In her move to the top of pop's heap, Taylor Swift has become the focus of debates about pop, authenticity and whether it's heresy to say "Eh, this isn't for me" when it comes to modern music's biggest star. If we have to say we don't like the popular kid, and then justify that apathy, doesn't that only make the popular kid more popular?
In a landscape dominated by smaller-scale successes, Swift's most recent album, 1989, became one of music's few legitimate blockbusters. Swift seems omnipresent now, her face in fashion rags and major newspapers, gossip sites and highbrow magazines. She has the power to propel other industries. And now, with her decision to self-identify as a pop artist and sympathetic role model, she's seeking more disciples—and, superficially, more proximity to them.
When Swift announced 1989 last fall, she called it her "first official pop album." That's a weird designation for a woman who'd recently headlined the Jingle Balls of multiple Top 40 stations and already played with dubstep wobbles. Still, she named the record after the year of her birth, which was, admittedly, a great moment for pop music.
"It was apparently a time of just limitless potential and the idea that you can do what you want, be who you want, wear what you want, love who you want and you get to decide where your life is going," Swift said while announcing 1989. "Bright colors, bold chances, rebellion: The idea of that was so inspiring to me, and the idea of endless possibility was a theme in the last year of my life."
The high-gloss synthpop of 1989 is actually more reminiscent of 1985, as a true 1989 nod would incorporate more New Jack Swing. (No, Swift's awkward dancing with a boombox in the "Shake It Off" video doesn't count.) Still, Swift delivers an amped-up version of 30 years ago, when Level 42's sumptuous "Something About You" and Scritti Politti's hyperactive "Perfect Way" were topping the charts.
Pieces of 1989 are lovely enough. "Style," one of the 1989 tracks supposedly about her former One Direction paramour Harry Styles, is syrupy and haunted, like a well-lit and filtered Instagram picture. "Wildest Dreams" uses a wordless chorus to great affect, its ahh-ahhs sounding like the internal monologue of someone too overwhelmed by their longings to articulate them.
Too often, however, 1989 gets claustrophobic, with its detailed production demanding that the listener notice how Swift is able to throw all the spaghetti in the world at pop music's wall and hear it stick. "Out of the Woods," which Swift made with Jack Antonoff of the similarly retro-minded Bleachers, is probably supposed to come off as perplexed as its lyrics, but it just sounds exhausting. Written with hit photocopier Ryan Tedder, "I Know Places" finds Swift bending pitches to see how far she can go, a la Maroon 5's recent experiments. She seems alien and strained.
In the decade preceding 1989, Swift excelled by writing generally relatable lyrics. As the demands of popular culture skew ever younger, resulting in teenage and 20-something ideals of romance persevering for people well into middle age, her adolescent approach to love and rejection fits the needs of the aged, too.
But 1989 feels defensive, even closed off: Perky jingles directed toward "haters" and vaguely outlined gentrification anthems offer signs that Swift is engaging with the endless possibilities of being super rich. They also suggest Swift might be getting out of touch with her fanbase, even as she scours the Internet to reply to their best Tumblr posts.
The video for "Bad Blood," which premiered last month, might be her biggest misstep yet in this regard. Yes, it helped push its attendant song to No. 1 on the Hot 100. And it was a piece of major pop news that appealed to the celebrity-industrial complex more than any recent single, save perhaps songs from Kanye, Rihanna and that one Beatles dude. But in the context of 1989, "Bad Blood" is a nasty little bit, a bratty schoolyard sing-along given enough towering pop production to taunt its alleged target, Katy Perry.
As a song, it's a strange choice for a single; as a video, the petulant and overblown production allows Swift to show off which of her lunch-table friends managed to snag parts. A Joseph Kahn-directed homage to action movies like Tron and Kill Bill and Lady Gaga's spectacle for "Bad Romance," the clip is a mess.
It features leaden CGI, a fiery finish, Selena Gomez in a bad wig and the most esteemed members of Taylor's clique—Paramore's Hayley Williams, model-slash-Swift-BFF Karlie Kloss, Law & Order: SVU matriarch Mariska Hargitay. Kendrick Lamar manages to outdo the nunchaku-flipping, cigar-chomping cast with an extended rap, reducing Swift to hook girl on her own song.
Swift is trying to appease everyone here, not just with her declarative move into the wide pop world or her recent assertions that she is, duh, a feminist but also with the ecumenical encouragement of "Shake It Off" and the fighting-crime-with-friends premise of "Bad Blood."
She's just like the people who helped 1989 go quadruple platinum. Sure, she can afford two apartments on the same floor in the Big Apple—but, hey, she's unlucky in love. Yes, her height gives her the grace of a model—but, hey, she still has "haters" who snipe about her going on "too many dates." Everybody has problems, right?
Even in her earliest days of lovelorn notes about Tim McGraw, Swift and her chart-topping albums existed on the fringes of pop. Now that she calls herself as much, real debate of her music seems fraught to the point of feeling impossible. Talking about pop in 2015 has become the playing field of straw men and women on both sides of the argument. Uncomfortable that their admiration of Wilco or The National doesn't represent critical consensus anymore, the old guard deride the pop-boosting observers who pushed 1989 to No. 7 on last year's Pazz & Jop poll. Those more kind to pop close ranks, too, whether by declaring themselves "Swifties" or sneering blindly at the arguments of the other camp.
This only generates more discussion about Swift and her record as symbols, not sounds. It crowds out talk about the actual tunes and steals time and energy away from other great albums.
Swift wins, then. As she doubles down on pop, she embodies the paradox of the "popular." Even in high school, back in 1989 or now, being popular never meant being the most-liked but, instead, the most-discussed.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Swift like me."