It’s telling that the two most powerful artists in the music world made their mark in vastly different ways with their recent albums. Beyonce shocked the world when she released her self-titled album without warning, and things haven’t been quite the same since. Taylor Swift took the traditional route of releasing singles before “1989” hit the shelves and iTunes, but she made the dramatic move to pull all of her music from Spotify, putting an emphasis on seemingly obsolete physical sales. Considering that streaming has become a norm in today’s music world, T-Swift’s is unexpected.
Apparently CD sales still matter, because “1989” sold more albums in its opening week than any album since “The Eminem Show,” which was released in 2002. Expect it to sell more, especially with the Christmas season coming around. Of course, this isn’t the only big news about “1989.” This is Taylor’s first official “pop” album, even if her music was as much pop as it was country. Her previous album, “Red,” gave us songs that could only be called “pop,” especially the epic “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
Was it justified? Well, she did something incredibly smart: she embraced the synth. “1989” is full of synthesizer, synth bass and drum machines. She hasn’t given up acoustic guitar yet though, as “How You Get the Girl” and “This Love” still use it, although both songs aren’t as organic as some of her previous songs like “Safe and Sound.”
All her new toys, however, are double-edged swords. As good as her synth fixation can sound, they need a strong or at least charismatic singer to provide cohesion, and while Taylor is definitely distinctive as a singer, she still needs work. Also, despite the amount of electronic instruments and reverb, “1989” doesn’t really sound like it dropped out of the titular year. It sounds too modern to stand alongside Paula Abdul or Gloria Estefan, whether it’s the lyrics or Taylor’s singing.
Her singing is still one of her biggest liabilities. While it’s too much to ask her to be Adele or Beyonce, you’d think that with her millions, she could pay for voice lessons instead of a penthouse in NYC. She has improved over time, but she still has the throaty, squeaky voice that can rub ears the wrong way. The next time she ventures into new territory, she would do good to work out the kinks. Also problematic is her choices of tone: she sounds too robotic in some places, while on the unnecessary “Bad Blood”, she sounds uncomfortably nasty.
That said, Swift still manages to write some killer tunes. “Welcome to New York” is both catchy and uncomfortable, like a song you hear in the grocery store that hooks you, but doesn’t feel quite right. “Shake It Off” makes you wish Taylor would knock it off with her defensiveness, but its hooks are still steel-grade after all those radio plays, plus the Internet has produced a mashup video of that song with an actual aerobics video from the late 80s. What’s important is that she still can hit the bullseye: “Out of the Woods” is tremendous and proof that she should work with Jack Antonoff more often. “Wildest Dreams” finds her imitating Lana Del Rey, and it works, even it doesn’t ooze enough summertime sadness to be the real deal. “This Love” (the only song she wrote herself) and “Clean” (a collaboration with Imogen Heap) are lovely ballads that she should think about using for her future singles. That is, if her fans don’t land them on the Hot 100 as they are.
So, on a reinvention level, this album can’t touch previous pinnacles by artists like Madonna or Pink. Were Taylor to churn out an electronica record or a more punk album, that would be a transformation. However, before Taylor can start going on her next world tour, doing any more commercials for Diet Coke, or even finding her next boyfriend-of-the-month, she needs to slow down and lay down the groundwork for her voice, both artistically and literally. She clearly has it in her to produce mature, outstanding work, but she needs to be consistent. And she also needs to realize that even some of the biggest superstars dramatically refine their voices as they grow. When she can achieve the kind of steps forward with her singing that Madonna, Pink and Beyonce achieved in their careers, perhaps she can be the phenomenon that so many people clearly see her as right now. Given how many albums she’ll sell with “1989,” her fans at the moment might not care as much. Let’s hope that as they grow up, Taylor will do the same.