Why do people take Taylor Swift so much more seriously than her peers? Great songs, smart turns of phrase and a noticeable lack of the usual hollow pop platitudes all help
At 24 years old, Taylor Swift inhabits something of a unique position within the teen pop firmament. It’s not merely the fact of her immense popularity, although the sheer devotion of her fans can sometimes knock you back a bit: earlier this week, when Swift released a track consisting of eight seconds of static to iTunes – alas, the result of a technical malfunction, rather than a radical new power-electronics direction influenced by Right to Kill-era Whitehouse and Genocide Organ – her fans in Canada bought it in such quantities that it went to No 1. It’s more that Swift’s music attracts the kind of serious critical attention afforded almost none of her peers. You don’t get many learned articles in the New Yorker about the songcraft of Swift’s mortal enemy Katy Perry. No acclaimed noveliest has felt impelled to take to the pages of Salon to defend the fact that he doesn’t like Jessie J, which Rick Moody did after expressing a dislike of Swift.
On one level, that is irrelevant. What do the vast majority of Taylor Swift fans – the tweenage Instagrammers to whom Swift, according to her ghastly record company biography, represents a “loyal friend, fierce protector of hearts and one of the world’s greatest ambassadors for the power of just being yourself” – care whether their tastes have been anointed by the New Yorker? But on another, it’s intriguing: what is it about Swift’s music that causes it to be singled out in this way?
At first glance, her fifth album doesn’t offer any obvious answers. 1989 has been widely boosted as being Swift’s first pure pop album, the record on which she finally divests herself of the last remaining musical vestiges of her roots as a teenage Nashville star. But that isn’t saying much, given that you’d have needed an electron microscope to detect any last remaining vestiges of those roots in its predecessor, Red. Much has been made of Swift as a self-contained singer-songwriter, but this time around the credits look pretty much the same as the credits for every big pop album: representatives from Scandanavian hit factories (Max Martin, Shellback); a moonlighting member of a mainstream indie-rock band (Fun’s Jack Antonoff); an EDM producer chancing their arm in the world of pop (Ali Payami); the omnipresent Greg Kurstin, of Lily Allen, Lana del Rey, Ellie Goulding and Kylie Minogue fame.
Given the cast list, you would expect 1989 to be an extremely polished product, which it undoubtedly is. Even its least interesting tracks sound like hits, which is what one pays Max Martin for: at its best, 1989 deals in undeniable melodies and huge, perfectly turned choruses and nagging hooks. Its sound is a lovingly done reboot of the kind of late 80s MTV pop-rock exemplified by Jane Wiedlin’s Rush Hour. It’s bold enough in its homage to take on one vintage sound thus far avoided by 80s revivalists – the booming, stadium-filling snare sound that all artists were legally obliged to use for the latter half of the decade makes a reappearance on I Wish You Would – but not so slavish as to preclude everything else: I Know Places is powered by drum’n’bass-influenced breakbeats; single Shake It Off pitches a My Sharona-ish beat against blaring hip-hop synths; the alternately pulsing and drifting electronics of Style and Clean mark 1989 out as an album made in the wake of Random Access Memories and Cliff Martinez’s 2011 soundtrack to Drive.
But the really striking thing about 1989 is how completely Taylor Swift dominates the album: Martin, Kurstin et al make umpteen highly polished pop records every year, but they’re seldom as clever or as sharp or as perfectly attuned as this, which suggests those qualities were brought to the project by the woman whose name is on the cover. As a songwriter, Swift has a keen grasp both of her audience and of pop history. She avoids the usual hollow platitudes about self-empowerment and meaningless aspirational guff about the VIP area in the club in favour of Springsteenesque narratives of escape and the kind of doomed romantic fatalism in which 60s girl groups dealt: the protagonists of I Know Places don’t end the song being pulled lifeless from a mangled car wreck, as they would have done had the Shangri-Las been in charge of proceedings, but they sound like they might, quite soon.
She also has a neat line in twisting cliches until they sound original. Shake It Off takes as its subject that great latterday pop bugbear, the haters, but avoids the usual line – the rather brittle insistence that their presence has somehow contributed to the artist’s inner strength – in favour of suggesting you just ignore them. If you were the kind of person wont to describe pop songs as “meta”, you could apply the term to How You Get the Girl, a knowing checklist of the kind of love-song platitudes that Swift’s peers might easily punt out with a straight face. If Wildest Dreams bears a hint of Lana del Ray, there’s something hugely cheering about the way Swift turns the persona of the pathetic female appendage snivelling over her bad-boy boyfriend on its head. Ramping up the melodrama by way of Be My Babyish drums, Wildest Dreams paints the man as the victim, doomed to spend the rest of his life haunted by what he’s carelessly lost.
“The drought was the very worst,” she sings at the outset of Clean. It’s not just that this is a pretty striking line with which to open a pop song, it’s that you can’t imagine any of Taylor Swift’s competitors coming up with anything remotely like it. Whether that’s because they couldn’t be bothered – you’d have to be hard of hearing to miss the distinct, depressing air of will-this-do? that currently runs through pop music – or because they just couldn’t is debatable. Either way, on 1989 the reasons she’s afforded the kind of respect denied to her peers are abundantly obvious.
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