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Taylor Swift leaves country for pop on '1989'

So long, Nashville. Hello, New York City!

Taylor Swift might have made it big as, ostensibly, a country artist. But with the release of “1989,” an album that, prerelease, has been as closely guarded as a highly voluble state secret, Swift has ditched all pretenses to country.

Gone are any vaguely country-related instruments, including live drums. Gone too are any remaining vestiges of the conservative “America’s sweetheart” imagery that helped to market Swift as the pure, virginal Red Riding Hood to Kanye West’s Big Bad Wolf.

“1989” is about as country as a Pink or Katy Perry album, which is to say, it’s not country at all. Instead, it’s a paean to ’80s pop music, all thunderous, gated reverb-soaked drums and cheesy synths, multitracked vocals and choruses that have been labored over to the point where they simply can’t miss.

Considering that Swift was born in the final days of “1989,” it’s interesting that she has chosen to release an album that is an unabashed love letter to ’80s pop. In so doing, she is risking the loyalty of her audience, so many of whom fell for her in her modern country guise. A certain portion of this audience is likely to be alienated by the urban glitter that is sprinkled so liberally throughout “1989” by Swift and her producers, Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff among them.

That said, throwing all of her eggs in an ’80s basket is not a particularly radical move, for that decade’s fondness for plasticity and excess is everywhere in pop music these days, from the Perry/Pink/Miley Cyrus upper echelons of the mainstream, to the only slightly more underground leanings of contemporary alternative radio (think Kongos, Fun. and Foster the People).

So Swift is not leading the march back to the ’80s, by any stretch of the imagination. She is, however, specifically targeting the most innocuous pop music of that decade, rather than any of the more daring cross-genre pollinations and culture-hopping hybrids of the era. (It’s easy to imagine the guys in Foster the People sitting around together and listening to Kate Bush’s ’80s masterpiece “Hounds of Love” for ideas, but there’s no such alternative pop leanings in Swift’s new music.)

Right out of the gate, Swift is anxious to reveal her new self with “Welcome to New York,” a tune that finds her bathed in Auto-Tune and multitracked to the hilt, atop an insistent drum machine groove and bubbling synth sounds. The song was produced and co-written by One Republic’s hit-making machine Ryan Tedder, and it sounds exactly like you would expect – peppy, bouncy, insidiously hook-driven and, within Swift’s rather limited world, a perfect vehicle for her rebellion against the Nashville that made her a star.

“Everybody here was someone else before,” Swift sings, in one of the album’s many “Well, yeah, no kidding” moments. However, the singer sounds engaged, thrilled by the Big Apple, ready to cast off her cotton country dresses in favor of some hipper urban outfits. As has always been the case with Swift, there’s not much substance here. But the giddiness in the vocal and the undeniable catchiness of the hook will likely appeal to the Swift base.

CD cover image of Taylor Swift's "1989." (Associated Press)

CD cover image of Taylor Swift's "1989." (Associated Press)

The songwriting/production team of Martin and Shellback has been responsible for mining platinum for the likes of Britney Spears, Pink, Usher, Christina Aguilera and Maroon 5, among many others, and their job on “1989” was to do the same for Swift. The two are all over this thing, to the point where it’s pretty much their album as much as it is Swift’s. They co-wrote more than half of the collection, and their trademark effusive mainstream pop flourishes elevate Swift’s still confession-based narratives and slim melodies toward the heavens, or at least, toward the arenas she’ll be touring to support “1989.”

Teaming with Fun.’s Jack Antonoff was a stroke of genius on the part of Team Swift, and this pairing grants us the album’s most successful pure pop forays. “Out of the Woods” ably blends the chant-along choruses and thunderous percussion favored by Antonoff and Fun., with a straight-up Miley Cyrus chorus hook. “I Wish You Would” offers further evidence of the fertile Swift-Antonoff partnership, and is one of the more believable examples of Swift’s metamorphosis from nice country girl to city woman and pop vixen.

Whereas Swift’s bread and butter has long been her romantic idealist’s persona, as filtered through a high school girl’s “dear diary” literary skills, she has pared things down considerably this time around. These days, as Swift makes plain in her liner notes, there are no knights arriving on white steeds to lead fair maidens off into the sunset; love is instead seen as “a game of cat and mouse,” as evidenced by “Style” and its depiction of a slightly more cynical and self-aware chase and catch.

The other lyrical themes – the move to New York City as metaphor for ditching country music, and the standard “shaking off the haters” diatribes – fit neatly with the more wizened (relatively speaking) romantic allusions.

Swift's shift from country to pop still needs some work, Jeff Miers writes. (New York Times)

Swift's swing toward '80s pop could alienate her audience, Jeff Miers writes. (New York Times)

Swift seems to be banking on her listeners having grown up with her. If she’s right, and she probably is, “1989” will be her biggest album yet. If she isn’t, there are likely to be some heartbroken teens and tweens wondering why their Taylor has grown so cold.

It was inevitable that it happen, though. Swift was never particularly believable as a country artist. She’s always had her eyes on the pop prize, and her take on country was significantly pop-leaning even by contemporary country’s pop- and rock-friendly standards. As it turns out, you can take the girl out of the country and take the country out of the girl after all.


Taylor Swift

"1989" [Big Machine]

2.5 stars (out of 4)


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