Taylor Swift goes pop, but at what expense?
It’s a fleeting moment, and a telling one. In the video for “Shake It Off,” the lead single from her new album, “1989,” Taylor Swift crawls under the legs of a row of women twerking in denim cutoffs. As their butts bounce and jiggle, Swift peers up with a look of dismay. The punch line is obvious: This is not Taylor Swift’s world — never has been, never will be.
She doesn’t want to be an industry-driven pop star dependent on showing some skin, featuring cameos by rappers, and borrowing beats from hip-hop and indie rock. Her pop intentions are more old-fashioned; she doesn’t need to be edgy or provocative in her pursuit of a good time.
That much is clear on Swift’s fifth studio album, which was released on Monday. “1989,” a reference to the year she was born and also a shout-out to the album’s vague resemblance to music from that era, is her first release to definitively shed the country twang of her past. It’s proudly middle of the road, infectious yet anonymous, and will surely go down as this year’s commercial juggernaut.
But “1989” also feels like her most inscrutable effort. The music is a bright, shiny, and bland pastiche of electronic pop and faint nods to new wave and R&B. And the songwriting feels generic, a departure from the personable details that have made her a unique voice. Take “Fifteen” from 2009’s “Fearless,” back when Swift was considered a “country-pop princess.” Even if you weren’t that age, or swore you disliked country music, you could probably relate to that song’s isolation and heartache, because we’ve all been there. “1989” has few moments that draw you into the storytelling.
As anthems go, “Shake It Off” is unequivocally brilliant and absurdly catchy. For good reason: There’s no better mantra for a big bubblegum pop song than shaking off your troubles: “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” Swift sings as if on a merry-go-round.
The opening “Welcome to New York,” too, will surely hook the masses. Over a synthesized beat and clattering drum machine, the 24-year-old Swift waxes wide-eyed about the Big Apple, where “the lights are so bright/But they never blind me, me.” This being a pop song in 2014, there’s the requisite message about self-acceptance and empowerment: “You can want who you want/Boys and boys and girls and girls.”
Co-written with Jack Antonoff of fun. and the rising band Bleachers, “Out of the Woods” has a propulsive drive that’s hard to resist, like a runaway Haim hit. “This Love” shows a more sensual side to Swift’s singing, and it’s an interesting gamble that pays off.
Mostly under the direction of Swedish producers Max Martin and Shellback, these 13 songs (on the album’s standard edition) are flawless confections, with little nuance. Swift initially enlisted the hitmakers for her 2012 album, “Red,” which was her first big step into pop music. “I Knew You Were Trouble,” a hit from that album, was a departure for Swift, but a delicious one that split the difference between Joan Jett and Katy Perry.
This time out, they turn Swift’s songs into faceless hits. She doesn’t want to draw comparisons to Miley Cyrus or Perry — the latter of whom was supposedly the inspiration for the kiss-off “Bad Blood” — but Swift occasionally encroaches on other pop-star terrain. The chorus of “Wildest Dreams” has the windswept grandeur of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful”; even Swift’s vocal is suddenly more sullen.
“Got a long list of ex-lovers/They’ll tell you I’m insane/Because you know I love the players/ And you love the game,” she sings on “Blank Space,” semi-shouting that last line to a very Icona Pop effect.
It’s a cruel irony that in Swift’s quest to sound like no one else, she doesn’t sound like herself, either.
Watch the music video for Swift’s single “Shake It Off”: