These are trying times to find oneself still riding for Taylor Swift, the Artist. As a celebrity, as a mostly willing punchline, as a cultural nemesis, as a content generator, she's never been bigger or better—this week alone, she's made cat noises, continued stalking her own fans on social media, preened courtside (BOOZIN' WITH LINGERIE MODEL) as the Knicks soiled themselves during their home opener (she's apparently a fan now), and, ah yes, probably sold one million copies of her new record, 1989. At this point, she may be the only thing keeping the entire music business afloat. Make of that, and of her, what you will.
Fantastic PR campaign, in any event. (Great album packaging, too, even if I got razzed by my wife for merely innocently perusing the photo album of quasi-candid Tinder-profile pics of Taylor lounging in various NYC apartments.) The problem is that compared with her four previous albums, 1989 is crazy boring—her worst by a long shot, and not coincidentally her most generic, the first to not sound entirely like her and only her, the first to sound like it could've come from anywhere, from anybody, anytime. When she said she was "going pop," she evidently meant it the way someone who hates pop would mean "going pop"—homogenized, neutered, focus-grouped, pick your somewhat reductive but more-apt-here-than-it-oughta-be slur. It sounds like a third-tier striver trying to pass herself off as Lorde. It bums me out.
It bums me out because I continue to genuinely believe that Taylor Swift is among the best songwriters in America. I realize that her daffy public persona is toxic for a great many of you; in that case, I don't know how much time to waste even trying to get you to take this person seriously. But shit, at the very least you can enjoy listening to her jump-kick John Mayer's dick and balls into the sun.
Her best song to date though is probably "All Too Well," off 2012's Red, a rustic-power-ballad inferno of (allegedly) Jake Gyllenhaal-based pathos that inspired one of the more terrifying live Grammys performances ever, Taylor headbanging and pounding her piano like a cross between Tori Amos and Ronda Rousey. I can't recommend the whole thing highly enough, but lovers and haters alike may still prefer the bootleg Street Fighter version.
The problem here is that's already pop. Taylor Swift has been pop for a long-ass time. The music industry is no longer healthy and monolithic enough for "pop" to mean anything specific to anyone, to scan as "Madonna" or whatever; pop in 2014 is any damn thing at all that still sells records, whether it's "Fancy" or "Stay With Me" or "Anaconda" or that which shall not be named. On 1989, Taylor is conforming to the demands of a genre that no longer exists, or at least is no longer in a position to make demands at all.
What this means in practice is that she loaded up on synth-heavy, vaguely dance-y makeover-montage jams that constitute a very narrow, and frankly very white, vision of '80s pop, which maybe you're cautiously into that, and maybe you're really not. Put simply, this is a record called 1989 that in no way acknowledges that the best pop album of 1989 by a huge margin was Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814. (It's probably for the best that Taylor didn't try—no one wants to hear her version of "Black Cat"—but still. Also: Beyoncé knows what's up.)
This album is not terrible—there is a Too Big to Fail aspect, too much assembled talent (hers first and foremost) to totally blow it, from Swedish titans Max Martin and Shellback (the neon-noir Drive-soundtrack jam "Style" is cool) to American neurotic-maximalist Jack Antonoff (the manic, breathless "Out of the Woods" is better). But there's too much tepid, tentative dead air. "Bad Blood" (the Katy Perry feud song, allegedly) is toothless and vapid; "Welcome to New York" (the I-live-in-New-York-now song, obviously) makes her sound as overwhelmed and corny as every fresh-faced NYC transplant sounds, or at least feels. The thrill of bodegas wears off, Taylor, trust me. Same deal with the Knicks.
As a whole, 1989 is in thrall to the breathy, downbeat, skeletal style of Lana Del Rey and especially noted BFF Lorde, two current pop stars whose respective weird and eminently mockable public images can also blind you to the fact that they're capable of making pretty great pop songs themselves. (Here's one of Lana's, and here's one of Lorde's.) It's not that Taylor can't do this at all: The best song on this album is "Wildest Dreams" (listen here, but do it quickly), which is lush and eerie and sensual in a delicately chaste sort of way ("His hands are in my hair / His clothes are in my room") and generally quite enjoyable and human-feeling: It would fit perfectly on either Lana's Ultraviolence or Lorde's Pure Heroine, which is fine and good, but it fits perfectly on 1989 only in the sense that it partially redeems most of the yawning misfires that surround it.
Oh, well. By Christmas she'll have become a regular at Sleep No More and started dating Iman Shumpert and accidentally almost fallen into the Gowanus Canal and caused a mini-riot at Mission Chinese and 101 other highly bloggable NYC misadventures, selling another half-million records along the way, for this is what it truly means to "go pop" in the 21st century: It's the point at which your public antics make for better art than your actual art. She'll make a "back to my country roots" album next and it'll kick your ass up and down the street. Let Taylor live, for now, but don't let 1989 define "pop," or define her.
Rob Harvilla is Deadspin's culture editor. Yes, there is one. He's on Twitter.
Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty.
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