The streets of Nashville must be littered with the country music personae that stars shed like old skins, when they reach for crossover pop appeal. It’s a right of passage for most country singers to abandon the honky tonk for the spangly pinnacle of Hollywood. Country music legend Dolly Parton based her whole middle phase of her career to that ambition. Others, like Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, or Faith Hill, followed, eschewing steel guitars and fiddles for crashing power chords and the ubiquitous Diane Warren pop ballad. The shift from country to pop is so prevalent in music that Taylor Swift’s wholly predictable embrace of pop music with her great new album 1989 seemed inevitable.
For some time Swift showed us signs of unrest with Nashville. Her last album, 22, was country only by a mere whiff of an acoustic guitar or a banjo. It was firmly a pop album with skittery beats, wall-to-wall synths, orchestras, and anthematic vocals. On 1989, the singer pushes that transition forward, enlisting the help of Max Martin to unearth her inner Britney. The results? Mostly excellent. 1989 is easily one of the best pop albums this year – the songs are insanely catchy, and Swift’s light, easy vocals makes her an ideal pop diva. Along with Martin, Swift has also brought on Imogene Heap, Ryan Tedder, and Shellback, along with other high-price producers to help with the sound redo.
The song that’s getting the most attention (besides the album’s hit single “Shake It Off”) is “Welcome to New York,” which is getting a lot of unfair negative publicity. Many call the song naive or silly, and yeah, it won’t replace Kander & Ebb’s classic paen to Gotham, but it’s a decent ditty sung from an outsider’s perspective. It’s a new New York, one that isn’t defined by the righteous rebellion of Lou Reed or Debbie Harry, but a safer, more PG New York, that’s designed for the Glee set. While purists shake their heads at this Disneyfication of New York, Swift does make a goofily sweet carpetbagging ambassador for the city.
“Shake It Off” the albums first single (which already went number one) is another good song that plays with Swifts song. A swipe at her critics who dismiss her as empty-headed or shallow, the song is an easy, breezy four minutes of pop bliss, helped by uplifting beats and a crazy saxophone. In fact, the best of 1989 follows the template she established with “Shake It Off” – 80’s-inspired synth pop. “Blank Space” sounds like a vague Tears for Fears copy while. “I Wish You Would” also mines the current 80s nostalgia with aggressive drum machines that recall Phil Collins “Take Me Home.”
Aside from the 80’s echoes, what makes 1989 enjoyable is that Swift’s malleable voice makes it a perfect instrument for this kind of music. Because a lot of country singers’ voices are very distinct – either twangy, nasally, or gospel-drenched – putting them in a shiny, polished soundscape can make those voices sound lost, strident, or just plain silly (dance outfit KLF exploited that sonic dissonance to its full effect with Tammy Wynette in the freaky house hit “Justified & Ancient”). But Swift’s voice isn’t a particularly distinct or notable voice – it’s very pretty, but sounds like a lot of other above-average vocals on pop radio. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because it does make her foray into pop music credible, and she sounds completely at home singing over the clattering drums and the yawning synthesizers.
What does get lost though is the songwriting. Swift gained some minor notoriety as the ultimate revenge singer-songwriter. If a guy burns her, she’ll set pen to paper and write a top 40 hit about the scrub. While she’ll never be heralded as our generation’s Carly Simon, she does have decent songwriting chops that are augmented by some pro collaborators. Unfortunately, because the sounds of the record are so loud, bright, and sparkly, it’s easy to ignore the lyrics which tend to be relegated to slogan-like choruses and catchphrases. Even a ballad like “This Love” is awash in reverb and programming which distracts listeners from the lyrics. Some may point out that given the puddle-deep depth of “Welcome to New York,” that may not be a bad thing, but it would be nice if Swift pushed herself as a songwriter.
Still, these quibbles are minor, because pop music is hardly ever about the lyrics – it’s not even about the singer. If 1989 is firmly entrenched in the sounds of the 1980’s, then it owes a lot of its sound and success to Janet Jackson’s 1986 classic Control. Like Control, Swift’s album is a showcase for the production values, which are a perfect fit for the somewhat anonymous vocalist. As the aforementioned Dolly Parton returned to rootsy country after years of pop experiment, Swift may also tone down the gloss (after all, there’s not a trope more popular in country music than the “going back to my roots” album that follows a string of pop records). But for now, she’s found a sympathetic niche and sound that fits her like a sequined glove.