Off the Airwaves with WCFM

‘1989’ has had huge commercial and mixed critical success. Photo courtesy of Harpers Bazaar
‘1989’ has had huge commercial and mixed critical success. Photo courtesy of Harpers Bazaar

Taylor Swift, 1989

Taylor Swift’s 1989 is inescapable: boasting the largest first-week sales since 2002’s The Eminem Show, it’s spawned a number of hit singles, an SNL skit (“Swiftamine”), a Kendrick Lamar freestyle (over “Shake It Off”), two music videos, and endless discussion. For this review, Charlie Gaillard ’16, a longtime Swift fan, and Olivia Lima ’17, a skeptic, paired up to weigh in on the album.

CG: Let’s start with the basics. Do you like 1989? OL: To my surprise, I really enjoyed 1989. My favorites are “Wildest Dreams” and “Blank Space.” What did you think of the album? Were there any tracks that stuck out for you?

CG: It took some getting used to at first. When she said that she was going the pop route, she really meant it! “Blank Space,” “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” “I Know Places,” “This Love” and “Clean” stand out to me, but it’s all good, with the exception of “Welcome to New York.” OL: For the first song of the album, “Welcome to New York” was a surprising letdown. And this is definitely more of a pop album than a traditional Taylor Swift album. I hear Lorde in the song “Blank Space,” Lana Del Rey in “Wildest Dreams,” and maybe even the groove of Daft Punk in “Style.” I never really enjoyed Swift’s own sound, so the prominence of these external influences is why I actually enjoy this album. What do you think of this change?

CG: Jon Caramanica made the point in his New York Times review that the album is Swift’s attempt to “set herself apart, and above” the rest of pop music, which I agree with. But it’s definitely not by making music that’s “different” from mainstream pop (which is his claim). I’m with you, 1989 seems to point to a lot of other stuff out there. To add to what you’ve described: the chorus on “Wildest Dreams” is uncannily similar to that of Lana Del Rey’s “Without You”; “Out of the Woods” channels Bleachers-esque synth pop; “Bad Blood” is an odd combination of pop-punkish lyrics and what sounds like the beat from “Hollaback Girl.” And so on. Of course, they’re all cleaned-up versions of their source material: Lorde without the weirdness, Lana Del Rey without the neuroses. But that’s the point. She’s ironing out all of the wrinkles.

OL: Yes, exactly. I like how you said that they are “cleaned-up versions.” Not because they are better or more polished, but because they are coming from Taylor Swift, a clean-cut celebrity. As I mentioned previously, I like 1989 for its new musical direction. I dislike the album for one of the same reasons as before: the lyrics. Although it’s gratifying to know that Taylor Swift gets me, some of her lyrics are subpar. Every time I hear the line “what was shiny, now it’s all rusted” in “Bad Blood” I consider stopping the song immediately. Also, she mentions her red lips so many times. I saw the album cover, I get it.

CG: I’ve always considered Taylor Swift to be an astute lyricist, and I still see that on 1989. Her lyrics aren’t elaborate, but she’s got a knack for clever phrasing (see: “Blank Space”). But I mostly admire the way she’s able to write lyrics that are specific enough to be enticing and vague enough to be relatable. It’s a delicate balancing act, but she’s been pulling it off for a long time. The lyrics on 1989 might be a little less pointed than on, say, Speak Now, but I’m willing to forgive that as a byproduct of her switch to pop. Still, I’d argue that Swift is head and shoulders above most of the other chart-toppers.

OL: She is skilled at writing lyrics that are widely applicable but also leave people wondering who she is singing about. I think it’s one of the reasons she sold so many records. Even if she is a better writer than many popular acts today, I don’t think anyone should use their genre as a qualifier. Elton John’s music is called pop, and Bernie Taupin was a great lyricist. I would love to know your opinion of somewhat suggestive lines that show up in a few songs. In “Wildest Dreams,” for example, she sings, “He’s so bad but does it so well.” I always considered Taylor Swift to have a wholesome and innocent persona. I wonder why she has decided to push this boundary now.

CG: The distinction I made between the lyricism on 1989 and on her previous releases was that 1989’s songs tend to be less pointed (that is, more ambiguous), not less “good.” Lyrically, I think the album holds its own. Even outside of the pop sphere. As for the quotations you’ve mentioned: I think Swift realizes that everyone needs to grow up eventually. Maybe she’ll get some flak for the more suggestive stuff, but she’d probably get even more if she refused to change. Again, she’s treading a line. The question of image is an interesting one, though, especially since Swift’s is so bundled up in her work. What do you make of how she portrayed herself in the videos that have been released so far?

OL: The general public would probably complain either way: change or no change. I, personally, enjoy the inclusion of those punchy lines. I also liked how she portrayed herself in the “Blank Space” music video. She focuses on a repeated criticism towards her, that she dates a lot of guys (an argument that I never really understood), and takes it to the extreme. She portrays the image that people have created for her, and points out how crazy that person would actually be.

CG: She’s clearly really self-aware, which can be a double-edged sword. Self-parody sometimes comes at the cost of sincerity. But she does a good job of balancing songs like “Blank Space” with more straightforward fare like “I Know Places” or “Clean.” On “New Romantics” (one of the bonus tracks) she sings, “I could build a castle / Out of all the bricks they threw at me.” I think she’s done that with 1989.