A Look at the Albums that Make Us, Us
Vivek’s Pick: 1989, Taylor Swift
She’s everywhere. Her songs occupied the entire Billboard top 10 earlier this year. Globally. Her tour is set to gross over a billion dollars. She’s the most popular person in the NFL this season. And, maybe not as telling, but I am currently teaching a course about her and IP law at the University of Miami School of Law!
Taylor Swift is a cultural icon of the highest order.
Over the past couple of years, many of my Pitchfork-toting friends have asked me (respectfully, but with a certain sense of pretense lol): “Why do you like her music?” To which I almost always respond, “Just listen to 1989”.
I was a 1989 fan long before I would call myself a Taylor Swift fan. Released nearly a decade ago, 1989 marks Swift’s evolution from country crooner to pop music superstar, and also represents some early collaborations with super-producers Jack Antonoff and Max Martin, whose synth-centric strategies helped shine a new kind of light on Swift’s masterful songwriting.
Her songs found new fans (like me), in no small part due to Ryan Adams’ 1989 cover album, and later collabs with Aaron Dressner of The National and Bon Iver, synergies that would likely not have happened in the absence of 1989.
1989 was more than a crossover; it was, as the BBC noted, a “pop masterpiece.”
Sure, there are hits — “Shake it Off,” “Bad Blood,” and “Blank Space” were all Hot 100 number 1s —but 1989 is an experience, not just a collection of singles. Like Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” Postal Service’s “Give Up,” or Beyoncé’s “Renaissance,” 1989 creates a mood guided by melody that compels you to keep listening until the final moments of “Clean,” the album’s dramatic closer written and produced with indie darling Imogen Heap.
According to Swift, the record was most influenced by the music of Annie Lennox and Peter Gabriel, two other extraordinary songwriters who chose to amplify their work through the use of synths and drum machines throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
Those influences are obvious.
Like “Big Time” or “Walking on Broken Glass,” songs like “Blank Space” and “Out of the Woods” are so hooky that you can imagine different presentations — acoustic, piano, guitars — would still hold an audience’s attention.
That said, the actual presentation of 1989 results in an impossibly catchy and relatable set of pop songs. Break-ups, mix-ups, and uncertainty all give way to new adventures, new relationships, and new ideas. And this specific new idea — making an indie pop record by way of Nashville — is one that represents a personal transformation for Swift. A transformation that has seen her ascend from the songwriting circles of Green Hills to the HD-laden production of the Eras Tour. 1989 is a record about giving no shits, living life on your own terms, and being your authentic self.
It’s moody, it’s dramatic, and it’s real.
But make no mistake, 1989 is a party album. A month or so ago I found myself with my wife and kids at a movie theatre on Miami Beach on opening night of The Eras Tour. The movie itself is no great feat of filmmaking, but the show is spectacular, and if you haven’t seen the tour, the movie is worth the time. And even though it manages to remain entertaining and energetic for nearly 3 hours, I don’t think anyone can argue that the 1989 “era” of the tour and film are the most captivating. At my screening, children, adults, and grandparents danced in the aisle during the 1989 tracks, belting out every last lyric to hits like “Style” and “Bad Blood.”
If you believe in Taylor Swift, it’s hard to be critical of 1989. After all, this is the record that changed everything for her. Some might say that the album is laced with too many singles, making it feel crowded and uneven.
Is it too suffocating? It’s frenetic, for sure, but it never feels disjointed, which is a typical liability of an album full of hits with but containing no cohesive vision. But that’s not we have here. 1989 feels more like a single statement by an artist who has reached a crossroads. We now know it was the start of Swift’s entry into superstardom, a place where she realized her songwriting could reach a much broader audience than it had in the past. It’s also a statement about being whatever kind of artist you want to be, no matter what the past, the present, or the industry says about what kind of artist they think you should be.
“Isn’t the music so basic?” The best pop songs are complex, but sound simple. And that’s a craft that Swift has become really good at over the last 20 years. When you spend the better part of your life writing songs — good songs, bad songs, everything in between — there’s a pretty good chance you will become adept.
Just ask Rick Rubin, who recently said that Eminem is “constantly writing” lyrics on a daily basis, but less than 1% of them actually get used in any kind of recorded music.
That’s how you stay sharp.
Revisiting 1989 proves that there is no substitute for good songwriting. These stories, these characters, and these melodies are infectious, permanent, and understandable. That’s why we are all still talking about it a decade later. It’s also why kids will be discovering it 20 years from now.
Later this week (we go to press about a month before you read this!), 1989 (Taylor’s Version) will be released. This is the latest in her efforts to re-record her catalog to strengthen and regain certain rights in her music. It’s a badass move that has already inspired legions of artists who want to take control of their IP. It will undoubtedly chart for a third time, and 1989 will probably be the soundtrack to your 2023 holiday season, as wild as that may sound for a 9 year old album.
Give 1989 a spin. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. You might even enjoy it.