A few years ago, it was not hard to ignore Taylor Swift. After her first album, she found herself among the Nashville country-pop stars, whose fan base was large, yet specific enough that the average listener wouldn’t hear her early hits like “Our Song” or “Teardrops on my Guitar” regularly.
But that began to change a few years ago. Swift slowly replaced her cowboy boots with something a little more hipster, and the country twang with a dubstep-ish bass wobble and BOOM — she became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.
“1989” is Swift’s furthest departure yet — perhaps too far. “Red” was a major success because it matched Swift’s best early musical instincts with her new pop tendency, but Taylor caught “Minaj disease,” and discarded her original genre entirely for pop on her latest LP.
That is not what makes “1989” a bad album — great pop music is alive and well in 2014. Nor does it make it a failure — it will undoubtedly be one of the two or three biggest records of the year.
Still, Swift’s fifth album disappoints.
An optimist might hold out hope that the record opener “Welcome to New York” would be a snarky criticism of the multitude of problems facing the city (lack of affordable housing, poverty, stop-and-frisk), but they would be, unsurprisingly, wrong.
Instead, the song’s lyrics gush about the bright lights of NYC and how much she loves the city and the freedom it gives.
The song is embarrassing and barely listenable. Swift is a 24-year-old multi-millionaire, for whom New York is a playground, and is rich enough that she can afford to be naïve about the magic of Manhattan. It comes across as incredibly cheesy.
“Blank Space” is her take on being “young and reckless,” while “Out of the Woods” is the most obvious example of an ’80s influence on “1989.” Echoing snare drums and synths that sound straight out of Cyndi Lauper’s heyday both characterize “1989.”
“Shake It Off,” the album’s lead single, is undeniably catchy and will be logged in with the rest of Swift’s biggest songs. As perfect for radio as it is, “Shake It Off” is devoid of substance, which would be forgivable were it not in an entire album devoid of substance.
Full albums are a tricky thing for pop stars. They are important because they are where the singles are chosen from, the tracks that actually define success or failure. So the rest of the songs on the album are eventually forgotten and are easily forgettable even the moment after listening to them.
And albums with only a few memorable songs generally do not generate great reviews. I’m sure that is fine with Taylor, because she knows her audience. She’s been lucky with the press so far, but ultimately, critics do not matter, fans do, because fans will buy the album, attend shows and defend Swift against criticism. Any rating will do, as long as people are talking.
But many people are not blinded by Taylor loyalty, and they should know that “1989” is not a good album. There are bright spots, such as the album closer, “Clean,” co-written by Swift and English singer Imogen Heap. But again, it doesn’t matter that “1989” doesn’t hold up to its predecessor. We all know Katy Perry’s hits, but many of us probably could not name her last LP. Swift is going to be fine when “1989” hits No. 1, and I’ll be fine when I don’t need to listen to the full album ever again.