With Taylor Swift's latest album, 1989, it appears that she is trying to shed her country origins like a butterfly shedding its chrysalis. In her reverent ode to the Big Apple, “Welcome To New York,” she implicitly shuns the backwards, unexciting life she’s left behind in Nashville by exulting in the gaudy wonders of the big northern city. Swift has thrived on her odd balancing act between aw-shucks down-home country girl and ultra-sleek, savvy pop star, and her career has taken off with its feet firmly at the top of two ostensibly separate charts. You have no choice but to feel bad for her when she complains pleadingly, “Why you gotta be so mean?”, almost like she’s embracing the troubling notion that the listener will be the one to save her from said meanness. You also had to smirk at the acid dripping from the microphone when she asserts her anger at all of her caricatural boyfriends, more figures and devices than actual humans in front of Swift’s withering glare.
1989 demonstrates a marked change in Swift’s ethos. No longer does it represent a full relinquishing of her curly-haired dominance of the pop-country charts, but it’s also far more hopeful than most of her earlier oeuvre. The album seems to be an attempt to isolate and capture the sheer power of Swift’s reciprocated love — she declares that while “the rest of the world was black-and-white, we were in screaming color” in “Out Of The Woods.” This is Swift at her most jaded yet her most vital — she is no longer satisfied with a moony-eyed, doomed-to-plummet romance straight out of some high-school misinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet. Swift knows she’ll eventually fail, make no mistake, but she wants to fail spectacularly, screaming all the way down.
This is primarily where the album fails. At times, Swift actually proclaims her own independence, as on album highlight “Blank Space,” where she coyly acknowledges her infamy while teasing the standard “new-money” love with whom she dabbles so often. However, far too often Swift eschews her own individuality (or at least as much individuality as the music execs are willing to give her) in favor of a standard white-bread pop star approach, where she could realistically be swapped out for any no-name backup singer with a good enough voice. Nowhere is this clearer than the meek, pointless “Out Of The Woods,” in which she tells an all-too-often-recited tale about the Impossible Love and the subsequent Falling Out and Love Lost, all tied together with one of the most inane choruses this side of the Disney machine. It’s just a boring song, with vanilla production and an obtuse, plodding beat, drowned-out acoustic guitar and saccharine pads feeling as pointless as possible.If one didn’t know any better, they might assume this is just another below-average, cookie-cutter “indie” pop release (a la Imagine Dragons or American Authors) from the gently thrumming, rocking guitar and synth stabs of “All You Had To Do Was Stay.” This impression is fueled by the fact that, unlike most radio-pop superstars of today, Swift doesn’t derive her modus operandi from a co-opting of a traditionally black sound – there are no threads of house, no remnants of hip-hop, no microbes of soul or funk to be found here. Rather, it’s almost as if Swift is embracing her white-bread sound – just look at the video for “Shake It Off,” where Swift declares she’s most confident dancing awkwardly among her kin, realizing I problematic an Iggy-Azalea-esque attempt at posing as something she’s not might be.