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Review: Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’

🕐 7 min read

Chris Richards (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, so here goes.

Taylor Swift’s “1989” — an antiseptic pop album scrubbed of any greasy country music fingerprints — qualifies as a rare and exquisite dud. When it’s triumphant, it’s like that Super Bowl Sunday when your team is up 42 points at the half. When it’s bland, it’s like noshing on empty calories in a dream you won’t remember. Sometimes, somehow, it’s both.

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 she does it with a cascading refrain that’s pure pop. “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” she chirps. “Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake — shake it off.”

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.

In a society that seeks constant validation through social media, “1989” serves as a conformist power fantasy that might resonate more than we’d like to admit — because it’s also a big, dull gesture we’re expected to applaud no matter what. Clap a little louder or be excommunicated to the valley of the haters. Those are your options in this ludicrous world.

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. “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” she talk-sings with an awkward wave of the finger on “Blank Space,” a buzzy song that rightfully bites back at the bogus, boy-crazy image the tabloids have been burnishing of Swift in recent years.

Meantime, her worst lyrics lurk in the album’s book-ended odes to life in her new home of New York City. The chorus of “Welcome To New York” rings out like a desperate and over-caffeinated tourism jingle (“Welcome to New York — It’s been waiting for you!”), while the hook of “New Romantics,” a feisty bonus track, registers somewhere between moldy emo and the back pages of a high school literary magazine. (“Heartbreak is the national anthem/We sing it proudly.”)

She’s gone from describing adolescence like an adult to describing adulthood like an adolescent — all of which begins to undermine the long-running Swiftian myth that there’s a secret power in being profoundly uncool. Where is Taylor taking us on this grand odyssey of uncoolness? To a rom-com fairy-tale Manhattan that doesn’t actually exist? To a new wave ’80s she never got to live through? To contemporary pop music’s most tame and mundane center?

For a hint, flash back to 2008 when Swift was memorializing the battle for some forgotten boy’s heart on “You Belong With Me,” a masterful song about the misfit life: “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts/She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.” In light of “1989,” that second line is the prophetic one. Young Swift wasn’t off doing whip-its behind the Wawa or reading Kafka at Starbucks. She was on the sidelines, wishing she fit in, standing by.

And now here she is, ruling over all of popland, projecting the dim aura of unimpeachability. Because yes, Swift is a woman thriving at the summit of a pop culture largely shaped by men. And yes, she’s a truth-telling songwriter who’s done some truly brilliant work. And yes, she’s only 24 and her future remains bright and unwritten. All of those things are true and good.

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 feel disoriented and disheartened by the effusion of suck-uppy articles dutifully praising these unimaginative songs? 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.

Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’: How we can tell she’s singing about Katy Perry// By Emily Yahr (c) 2014, The Washington Post. If you listen to Taylor Swift’s new track “Bad Blood” without knowing the backstory, you’ll probably think it centers around what Swift frequently writes about: a relationship gone wrong. Yes, but this time, there’s a twist: It’s not about an ex-boyfriend, but a female frenemy.

Throughout Swift’s typically masterful PR campaign for her new album “1989,” released Monday, “Bad Blood” was teased as being the most potentially explosive single. Swift famously calls out her enemies in her lyrics without using names, just clues. And this one made headlines because it was apparently about fellow A-lister Katy Perry.

Swift gave fans some help decoding this one via a Rolling Stone interview: “For years, I was never sure if we were friends or not,” Swift told the magazine, confirming the song was about a fellow female singer. “She would come up to me at awards shows and say something and walk away, and I would think, ‘Are we friends, or did she just give me the harshest insult of my life?'”

Swift added that the anger behind the tune stemmed from the fact that the artist “basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour.” That’s an easy hint — some of Swift’s back-up dancers abruptly left her “Red” tour for Perry’s “Prism” tour last summer. Throw in the fact that Perry dated Swift’s ex-boyfriend John Mayer, plus Perry’s vague tweet alluding to serious ish with another lady, and the blogosphere happily braced for a throwdown between the two superstars.

And now that “Bad Blood” is released? Sorry, there’s not much more here than what Swift already spilled. In fact, if she hadn’t already spelled out its meaning, we’d probably think the tune was about another ex after all.

Check the furious opening lines: “Cause, baby, now we got bad blood/You know it used to be mad love/So take a look what you’ve done, cause baby, now we got bad blood.” Swift and Perry did used to be somewhat friendly, if the cheerful tweets between the two are any evidence — OK, so there’s the “mad love.”

It continues in a similar vein: “Now we got problems/And I don’t think we can solve them/You made a really deep cut,” Swift vents. The lyrics push even further: “I was thinking that you could be trusted” and “Did you have to hit me where I’m weak, baby, I couldn’t breathe/And rub it in so deep, salt in the wound like you’re laughing right at me.” Rough, huh? And it seems to align with what Swift said in Rolling Stone about the “horrible” thing Unnamed Diva did to destroy the friendship — whether it was the dancer-poaching or Mayer-dating.

Might Swift forgive and forget this transgression? “Did you think we’d be fine? Still got scars on my back from your knife/So don’t think it’s in the past, these kind of wounds they last and they last.” We’ll mark that down as a “no.”

Later in the song, Swift goes deeper: “Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes/You say sorry just for show/If you live like that that you live with ghosts.” This is the point where we need to inform the slower among you that Perry has a song called “Ghost.” Also written by Max Martin, who has a co-writing credit on “Bad Blood.” Small world!

Do what you will with these clues; the piece de reisistance is a visual taunt in the liner notes. Next to the lyrics for “Bad Blood”: A random photo of a Grammy Award. Swift has seven Grammy Awards. Perry? Zero. That’s the part that made Twitter explode.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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