Taylor Swift is a profoundly sentimental artist. She is also, of course, a gifted songwriter, a clear, convincing singer, a striking melodist, a hook machine as irresistible as any to grace Top 40 radio, a celebrity about as benevolent as they come, and, let us not forget, a role model worth obsessing over. But before any of that we Taylor Swift fans must acknowledge her penchant for schmaltz, as this earnest young woman who writes directly and openly about her feelings has a saccharine streak about a mile wide. When asked why one loves Taylor Swift, it is easy to mumble some excuse about expert craft or formal mastery. The reason we fans adore her is much more specific, more thematic. We adore her because she falls in love with guys when they hold the door open for her, which anybody else would interpret as a meaningless act of common courtesy. We adore her because when she meets her new lover in a café and he tells her about the movies he watches with his family every single Christmas she feels all warm and fuzzy inside. We adore her because she projects an innocent, radiant delight in the world that could make you believe in faith and magic.
Whether Taylor Swift the real-life human being is actually like this is somewhat implausible, nor does it particularly matter. Swift has become a megaplatinum superstar largely through the construction of an artificial but rather appealing character. To call her the girl next door would downplay the dizzy self-involvement and feisty autonomy that made her a star in the first place; no girl next door is that thin or dresses that well. But as epitomized in “You Belong With Me,” in which she positions herself as the more downhome, easygoing darling in sharp contrast with her high-maintenance romantic rival, Swift has consistently played throughout her career an intriguing cross between Everygirl and Ingenue. Few have put this much effort into such a shimmering illusion of normalcy. However naturalistic the detail in her well-plotted love stories, her turns of phrase come rather close to familiar cliché, and ultimately her narratives trade in idealized archetypes rather than individual instance, especially the ones that deal specifically with high school or life in a small town — from “White Horse” to “Last Kiss” to “How You Get the Girl,” from the song where she and her boyfriend are Romeo and Juliet to the song where she and her boyfriend fall in love over the summer listening to Tim McGraw. She is modest, ordinary, and picture-perfect; she is much less sexual than most female pop singers, but she’s also in touch with her feelings and she takes them seriously. And although her new album has been marketed as a mature, adult move away from girly vulnerability as well as a radical musical reinvention where glitzy synth-pop replaces mild country-rock, listen twice to 1989 and you’ll hear the same wholesome voice, the same hopeless romantic getting excited and angry and blissfully happy.
Possibly the hookiest and most immediate album she’s ever made, 1989 culminates a career that started with roots in the homely comforts of country and/or mall music and slowly gained the universal power of the best masspop as Swift sharpened her writing and fed her insatiable ambition. It’s not her artistic peak, I don’t think; that would be 2012’s Red, an unequivocally great album that snuck up on me months after I had mentally filed it away and that I now love as much as anybody ever. Red sold a million copies in its first week, too, just like 1989. But unless she returns to country and/or mall music after her present electroexperiment, which might not be such a bad career move, the new album seals a formal progression that seems inevitable in retrospect and leaves her with plenty of places to go. Complete with feigned drawl and aching pedal steel, 2006’s self-titled debut Taylor Swift was a fairly predictable corporate country record, yet you can already hear her toying with the teen-nostalgia theme as of the first song and lead single, “Tim McGraw.” 2008’s megacrossover breakout Fearless and 2010’s somewhat overproduced Speak Now streamline her product, subsuming the twangy elements into a slick, flavorful country-tinged pop vehicle that equaled radio gold. Red perfected the aesthetic, in which that same pop vehicle expanded to include sugary keyboards, plucked banjo riffs, calm acoustic strumming, intensely defiant kissoffs and heartbreakingly sad ballads, emotional hormonal giddiness all over the place, its homely comforts so reassuring and pleasurable, its masspop reach so punchy and fierce. 1989, cannily marketed as her first real pop album when in fact she’s never done anything but, strips down her sound to a light blend of synthetic beats and automated drum machines. Gone are the warm, cozy songs that you could curl up to on a rainy day with a cup of tea and a blanket. This is urban dance music through and through.
Swift’s songwriting has remained expressive, passionate, amazingly heartfelt and romantic. She continues to specialize in sketching spectacularly entertaining relationship catastrophe, and her narrative tropes are no less conventional. “Out of the Woods” especially hits you with the kind of broad emotional force that has always been her gift. But on the whole her lyrics have become more concise and less specific, and her melodies bounce along with a spare elegance she’s never approached before. She’s cheerier than usual, thrilled by her fresh popstar power and less inclined toward introspection. Where she used to hammer her choruses home with the energy of a natural arena-rocker, now she glides and soars on the liquid momentum of her bubblegum beat. Her strummed guitar riffs have been almost completely excised, replaced by a snowballing procession of chewy keyboard hooks. This music seems coated in polish, gleaming even more brightly than most Top 40 material, defined by a glossy surface the artificiality of which is barely diminished by the depth underneath, and her tunes slip into your head more easily than ever. She announces her newfound commitment to electropop with the opening “Welcome to New York,” which has nothing to do with New York and everything to do with those magnificent, glittering synthesizers that open the album with a bang.
As with so much commercial pop music, everything on 1989 is deliberate. Each chiming keyboard figure, every click of the drum machine, all the breathy sighs in her voice, these have been fanatically labored over by Swift and her production team. Each moment on the album has been calculated to push your buttons, and in this 1989 is perhaps not so different from her earlier work after all. Taylor Swift’s schmaltzy side, more readily apparent in her country-identified music but nevertheless always there deep down, toys with your feelings the same way her tightly constructed melodic pop songs toy with your pleasure receptors. Her music is manipulative in the technical sense of the term: engineered to make you feel specific and premeditated things. Swift shares this knack with dozens of lesser songpoets and cheesy Hollywood screenwriters, and she is shockingly good at it. To listen to a song like “All Too Well” and follow the protagonist, identifying with her at every turn, celebrating her joy and shaking your head in solidarity when the world lets her down, feeling the exact tones of winsome nostalgia that she does, at the same time grinning at the verses before beaming at the chorus, this is to embark on a sentimental journey whose path has already been mapped out for you. Both the heartsongs of her Nashville period and the mechanical machinations of her newly dominant synthpop work like this. For some impossible number of reasons — her friendly, ordinary yet distinct persona, her embrace of young romantic mythology, her honest emotional immediacy — Swift can somehow turn this kind of kitsch into something enchanted and beautiful.
And if you allow yourself to be manipulated by her superb craft, she will take you to special places indeed. Because of its plastic surface and jingly one-dimensionality, 1989 admittedly severs all connections with her previous country and/or mall music phase; no longer is she an artist who would release The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection. But Swift’s personality, energy, and tendency to write songs like confessional diary entries have by no means changed along with the music, and the overall effect is much the same. Just like Red, just like Fearless, 1989 paints a sweet, escapist fantasy of adolescence as an idyllic time. She puts on a nice dress and stares at the sunset, she falls for a guy with that James Dean daydream look in his eye, she gets drawn into young and reckless love affairs. She dances to her beat forevermore, she waxes lyrical about her love, she lives her wildest dreams. This is what both teenpop and so much country music are about, and her attraction to both genres and ability to fuse them makes perfect sense. Always the songs she sings are so glowing, so elegantly conventional, so rosy and romantic, it’s like she lives in a fairytale world right around the corner, which adds to the emotional impact; these songs tug on your heartstrings and make you long for the paradise they depict in such heavenly detail. They actually achieve the eternal youth that rock & rollers have forever been chasing, not to mention the delightful melodicism and surefire hook power that pop aesthetes crave.
1989 will sell a million more copies before the year ends, “Shake It Off” will stick in everybody’s heads for months after that, and Swift will once again have triumphed on a masspop scale. Bitter cynics and the militantly anticommercial will hold out as long as they can, gritting their teeth, desperately trying to resist the musical pleasure they know awaits them. Everybody else will just shrug and enjoy the record. By the standards of a Taylor Swift album, 1989 is simpler and less rich than her norm, both musically and thematically. But there’s a neat, fascinating beauty to its simplicity that’s surprisingly persistent and easy to listen to. Clear as day, its melodies ring out brightly through the air.