroon 5) and a diva-esque British crooner (Sam Smith). Technically, all of these are pop.
But beyond all that, the question really is whether 1989 makes for a good pop album? For what promises to be the bestselling album in a decade and a cultural event in and of itself, 1989 is a bit mundane. No one is particularly expecting a massive shift in tone for Swift, who frankly has no particular reason to change up a winning formula. That said, the singer essentially has adding another 13 songs ranging from breathtakingly catchy (“Shake It Off”) to borderline self-parody (“How You Get the Girl”) without much variation from her glossy confessional songwriting. This isn’t an insult; few musicians have a knack for hooks like Swift, and at her best her lyrical detail is genuinely engaging while seemingly utterly specific. But 1989 is not really a departure for her. If anything, the album feels like a progression of the new musical directions of Red.
One thing is certain, though: Swift has been listening to a lot of ‘80s music. As promised by the title, 1989 is heavily immersed in synth and big choruses (Swift is as committed to the quiet-quiet-LOUD-quiet school of songwriting as the Pixies ever were) from the very start. Opening track “Welcome to New York” has a metronomic beat and a bright, repetitive synth riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on an OMD record, while the wiry, brittle electric guitar on “I Wish You Would” could be a Carlos Alomar outtake from the Let’s Dance years. Surprisingly, “Shake It Off,” the single best track on the album, shows the least 1980s influence, offsetting a stomping, clapping beat against a horn section and a ridiculous yet charming spoken-word breakdown.
When Swift isn’t exploring (as James Murphy indelibly put it) borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ‘80s, she backslides into the kind of generic balladry that makes country music easy to dismiss. The backend of 1989 is filled with its weakest tracks, like “How You Get the Girl” and “This Love;” Swift’s strength as a songwriter has always been her lyrics, which often feel directly taken from life. Specifics like “Remember when you hit the brakes too soon/ Twenty stitches in the hospital room/ When you started cryin’, baby, I did, too” from “Out of the Woods” feel personal and direct; the former tracks feel generic in a way that Swift rarely does, which makes them all the more disappointing than their lackluster acoustic guitar melodies.
1989 ends on the fortunate high note of “Clean,” a track co-written with Imogen Heap and anchored by a subdued vibraphone. As an album, it’s a mixed bag and not the giant leap forward into pop that it has been marketed as. This new record has some of Swift’s strongest songs thus far (and more than a few terribly weak ones), but it’s not as though she has to push herself into the mainstream. She’s been there for a long time already.