During the three times I listened to Taylor Swift's new synth pop album, 1989, I felt like I was being screamed at for over an hour. Her vocals are amplified above all else, and generally what that all else is are loud block waveforms of electronic pop. Often, she is shouting politely, to boot. Her yelps are more BratCitibike than Bratmobile, but they add to the racket, nonetheless. Her voice is to my ears what fluorescent lights are to my eyes.
In his praise-filled review of 1989, the New York Times's Jon Caramanica wrote: "...There is an implicit enemy on this breezily effective album: the rest of mainstream pop, which 1989 has almost nothing in common with." This is certainly true of the current No. 1 song in the U.S., Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass." Taylor Swift is all about the treble, nominal bass.
Here, have a listen to this reel of lowlights (or highlights if you're into getting assaulted):
[There was a video here]
In my experience, 1989 is a fundamentally unpleasant thing to behold. Almost every earworm hook becomes a striking snake via Swift's delivery. Every once in a while, a song's instrumental opening will grab me, like the humid first few bars of "Wildest Dreams," and then Swift starts singing and I wonder if this is what being in an unhappy marriage feels like. You wake up, the sun shines through the windows, you just know it's going to be a great day, and then you're alerted to the ominpresence of a person you don't really care for and it just ruins everything.
I don't really care for Taylor Swift. I think she sometimes writes good pop songs, but mostly has a very dull public persona. I don't know her. It seems to me that to be impressed by her crossover from pop-country to pop-pop, which is the foremost thing 1989 is asking you to be impressed by, you need to believe that her trajectory as a human and artist is worth investing in. I don't, so that doesn't work for me. I'm not sure what 1989's synthesized backing proves that Shania Twain didn't already do 12 years ago with Up!, which she released as a double album of the same songs—one disc of "pop" versions, the other of "country." A good hook knows no boundary. Go tell it on the mountain that has been carved into Dolly Parton's likeness.
It seems, too, that you need to be invested in Taylor Swift to be impressed by her gentle, self-serving poking fun at her own image. In "Blank Space," she nods at her tendency to kiss and sing: "Got a long list of ex-lovers / They'll tell you I'm insane / But I got a blank space, baby / And I'll write your name." Yeah, we know. It's her greatest strength as a lyricist, even if it invites scorn (and even if the results are sort of bland and vague). Part of her job as a pop star is to make people talk, and encounters with famous men are worthy (especially newsworthy) subjects for songs. They're at least better fodder than the backlash to those songs, which seems to have inspired "Space" and 1989's cheer-chanted first single "Shake It Off": "I go on too many dates / But I can't make 'em stay / At least that's what people say." Are people actually saying that? Those sound like the words of dickless assholes that deserve no attention, not that Swift's recap is particularly vivid or that her resolution anything but trite self-affirmation: "'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play / And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate / Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake I shake it off, I shake it off."
"I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime," Swift told Rolling Stone earlier this year. "And I'm just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore." It sounds like for all of her shaking, Swift has internalized the criticism, but whether she is letting the haters win by changing her art to suit them is too hard a call to make: I couldn't begin combing through 1989's cliches to parse out whom (or even what) she is talking about.
I don't blame Swift for being so fascinated by her own narrative that she's turning comments into content. A lot of people are fascinated by that narrative. She sells a lot of records, and her brand is partially built on sharing some version of her truth with the world. Intense self-involvement behooves her and explains why working in slightly poppier territory than usual is the album's de facto theme.
I am a person who loves pop music and surprises and who would have very much enjoyed hearing 1989 the way many other pop fans are—as a collection of compulsively listenable gems. Instead, the most specific things I hear are some brutally mastered Robyn knock-offs blaring at me. I can't imagine this album winning over new fans—it's a weird pop record that is ostensibly crafted for maximum accessibility yet seems best appreciated by those already on board the Taylor Swift train. "The singer most likely to sell the most copies of any album this year has written herself a narrative in which she's still the outsider," Caramanica wrote in the Times, and it seems to be praise. That disingenuousness, though, is exactly what many of us find repellant about Swift, and if 1989 is a showcase for it, well, you can see why we'd stay repelled.
[Image via Getty]