Firmly cementing a transition from country to pop and making Taylor’s commercial success even more pronounced, 1989 has made her the first ever female artist to have three albums sell over a million copies in a single week. But is it really worth all the hype? (Spoiler alert: it’s a definite yes.) There’s certainly a significant improvement in Swift’s lyrical prowess. A far cry from earlier lines such as “so go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy / That’s fine I’ll tell mine that you’re gay!” (‘Picture To Burn’), this new offering is still Taylor – just more refined; she spent 2 years working on the new sound, and it shows.
Each song feels meaningful, heartfelt, and still as catchy as ever, but this time with a maturity of thought and understanding that was often lacking in her earlier work: ‘Welcome To New York’ reverses some of her earlier sentiments, praising the freedom to “want who you want / Boys and boys and girls and girls”. Her new tough attitude and feminist stance takes no prisoners. Her first single – ‘Shake It Off’ – is emblematic of this new found inner confidence and subverts the media’s expectations by proving just how false their allegations are when they condemn her personal life. She recently described the song as “unapologetic”, stating that it embodied her reaction to previously upsetting critique: “You don’t like me being who I am? Watch me be who I am more.” The realisation that she can just ‘Shake It Off’: “I got this music / In my mind / Saying, “It’s gonna be alright” is a powerful one which transforms what could’ve been a fairly vapid (if addictive) dance track into one that actually carries significant weight. The song thus serves a dual purpose of providing a positive outlook on difference and independence for her fans while sending a clear message of defiance to the press.
This disregard for playing the game that the record companies and gossip columnists want her to play continues with the newly released video for her second single from the album, ‘Blank Space’. Taylor personifies the version of her depicted in the magazines as a jealous, clingy man-eater, exaggerating the pastiche to an absurd level – “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane” – to show how disparate this two-dimensional picture is in comparison to reality. It’s the verbal equivalent of hurling a hurricane at the mass media, and it’s a motif that is suffused within the album as a key underlying theme.Such self-awareness and destruction of stereotypes not only falsifies claims made about her over the past years, but truly shows the shallow, hyperbolic nature of journalism aiming to shock and capture attention by any means necessary. The claustrophobic atmosphere the media produces around the young starlet is candidly illustrated in ‘I Know Places’: “when everybody finds out / See the vultures circling in dark cloud”, as well as the desperate measures resorted to in order to avoid the paparazzi, “ Baby I know places we won’t be found / and they’ll be chasing our trace tryin’ to track us down”.
Taylor makes a bold statement in her lack of willingness to be complicit with the trappings of fame that are assumed to be inescapable, and deliberately draws attention to the wrongness of their actions within her music, using her art to fight back. Not only this, but in true conviction to her earlier assertion of “watch me be who I am more”, she refuses to be curtailed or changed due to the ignorant perception of her that is often publicly scorned, refuses to back away from her typical song-writing style that deals primarily with her previous lovers. The majority of the tracks are relationship focused, with a particularly noteworthy nod to dating One Direction’s Harry Styles in ‘Out Of The Woods’, which she describes as depicting “a relationship where you kind of never feel like you’re standing on solid ground.” This anxiety is mirrored through the fast tempo and endless repetition of its chorus, “Are we out of the wood yet, are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods? / Are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear yet, in the clear yet good?” which seems to effortlessly convey that constant worrying familiar to those who have been in such fragile, uncertain relationships.
Overall, the album seems to give a metaphorical middle finger to those who believe that love songs, or songs about love (for those are two very different things), undermine female vocalists and reduce them to whining, needy messes. Taylor herself acknowledges this perceived sexism by complaining that it seems unfair to persecute her on her choice of song topic. “No-one says that about Ed Sheeran. No-one says that about Bruno Mars,” and indeed the one-sided torrent of criticism does seem to rely on gender stereotyping for it to perpetuate our awareness. Taylor also seems to have got rid of the bitchy, snarky insults aimed at other girls and their behaviour that used to be dispersed in her previous songs, “She’s better known for the things that she does / On the mattress, whoa” (‘Better Than Revenge’). Instead, the track ‘Bad Blood’ seemingly deals with a friendship feud by making remarks on character and poor decision-making, “Now did you think it all through? / All these things will catch up to you” rather than making snap judgements on clothing, rumours, and appearances. This reflects her real-life change into a feminist icon from her previous slut-shaming, as she admitted recently in an interview that “as a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities.” Now, however, her refusal to diss other artists in the industry, stating that “I cheer on anybody who is living their life on their own terms, wearing what they want to wear and representing what they want to represent,” clearly shows a new understanding of feminist issues that has allowed her to push past the internalised misogyny that previously caused her to judge and condemn other girls.
On every level, it seems, Taylor is promoting respect, acceptance, and justice – and manages all this without losing the light-hearted, melodic quality of her verses. Whilst some fans are upset with the more synthetic sound that is a common thread throughout the tracks, proclaiming she has entirely abandoned her country roots, this has to be pop at its very best: instantly relatable, easy to learn, and perfect for belting out in the shower. Swift has modified the teen anthem, twisting it from the usual veneration of exes and friends to songs with clear moral messages that can only serve to influence her legion of supporters for the better. It may be pop, but it’s got heart.
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