Guilty Pleasure? Embarrassed??? Hardly.
As much as I love music, and devoted a significant amount of my life to it, I can still be pretty closed minded. I like what I like and over the last few years I’ve lived deeply in that bubble. Why listen to the radio when I’ve got 20k+ songs in iTunes? I also no longer care about being cool—I’m over having to be the first to hear a new rock band or searching for the meaning of life within lyrics. I think there’s two reasons for this:
One, I’m getting older. Not all music, or even the music I used to like, resonates with me like it used to. There’s nostalgia attached, but I certainly can’t get excited about the new pop punk band singing about getting kicked out of high school—nor should I. I never thought I’d see the day when I didn’t have much of an interest in Warped Tour or picking up an issue of AP—but those days are over, and I’m okay with that.
Secondly, my time at Sony forced me to listen to a lot of music I’d otherwise have no interest in. Leaving that world was like a spiritual backlash to anything Top 40—I could refocus on the music that moved me, rather than it’s commercial viability. New music doesn’t mean good music, and now being a private citizen, I only have to worry about good music.
With that said, Taylor Swift’s 1989 is good music.
I was getting out of the music industry as Swift was skyrocketing. At that point she was considered a country artist with crossover appeal and I was a rock and pop specialist—I had no reason to listen to her and didn’t because I loath country. When I left the industry, she became my “now that I quit the hamburger stand, I never want to eat another hamburger again” artist. I always respected her from afar because she wrote her own music and seemed to have a grasp on her career, but I also wanted to vomit at the thought of teen-girl-country-pop. Each one of those words compounding my gag reflex.
Anyway, until last week I had never consciously listened to a Taylor Swift song in my life. I avoided it. I’m alive, so though osmosis I’m sure I heard some of her songs, but usually circus monkeys played in my brain whenever she came on. The first time she caught my interest was a few months back when Chuck Klosterman (my favorite author) did an interview with her for GQ. I only read the article because he wrote it, but ended up walking away thinking that this Taylor Swift chick might not be all that bad.
And here we are now; I’m working on a new book which has lead me to do quite a bit of research on pop stars. One of my main characters is a young female musician, and I dove into the world of Miley, Selena, The Justin’s, and of course, Taylor Swift. I tried to understand the origin stories of our folk heroes—I wanted to figure out where they came from, how they cope with success, and the nuances of their life not captured by the paparazzi lens.
Getting about a third of the way into the first draft, I broke down and watched the “New Romantics” video—my first conscious Taylor Swift experience. Surprisingly, no feelings of nausea and her lyrics perfectly represented what was going on with the character in my book. So I took the plunge. I left YouTube and downloaded 1989 hoping that listening to her music would inspire some depth in my storytelling. I don’t know what it’s like to be a young female musician on top of the world, but Taylor sure does.
I put my studio headphones on, laid back on the couch, and gave an earnest listen to the entire album in one sitting. Huh. It was good. The next morning during my workout, I put the album on again. By the end of the week, Last.fm told me that Taylor Swift had 97 plays and 1989 was already ranked fourth in my Top Albums over the last 90 days.
She’s good. Real good.
I’ve been in her world before—I’ve worked on projects alongside Britney Spears and Katy Perry, and nothing is what it seems. I'm not saying they’re bad people but the image they project out into the world is not who I experienced them to be. However, for some reason, I really want to believe Ms. Swift. As unimaginable as her life as a pop star must be, she seems genuine. She seems like she has integrity and class, and the true talent to justify her stardom. Whether that's true or not, I’ll probably never know—but I like believing it. I like believing in her.
1989, as everyone else has already said, is a true cover to cover masterpiece. Every single song could stand on its own, and has. Even as ridiculously much as the album has been played—it’s not over-hyped. The quality of her songs are still bigger and better than the marketing or any of the awards it’s received, including Album Of The Year. There’s only a couple of records each generation that can say that—and this one earned every bit of its recognition.
To me, there’s a major aspect within modern pop music that’s missing and Taylor fills it—nuance. You simply cannot replicate or replace a songwriter singing their own song. No matter how talented a singer is, through their natural ability or with all the technology in the world, you can’t substitute or simulate the purity of the horse’s mouth. And that’s what separates Taylor Swift from every other pop star—the rest being over produced karaoke.
Swift thrives in that third dimension. The subtly—the cadence of speech, breath of air, inflection in tone, emphasis on words, and the snarkiness or a daydream being conveyed by the only person who really felt those thoughts and lived those experiences. The nuance is what took 1989 from a commercially successful pop album to the level of Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Nirvana’s Nevermind. Not only is she singing at the industry’s highest level, but she's also conveying all of the words and meaning that isn't being spoken. A laugh, a hesitation, a cringe—all captured, expressed, and shared. That’s what makes her human, that’s what makes her believable, and that’s why it’s okay to love Taylor Swift. She’s the Jack White of pristine pop—nothing but heart, soul, and talent.
As a writer, her ability to do this blew my mind—which is something I never expected. I underestimated her. I was wrong about her. She’s more than a catchy hook. She was able to make a mid-thirties dude compassionate to the troubles of a young woman. She used pop as the vehicle to speak on the human condition, and while it’s being articulated from a perspective that I can’t relate to, I still feel like we have something in common—along with the rest of the world. She bridged a big gap almost effortlessly, and I directly attribute that to her sincerity. She tore down the walls that surround us—age, race, sex, religion, social class—and just told us how she was feeling. To me, that’s the essence of great writing—she stayed true to herself and her story but was able to tell it in a way that resonates with anyone willing to listen. It’s unbelievably rare and something I can only strive toward.
If I had to say one thing about the album—bottom line—it’s that it makes me happy. Sad, dreamy, confident, whatever it may be; she’s evoking an emotion and that's something I don't usually find in pop music. Well done, Ms. Swift.