1989: Metamorphosis or Marketing Ploy?

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on October 31, 2014.

In the 48 hours since it has been released, Taylor Swift’s new album, “1989,” has sold one million copies. It is undeniable that T. Swift has a loyal fan base; indeed, her target audience of 14- to 24-year-old-women will never tire of listening to lyrics of a love story gone sour.

Another factor contributing to high sales is media and marketing promotions that accompanied the album. By releasing the hit single “Shake it Off” in late August (so that even teenage girls in rural Iowa were chanting “The players gonna play play play play play” two months before the album hit stores), appearing in Target commercials with the single “Style” playing in the background as Swift and her “hipster” friends take Polaroid selfies in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, and withholding album release from streaming sites such as Spotify, she not only created hype, but also sold the image that she wants the world to see. Gone is the sweet country girl who sang about finding the prince for her perfect love story. Here to stay is the Williamsburg chic, artsy and slightly off the beaten path woman who croons, “You look like my next mistake” (most likely wanting us to think she’s chugging a can of PBR during this lament.)

Once fans buy the album, they are treated to a self-portrait, or rather a series of self-Polaroids, printed with lyrics from various songs. Similarly, she instituted promotional contests in every city in the United States for a fan to come to a “Secret Recording session” and feel like her bff. The New York Times review chimes in that the artist’s attempt to make a personal connection with the audience contributes to its success (because T. Swift has NEVER shared her personal life in her music before?). The one aspect of the album that critics and fans alike continue to rave about, though, is the fact that she appears to have completely broken free from the country/pop genre.

If this is Swift’s aim, then the very title of the album is apt. As most fans are well aware from the hit single off her previous album, “Red” (2012), she likes to play with the concepts of age, numbers, and time. In fact, the lyrics of 22 refer to parties, “dressing like hipsters,” and having fun in the moment, a frame of mind associated with one’s early 20s. If the number 22 symbolizes a stage in life, then 1989, which happens to be the year of Swift’s birth, symbolizes a return to one’s origin and starting over again from the basics. As Billboard Magazine so succinctly states, “1989 may have been the year of her birth, but 2014 is the year of her rebirth.” However, has she really become a different artist, or is it still our country-singing jilted lover, wrapped in different packaging?

Sonically, it is apparent that she has severed all ties with her country/pop roots. Gone are the acoustic guitar days of “Teardrops on My Guitar.” The first few measures of “Welcome to New York,” the album’s title track’s, juxtapose snare drum and a synthesizer loop, reminiscent of 1980s new wave bands Depeche Mode or Human League. The song takes us to a nightclub in the middle of the city, in a dark crowded room where everyone is sweaty and covered with glitter. We the listeners can feel the kind of camaraderie and closeness that only comes with being in a room with other anonymous people, bumping and grinding against us, united with us in our goal for release. However, unlike contemporary Britney Spears, who has now become 100% electronic and detached from her sound, Swift’s voice rings out in full earnestness over the highly stylized new beats, showing us that there is indeed a human in the robo suit, especially as she cries. “Everyone here was someone else before,” further adding to the theme of metamorphosis. We can hear the giddiness and breathiness as she shouts “Welcome to New York” for three straight minutes.

She continues this musical homage to the 1980s in “Shake it Off,” whose funky horn riffs, mid-section rap break and transparent vocals appear to imitate Blondie’s 1980 hit, “Rapture,” an avant garde track for its time.

Lyrically, “1989” does not prove to be the promised metamorphosis. Arguably, “Shake it Off” talks about self empowerment, lamenting that people judge Swift for going on “too many dates.” Being judged for going on “too many” or even “too little” dates is a universally frustrating part of the female experience and allows us to relate to Taylor, even though the song is clearly about her life. And the line “a kaleidoscope of beating hearts under coats” in ‘Welcome to New York’ is an almost Beatles-esque acid trip (or, at the very least, would draw a stern frown from Nashville.)

Nonetheless, the majority of the lyrics are about boys and breakups, her tried and true themes. Both “Style” and “Out of the Woods” are rumored to be about her ex-boyfriend, Harry Styles of One Direction. The chorus of the former appears in her Target commercial: “You’ve got that long hair, slicked back, white t-shirt, I’ve got that good girl faith and that tight little skirt / and when we go crashing down we come back every time. Cause we never go out of style.” The track showcases her writing skills by telling a coherent story and painting a clear picture with her words, allowing the audience to experience the song both visually and auditorially. However, nobody has ever doubted Swift’s writing skills. Indeed, both the Nashville Songwriters Association and the Songwriters Hall of Fame have honored her for her songwriting skills. The lyrics this time show both the codependence and conflict that characterize her relationships and her previous music.

The latter song’s lyrics further emphasize these themes as she begs throughout the chorus, “Are we in the clear yet, are we out of the woods?” You can practically hear the haunted desperation in her voice as she tries to cling to yet another dysfunctional relationship. So perhaps “1989” does not emphasize her full transformation from country caterpillar to beaux arts butterfly, but perhaps she claws at the cocoon, and the butterfly will emerge in the next album.

“1989” is now available at select stores (including Target), and you can download it from iTunes, so judge Taylor’s new sound for yourself.

Cover photo source: http://bit.ly/1tZVx1v

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