A Reasonable Conversation About Taylor Swift’s New Album, Which Is The Best Album Ever
JEN VAFIDIS: HI JANE. There is a new Taylor Swift album out today, and it is already totally undeniable. The first single is a #1 hit, the second single was #1 on iTunes within 10 minutes of its release, and Taylor has been teasing us via Instagram about these new songs for what seems like years. It’s only been a few weeks, but still. I love her, you love her, let’s talk about her.
JANE HU: When I tell people that 1989 is going to get me through the rest of 2014, I’m 100% not exaggerating. Even though the three pre-releases have really sent some MIXED SIGNALS about the feel of the album, T-Swift has never let me down before. I adore this album, but the leading track actually had me a little worried for a moment!
VAF: I hate the first song on this album, and I have a feeling you also don’t love it. But maybe I am wrong?
HU: No, I think you’re right! This opening track is kind of terrible. Why is this the opening track? Why is this track even on the album? Is the album about New York? NOPE. Also, as someone who has once upon a time fallen HARD for New York, I’m just not sure it captures anything cogent about the experience. It’s so repetitive. Do you have anything else to say about this track?
VAF: It’s so repetitive. And it’s bland, which is something I haven’t thought about a Taylor single before, I think. It’s so flat and non-specific that it’s about nothing instead of being universal. I have been pretending it doesn’t exist, basically. Do you want to skip ahead to the next track, which we both love? I kind of want to do that.
HU: YES, LET’S. “Blank Space”! Where do I even start? This might be my favorite track on the album so far? Though Tay albums are usually slow burns, which is part of why they’re amazing.
VAF: Yes. Somehow my favorite song from Red is “Holy Ground” now? I don’t know when that happened.
HU: There’s a general consensus around how unequivocally “poppy” this album is, which I think is basically another vague way of saying that Tay is continuing her departure from country (confessional/narrative) songs toward the more general (vague? repetitive? timeless?) tradition of “pop” lyrics. “Blank Space” is pop, but it’s also doing something incredibly interesting vis-a-vis Tay’s earlier music; instead of fixating on the end of a relationship (post-break-up) or the burgeoning start of a romance (see half the tracks on Red), “Blank Space” is thinking in terms of the whole trajectory of one relationship BEFORE it begins.
VAF: Yes! The narrative has changed from “I’m taking a risk and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out” to “I can see how this is going to go, and I’m going to do it anyway.”
HU: As someone who unabashedly overidentifies with Tay’s ability to build deep attachments very quickly—over and over—this feels like a song that I didn’t even know I was waiting for. Jon Caramanica describes it as “a meta-narrative about Ms. Swift’s reputation as a dating disaster,” but it might be more than that? It’s meta, certainly, but it also allows for the possibility of different future outcomes that do not have to repeat Tay’s past (whatever that might be). I mean, the song is titled BLANK SPACE. “So it’s gonna be forever / Or it’s gonna go down in flames.” There’s a lot of old Tay even in this pop song, by which I mean it’s not really about being a disaster, and a lot about being hopeful.
VAF: Right. Call her insane, but she’s more than that. She puts extremes side-by-side to reveal their limitations and to show they can co-exist. She’s “a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” That’s such a great reveal: you’re the bad boy, but guess what, I’m worse! And I’m one step ahead of you because I know I’m like this, I’ve always been like this, and you’re only about to find out.
HU: If she’s a disaster, she’s a very disciplined one: “I could make the bad pass good for a weekend”; “Find out what you want / Be that girl for a month”; Keep you second guessing like oh my god, / who is she?”
VAF: If it’s a game, she’s going to win. How about the third song? My first thought, before I realized I loved it anyway, was: someone loved the Drive soundtrack, I guess.
HU: And like Drive, it’s completely invested in CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD TROPES.
VAF: OH GOD, YES. All surfaces. He’s driving her around, like the guy from “All Too Well” was upstate, but no one is finding out about anyone’s T-ball days in “Style.”
HU: Totally. It’s so unspecific! Unlike the next track, “Out of the Woods,” which has this amazing bridge that is kind of surprisingly specific? “Remember when you hit the brakes too soon? Twenty stitches in the hospital room.”
VAF: Oh Lord, that bridge. It’s something, right?
HU: It simultaneously enacts loss AND hope.
VAF: The way she sings “I remember” makes you think that’s the most powerful thing a person could say about something so distressing. She’s so good at that.
HU: I am pretty breezy about the next track, “All You Had To Do Was Stay.” It’s just fine for me! What about you?
VAF: Oh man, I love this embarrassing song. It’s the most Max Martin-y song on the album, I think? Like, put this song in the hands of a boy band, film them dancing a really literal dance in an airplane hangar, and it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
HU: My favorite part is definitely the dragged-out “this is what you wanted (ah ah ah-ohh)” bridge. (The bridges on this album are incredible.)
VAF: She’s teaching a master class on both pop bridges and uncomplicated (but perfect) rhymes.
HU: Ummmm speaking of: what about the talky bridge in “Shake It Off”? “TO THE FELLA OVER THERE WITH THE HELLA GOOD HAIR”? I think about that line all. the. time.
VAF: Ahhhh, I meaaaan. I feel like the bridge to “Shake It Off” is unfairly maligned, Jane. UNFAIRLY MALIGNED. It’s not cool, it’s not good “rapping,” but it is somewhat uncanny, right? It’s fun, it seeps into your brain. It’s just kind of a fact, I’m used to it now. I also find “Shake It Off” sad, but maybe I’m alone in that. The way she sings “But I keep cruuuising” makes me sad.
HU: Y’know, the way Tay has to necessarily clamp up a bit in this album in order to be more pop is melancholy in its own way. Or that the trick here is to “shake it off” instead of laying it all out there in the open? Shaking it off is, more often than not, HARD. And perhaps not coincidentally, the track that follows is all about forms of not letting go. The opening line, “It’s 2 am, in your car”—which later modulates to “It’s 2 am, in my room”—resists forgetting, and I think that spirit haunts a lot of this album that is often about nostalgia.
VAF: Yeah, one of my favorite Taylor themes is a song’s potential to shape someone else’s nostalgia. “When you think Tim McGraw / I hope you think my favorite song” being one of the best examples, of course.
HU: Your point about “Tim McGraw” also helps clarify Taylor’s move from drawing from a country music legacy to a pop one. “Out Of The Woods” sounds like a track from The Breakfast Club soundtrack.
VAF: Oh god, it does. Taylor’s version of the late 80s/early 90s is pop you’d hear in a dentist’s waiting room. I made a Spotify playlist to keep track of the songs/artists I was reminded of while listening to this album, and there are a LOT of Roxette songs on it. There are also some Phil Collins singles, some Amy Grant classics (lol), and one T’Pau song. Sometimes I thought she was trying to remake Diamonds and Pearls without the sex. Like, if Prince sang “Cream” or “Gett Off” without sounding like he had a painful erection. Which some people might argue is a bad/impossible thing, but I don’t know, it makes sense in my head, and it’s kind of sweet when it’s Taylor. Lots of these songs sound like she’s enthusiastically playing air drums in the car. The beginning of “Bad Blood” is some arena rock/glam thing, and I LOVE it.
HU: “Bad Blood” reminds me of anthemic Queen, in a very endearing way. Its “Hey!”s are far more Brian May than Marcus Mumford. The metaphors are sometimes painfully literal (“Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes”), but they completely work in the context of such instrumentals.
VAF: It’s a musical step up from her previous brat anthems (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” e.g.), but the lyrics are still classically junior high. I want to congratulate both of us on not saying who any of these songs are “about,” by the way.
HU: We’ve made it so far!!! Whoever he is, he completely deserves the rhyming designations of “mad love” turned to “bad blood.”
VAF: She rhymes “love” with “blood.” And “problems” with “solve ‘em.”
HU: She’s a poet. So even while people won’t stop comparing “Wildest Dreams” with Lana Del Rey, I actually think the poetic logic is still fundamentally different there.
VAF: Go on! I am lukewarm on this one, mostly because it depresses me. She wants him to remember her, but does he? Probably not. I do love the bridge though.
HU: Part of what’s so enabling about Taylor’s lyrics are that it’s almost irrelevant whether he remembers her or not. His wildest dreams are, first and foremost, hers—I love the privileging of that! Lana Del Rey sings “Summertime Sadness” (the closest relative to “Wildest Dreams”?) largely from a position of what she can communicate to the departed: “I just wanted you to know that, baby, you’re the best.” But Taylor oversteps this and allows the other to exist ONLY in the context of him desiring her. Does that make any sense, or have I completely lost it?
VAF: It makes perfect sense. She did it on Red too, which I think we emailed feverishly about. She says that maybe what they had was a “masterpiece” and “the only real thing” he’s “ever known,” and it’s way over-the-top and flattering to her and her alone. She might as well be saying, “Oh, maybe I’m amazing, and you’re the worst?” Another good Tay theme that comes up on this album is her obsession with vows. Speak now or forever hold your peace: you get the girl, she tells us on “How You Get The Girl,” by telling her how you feel AS SOON AS YOU CAN. Meet me in the pouring rain, etc.
HU: “How You Get The Girl” is, for me, a kind of sweeter response to “Blank Space.” It’s also about the prelude to a relationship, and again, deeply about timing:
Say it’s been a long six months
And you were too afraid to tell her what you want
And that’s how it works:
It’s how you get the girl
And then, later: “I want you for worse or for better […] I want you for ever and ever.” That’s a LOT of commitment to be thinking about for someone who hasn’t even asked the girl out yet. It’s insane and bold and I love it. It’s like, Taylor knows it’s inappropriate to ask these things on a first date, but she’s still going to FLIRT with the idea of forever. Deeply romantic in retrospect, maybe, but overwhelming and potentially creepy to start? But, I mean, I get it.
VAF: I get it too. It’s what we love about her. She’s a demanding person.
HU: But demanding with a PURPOSE. The lyrical implications of the song are kind of buried by the fact that this is basically a disco song? It really reminds me of Rita Ora’s “I Will Never Let You Down,” which is about forever in a different way. Disco can get away with a lot of feverishly dreamy content.
VAF: Right, because disco operates in the dark, when everything is INTENSE and you say shit you might not mean in the morning.
HU: See: this photo.
VAF: LOL. I think here is where we mention that there’s an excessive cheesiness to Taylor’s pop moments that is reminiscent of Dolly Parton’s pop moments. Both women like sequins and fringe and silliness. But you know what’s sort of not silly and seems to be on a different plane from the rest of the album? “This Love,” the eleventh track, is so, so serious. Like Taylor is gunning for having her songs overplayed at every wedding ever.
HU: This is going to reveal the range of pop I listen to, but “This Love” reminds me of Emmy Rossum’s “High”?? I think it might be trying to be Annie Lennox but it ends up sounding like over-synthesized classical pop–which, again, not necessarily a bad thing.
VAF: I’d also throw Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” into that mix.
HU: Oooooooh yes, totally. “Your touch / my cheek” makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. “I Know Places” escalates Seriousness one step further, eh?
VAF: I hate “I Know Places.” Taylor is the most paranoid singer in pop right now, and it’s stifling on this song.
HU: What is happening in that intro!
VAF: NOTHING GOOD, JANE.
HU: I don’t think anyone can get away with ending so many phrases with vocal up-slides.
VAF: Not even Taylor.
HU: MAYBE RIHANNA. Maybe Rihanna could get away with it.
VAF: Rihanna could get away with several murders.
HU: Can you imagine ANYONE ELSE singing “Rude Boy”??
VAF: Nope. No one else should sing “Rude Boy,” it’s a proven fact.
HU: If Taylor Swift is the most paranoid singer in pop, then we just might be the most paranoid readers of her. I have to tell you my theory that the next track, “Clean,” actually doubles as a song about the current drought in California. We just had experienced a good bout of rain over the weekend for the first time in tooooo long!
VAF: I’m glad to hear it! I hate this song though, and I don’t know why.
HU: You probably hate it because it’s just a slightly less slide-y version of “I Know Places.”
VAF: Yes, that’s probably it. Okay, moving on. THE BONUS TRACKS.
HU: MOVING ON TO “WONDERLAND.” OK, can we please discuss the cameo of Mr. Green Eyes? These lyrics: “Didn’t you flash your green eyes at me.”
VAF: Oh, I didn’t notice that!
HU: I sort of want Taylor to be singing about green eyes forever. This song is lilting and lyrical, but I don’t find it tired or anything. It kind of moves between angry and dreamy? Even that line about the green eyes is menacing: he FLASHES them at her? This song is torn!
VAF: You mean it’s TORN???
HU: “Torn” is such a musical predecessor to Taylor Swift. But I think maybe the song that cites most explicitly from pop music’s repertoire is “You R in Love.”
VAF: Yes, that song strongly echoes Bruce’s “Secret Garden,” which, you might recall, was on the JERRY MAGUIRE SOUNDTRACK. How romantic. I bet Taylor does a really good “Dancing in the Dark” at karaoke.
HU: Oh my god. I sort of like to think of this song as the real coda to 1989, because it thematizes retreat and retraction. Instead of lyrical over-telling or over-compensating, it makes an attempt to mark silences. So first the chorus goes: “You can hear it in the silence (silence) / You can feel it on the way home (way home).” But THEN, she takes out the echoes so that you get this space where you expect/recall the words without actually needing them present. It’s sort of how the album works for me in terms of Taylor’s entire oeuvre? Like, her prior work is embedded into the work of 1989, but they can haunt her “pop” songs without her needing to inject it with biographical details. The clues are there and not there: “You understand now why […] why I’ve spent my whole life try to put it in words.” Yes, we do. And now, this song can simply be about that quiet moment when you’re “on the way home,” just contemplating the beginnings of falling in love. I like that it’s allowed to be simple.
VAF: That analysis makes me like this song so much more, Jane! Now the last bonus track seems even less substantial than I thought. But I look forward to having “New Romance” on my workout playlist for at least a month or two. It seems destined for the trailer of a Garry Marshall holiday movie.
HU: I was thinking, it’s an anthem, yes, but it’s also kind of a new pop music manifesto??
VAF: Oh, true. I do like how she brags on it. “Mine is better.” Also: “the rumors are terrible and cruel / but honey, most of them are true.” LOL, you bitch.
HU: LOVE New Pop Bragginess. There are so many delicious details like that in the song that actually make me believe in its message too–who hasn’t cried “tears of mascara in the bathroom”?
VAF: I can’t say that I haven’t!
HU: Cried mascara tears in the bathroom, A+, would do again. “And please take me dancing / And please leave me stranded it’s so romantic.”
VAF: You know, I was thinking: maybe I’m too jaded for Taylor? But then she proves me wrong. It feels pretty great.