Taylor Swift chose a strange era to be nostalgic for on her new album. Everything about it, from the title (“1989”) to the sound (synth-pop) pines for the waning days of the ‘80s, circa “Dynasty” and Ronald Reagan.
Problem is: Swift was barely 1 month old in the album’s title year, so she could not possibly have been aware of the sounds surrounding her. She can, however, retro-actively worship them. But it’s telling that she would choose to do so just now.
A mere seven weeks from her 25th birthday, Swift has put out an album that, in substance, seems more regressive, teenage and girlish than ever. However radio-savvy and hook-obsessed it may be, it’s her flightiest and least substantial work to date. Which is saying something.
Ironically, the surface of Swift’s album finds her changing dramatically. It leaves behind every last sign of her early Nashville country sound — not that anyone would have mistaken her for Loretta Lynne before. But in place of even a hint of a fiddle or pedal steel guitar is something new: an array of antique synthesizers. The ones here sound like they haven’t been touched since the days when Gary Numan ruled.
Swift bold-faces her intention to ditch her past by opening the album with the now much discussed song “Welcome To New York.” It finds her naively oohing and ahhing over our city’s sense of possibility. Conforming to her character, and her target teen audience, the song is willfully naive and candy-coated.
So is most everything that follows. The synths that define the album, and make it uniform, aren’t of a deep, rich, or modern kind. They’re nostalgically dinky, aping the thin and tinny sound of an outmoded brand of pop. Of course, for her youngest fans, this may sound new. But older listeners will immediately bring to mind records by Sheena Easton in the ‘80s or Kim Wilde, circa “Kids In America.” No one could miss the antique reference of the album’s first single: “Shake It Off” apes Toni Basil’s old cheerleading hit “Mickey.”
The new wave sound – anchored on brisk claps, cracks and booms – gives Swift’s new songs a certain breezy appeal. But her choruses tend to rest on a songwriter’s laziest fall-back: the repetitive, arena-mongering chant.
Like the music, Swift hasn’t looked ahead in her lyrics either. At least she minimized the tic of alluding to past boyfriends. The barely coded references to Harry Styles in “Out of the Woods” rate as the sole obvious one. Otherwise, her subjects conform to her patented viewpoints. She doles out songs about loving bad boys (2), ignoring haters (2), stalking a guy (2), along with one about lost love, and another about the evil paparazzi.
The teenage dreaminess of it all reeks of protecting market share. It suggests Swift didn’t dare try to grow, lest she leave her core fans – very young girls – behind. That strategy will thrill her record company and her financial advisor. But it leaves her looking stunted and scared. She ends up as a just a teen-pop machine – and as someone who has yet to figure out how to act her age.