Taylor Swift cannot be ignored. Take it from someone who tried. Her early praise was easy to dismiss because it came from young people whose opinions are articulated with the phrases ‘OMG!’ and ‘I literally can’t even deal.’ Then something changed. On Oct. 27th, 2014 she released her 5th studio album, ‘1989’ and the outpouring of love and adoration regarding her music and talent started coming from my non-idiot grownup friends whose musical tastes by and large command my full respect. Friends who you would never imagine doing such things: adult, heterosexual males who worship poets such as Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot, friends who I used to argue with over whether or not Deicide or Slayer had more evil sounding song titles (the answer is Deicide). Friends I was now worried about. Could they really be openly and non-ironically discussing their enjoyment of Taylor and her new album? I needed to know why this was happening. I looked at the facts: she is a cultural phenomenon. Her career as it stands now is an impressive accomplishment, especially in an age of disposable music. There had to be something to it. So, I invested a grand total of zero dollars and illegally pirated my very first Taylor Swift album. And I listened.
In the 90s, we had the stars we were given by three or four major music conglomerates at CD prices ranging from $18 - $24. We turned on the radio or MTV, explored our limited options and begrudgingly handed over two weeks worth of lunch money. There was the good (Radiohead, Tool, Nirvana, Eminem, early Metallica), the bad (Candlebox, Hole, Live) and the ugly (Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, 98 Degrees, later Metallica). Like everyone else at the time, I wanted more choices at much lower prices. I knew there was better, more interesting music out there and I wanted access to the artists who made it. In retrospect, the 90s was a desert of musical choices. We found sustenance in any puddle or under any rock we saw in front of us. Technology through the mid-2000s, however, brought a biblical flood of file sharing, iTunes and streaming services like Pandora and Rdio, turning that same desert into the bottom of an ocean floor. And I for one could no longer see the surface.
This new age of music all but decimated the reign of the pop superstar. They are nowhere near as common now as they were in the 90s, 80s and the decades prior. They can’t be forced down our throats anymore. We don’t need them, because we have options. You don’t like what is on the radio? No problem. Plug in your iPhone. Turn on Sirius/XM or Pandora. Search an artist on YouTube. You want some jazz? Well, get ready to pick from literally all of it. You’re in charge now! The fact that Taylor Swift not only managed to make an impact, but become a megastar in this against-all-odds environment further heightened my curiosity. So I listened.
When you’re talking to music snobs, pop music usually carries many a negative connotation; it’s too safe, predictable, boring. Its only inspiration and focus is a mass appeal. It’s a fair assessment. ‘Pop’ is short for ‘popular’ music. And as far as formulas go, it’s a great one. In my opinion, the best art shines a light on the flaws and struggles of the human experience through a desired medium. I never really used music as an escape, but always for insight and companionship for the periods in life when I felt like there was someone or something out there that indentified with my pain and struggles. Pop music, especially the super polished, ultra light fluffy stuff never did that for me. I always leaned towards darker, deeper songs with more complicated lyrics and arrangements made by the deeply flawed and tortured. I’ve always identified with songs and artists who challenged me as opposed to made me feel like I had just been transported into the Sugar Rush game from Wreck it Ralph. The pop genre, by design, takes those flaws and challenges and stuffs them in a Care Bear mummified with high fructose corn syrup. That’s just how mass appeal works; you catch more flies with Katy Perry than you do with Elliot Smith. And again, I’m not trying to bash pop music. Throughout history, there have been many successful and respected acts with heavy pop sensibilities that I’ve truly enjoyed: Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Madonna and The Beach Boys, to name a few.
Back to Taylor Swift. This may not come as a surprise, but I didn’t fall in love with her album. However!! I didn’t hate it either: far from it, actually. I’ve listened to it now in its entirety a total of six times. In fact, I’m listening to it now as write this review. Guess what? It’s fun, catchy and at times interesting. Taylor Swift set out to make a pure pop music album and she succeeded. Big time.
The fact that this album is good isn’t surprising at all. Moreover, I would’ve been shocked considering she had 11 producers, yes 11 producers, collaborate with her on it. These 11, yes 11, producers have a combined total of over 80 top ten pop hits, including: Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl,’ Fun’s ‘We are Young,’ Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want it that Way,’ Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time,’ Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since You Been Gone,’ and the list goes on and on. If you’re working with a dream team like that, you can’t really go wrong. This group could produce Charles Manson’s next parole hearing and make him not only a free man, but one with a Billboard chart smashing comeback album. This is not to take away from Taylor’s talent, which is abundant. She is talented, but not without a lot of help. Taylor, like a lot of modern day pop acts, is the skilled racecar driver who by the finish line is celebrated for the achievements of the team- the team of designers, technicians, engineers, and pit crew responsible for assembling a vehicle able to hug sharp corners and slice through the air at 150mph. These teams rarely get the recognition they deserve. I’m not taking any credit away from Taylor Swift. I’m merely splitting it 12 ways.
So, why do I like Taylor Swift’s album? I suppose I can boil it down to one very important and liberating realization: the best music makes me feel less alone. As corny as this phrase comes off, I believe it’s true: music is the soundtrack to your life. You carry it with you in the present, as a reminder of the past and as inspiration for the future. As a teenager, punk and metal only did it because I was immature, angry and didn’t know better. Immaturity limited my scope. Sure, I heard the occasional pop songs that I secretly liked, but I couldn’t admit it because it didn’t fit the misguided rebel image I was trying to construct for myself. In my early to mid 20s I liked artists like Bob Dylan, Tool, Neil Young Jeff Buckley and Radiohead. They sang divisive war protest folk songs, prog-rock that was near impossible to bob your head to and heartbreaking love songs that were the sonic equivalent of slicing your wrist in a bathtub. I was broadening my scope and becoming more mature, yet there was still a large part of me pushing away anything that didn’t represent rebellion and darkness and pain. By my late 20s I had calmed down and opened myself up to a lot more classic rock, folk, pop, country, R&B, jazz, and blues. I had finally learned there was lots of great music out there across every genre. It’s all in what you’re seeking and whether or not your search is conducted with an open mind.
Now I can tell people without reservation that Third Eye Bind had some great singles. I can say in the same breath that Counting Crows ‘August and Everything After’ and Tool’s ‘Aenima’ are two of the best albums of all time. The Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want it That Way’ is a tremendous feat of pop music right there with The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations.’ I’ve gotten all that angst out of my system. I’m comfortable letting the syrupy sweet innocence of ‘Welcome to New York’ remind me of all the great times I’ve had in that city. I allowed ‘You are in Love’ to take me back to the beginning stages of relationships I was sure would last forever; the hours of staring into each others’ eyes with hope, lust and plans for a white picket fence-lined future we were sure would come. Do I connect with them as deeply as the best Wilco or Bright Eyes or Neil Young songs? No, but life can’t be heavy all the time. Sometimes you need music that just goes great at barbeques, a drive to the beach or with a girl who keeps begging you to put on ‘1989,’ because to her, it’s Taylor Swift’s ‘OK Computer.’ Sometimes, you just need to let yourself take a vacation. Accepting that has been one of the most mature decisions I’ve ever made.
In the end is Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ a groundbreaking album that will go down in history as influential and lyrically astounding? Will it be the next Pet Sounds or Thriller? No. But you know what? Who cares. Because the haters are gonna hate, hate, hate and I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake it off and enjoy a well crafted collection of pop music.