On Monday, Oct. 27, a young 12-year-old boy awoke in his bedroom. He rubbed his eyes and rolled over on his side to flip the FM radio switch on his bedside radio/alarm clock. Remember those? Per usual, he turned to his favorite pop station, 101.3 KDWB, to hear what was playing before he turned over to the shower. What he heard was new to him, but sort of sounded like Taylor Swift. Could it be?! This didn’t sound like any of the singles that had dominated the radio for months prior. As he was trying to decipher if it was Swift, his mom came into his room. “Avery c’mon, time to shower,” she said. Begrudgingly, he turned the radio off and went about his business for the rest of the morning. Still, the question remained in his mind, “Could that have been one of Taylor’s new songs?? Why would they play it if it only came out today?”
It was on this day that his favorite artist, Taylor Swift, was releasing her first fully pop album: 1989. On the bus ride to school, he sat in his usual spot on the right side of the aisle, up close to the front. He stared out at the city of St. Paul, Minn. as the sun rose from behind apartment buildings and houses on river road, his head still swirling with the longing to hear the new Swift album.
Once he got to school, he checked his phone to find a text from his dad, writing something along the lines of “I’m at Target in the parking lot, waiting for the doors to open. I think I’m going to be the first one.” His dad was parked outside a Target near work, waiting to purchase the deluxe copy of “1989” for his son before work. Once 8 a.m. arrived, his dad walked into Target, made his way to the music section to find a large display overtaking the front of the CD display, with plenty of copies of the new album, Swift’s past releases on CD, and exclusive album t-shirts. A few minutes later, Avery received a photo of his dad’s receipt showing that “1989” had successfully been acquired, and writing to Avery that he was the first in the store to purchase it.
For the remainder of the day, Avery checked his phone like a madman throughout his seventh-grade classes, checking to see the excitement from fellow “Swifties” who were already listening to “1989” and sharing their thoughts. He desperately wanted the school day to be done so he could listen to the album and force his parents to hear his review of the CD over dinner. After school, he rode the bus home while he listened to his previous iTunes downloads of “Shake It Off,” “Welcome To New York,” and “Out Of The Woods.” As soon as the bus arrived at his stop, he bounded off the bus and quickly walked home to wait for his dad to get home. Knowing how much Avery wanted to have the CD in his hands and play the album, his dad did his best to leave work early to deliver the CD to his son.
At long last, Avery’s dad returned home and before he could even get a “Hello” out, his son asked for the CD. Once presented with the coveted plastic Target bag, Avery grabbed the CD and ran off to his room to open it. He removed the shrink wrap, slid off the slipcase, exposing the jewel case and special polaroid booklet. He rifled through the stack of 13 polaroids before returning his attention to the jewel case. He admired the retro-looking disc art, featuring seagulls foregrounded by the thick sharpie-esque font reading “1989 T.S. DLX.”
He ran back out to the kitchen where the home’s nicer stereo was located, and slipped the disc into position before pressing play. After listening to about half of the album, his mom asked him to go to the pharmacy with her–but not before listening to one more song. As track eight, “Bad Blood,” began to thud with its booming bass and catty lyrics, his jaw dropped. Up to this point, Swift had only dipped her toes into pop waters but had never gone full throttle. This was unlike anything she’d ever released prior, and the song set the precedent for her future angsty projects. After the pharmacy, he stopped by his favorite neighbor’s house to talk about the album with them. They weren’t Taylor fans, but he’d talk to anyone who’d listen, and brought the CD to show them. On the way back, he took an excited selfie with his CD and threw the photo into the special release day filter, creating a rework on the original album cover.
Later that night, Avery plugged his phone into the TV in the living room and tuned into the iHeartRadio Secret Session live stream. While watching Swift perform these news songs for the first time, he couldn’t help but jump around his living room while singing the few lyrics he’d already picked up in the few hours of listening.
If you haven’t already guessed it, the 12-year-old boy is me. “1989” has remained my favorite album of all time almost 10 years later. The ensuing time period after the album’s release, I played the album over and over through my cheap headphones, on my CD player in my room, in the car with my parents and just about anywhere else I could manage to. I went to school downtown St. Paul, and we used walks throughout the grid of buildings as our “exercise.” On these walks, I’d listen to Swift sing “And he keeps the picture of you in his office downtown,” on the deluxe cut “You Are In Love.” I’d walk past all of the actual office buildings downtown while thinking about all the cubicles with beloved photos pinned and taped to their walls.
Beyond just my own personal experience, the 1989 era of Swift’s career remains uniquely its own. In the year after the album’s release, Swift popularized girl-squads, got new cats, had more award show music video premieres than I can keep track of, and appearances just about anywhere there was a camera. She was on top of the world. Not to mention, she ensued on an enormous world tour that I was lucky enough to attend with my mom on Sept. 12, 2015. I arrived at the concert fully decked out in a handmade (by my mom) costume inspired by the line “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” and sported a heart-shaped sign that read “Marry Me,” spelled out by battery-pack string lights. I was seated in the third or fourth row of the lower bowl in the arena, and at one point Swift was about 10 feet from me as she spun around on her rotating catwalk.
To me, this album is more than just a stroke of pop genius. “1989” represents the sheer dominance of Swift’s career at the time, and the larger album cycle that I can still remember so vividly. Additionally, it represents a time in music that I miss–when physical sales and radio play were still major players, and when iTunes purchases were still the only main way to consume music digitally. “1989” was the first vinyl I ever bought in a physical record store, and helped spark my ever-growing spending problem–I mean, record collection. There are so many reasons I love this album, and my adoration for it is difficult to put into words, but I aim to do my best in the following review of the album.
Taylor Swift, “1989” (Big Machine Records, 2014)
A sudden flash of neon lights on Broadway. Eight million different people hustling and bustling at lightning speed. Awake at 2 a.m. in your room, your walls illuminated only by the headlights of a passing car. The rich nature found in a city getaway that spurs memories of the past. A clear blue water, so still that it reflects only the most frank of images. This is the essence of Taylor Swift’s pop triumph, “1989.” Her fifth album is a masterclass on crafting timeless pop music out of fragments of life, resulting in a fast-paced blur of metaphors, vivid imagery and artistic growth.
On Jan. 24, 2014, Taylor Swift’s 2012 album “Red” lost the award for “Album of the Year” at the Grammys to Daft Punk. Inspired by this loss, Swift set out to craft an album even better than the preceding project, and delivered the result less than a year later. Her first fully pop album “1989” was released on Oct. 27 of the same year, and went on to sell over one million copies in its first week. Where “Red” inched toward a genre breakthrough, “1989” dove head first into the pop bracket.
As her first endeavor into the pop landscape, she teamed up with pop auteurs Max Martin and Shellback–who also co-wrote and produced much of the album. The lead single “Shake It Off” shrugs off detractors and thumps with an abundance of horns and drums. The song has undoubtedly become an eternal earworm, but should that stop anyone from turning up the radio when it comes on? Absolutely not.
One cornerstone of the album is “Style.” The song begins with a simple electric guitar strum, and adds layer upon layer of rich synth instrumentation, building up towards the eventual chorus. The intro of the song alone is a seductive and entrancing sensory experience, and brilliantly foreshadows much of the synth pop to become popular for the rest of the 2010’s. Swift brings the listener into a midnight scene, waiting for her second-rate lover to pick her up as she’s tempted by his danger. The chorus bursts into a chanty metaphor-driven refrain during which she sings, “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye/And I got that red lip classic thing that you like.” She acknowledges her partner’s poor tendencies, but not before quickly shrugging off his confession of infidelity, admitting that she’s “been there too a few times.” The song builds to a bridge that showcases an impeccable belt, pleading to her partner, “just take me home.”
Taking the ornate storytelling further, Swift finds herself in a forest of trees screaming–no, crying out for anyone to hear, “are we out of the woods?” The song repeats the question over and over, but the result isn’t annoying or rudimentary. Rather, the repeated question fades into the background and allows the artist to detail her dilemma-riddled relationship. She equates her romantic connection to a polaroid photo, illustrating the intense and overwhelming feeling of capturing something so vivid before it gets away. “You took a Polaroid of us/Then discovered/The rest of the world was black and white/But we were in screaming color,” she sings.
Swift goes to town on the song's bridge, and it remains one of the finest in her catalog to this day. She speeds through refrains, shouting out “Remember when you hit the brakes too soon?/Twenty stitches in the hospital room/When you started crying, baby, I did too/But when the sun came up, I was looking at you” before delivering the reassuring “But the monsters turned out to be just trees/When the sun came up, you were looking at me.”
“You Are In Love” may very well be her greatest love song accomplishment. Yes, she has an entire album inspired by being in love, but this song beats out even the sweetest of “Lover” cuts. The electronic keyboard and guitar backing creates a warm and fuzzy feeling that envelops the listener while Swift sings of “coffee at midnight” and “dancing in a snow globe round and round.” The song was written by Swift and Jack Antonoff, about Antonoff’s real life relationship with Swift’s then-girl-squad-member Lena Dunham. As strange as that may sound, the laid-back lyricism is profound, and represents the sweetest of loves.
To close out the album, “New Romantics” takes the form of a stadium-worthy pop banger, and provides commentary on Swift’s long-standing battle with criticism from just about anyone. For those who may be newer to the “Swiftie” community, it may be unclear just how brutally Swift was chastised for just about anything. She spits out lines like “We show off our different scarlet letters/Trust me, mine is better,” in a fierce and catty manner throughout the verses. The holy grail of the song arrives as a perfect confection of drums and synth take over, and she belts out “Cause baby, I could build a castle/Out of all the bricks they threw at me/And every day is like a battle/But every night with us is like a dream.” “New Romantics” finishes off “1989” in a flawless fashion, putting a bow onto her first pop endeavor.
The truth is, there are too many incredible moments on this album to cover each and every one. Don’t tempt me though! “1989” is a testament to Swift’s power as an artistic force, and demonstrates how far she’d come since her early country days. Not to mention that the album foreshadows just how limitless her musical endeavors would become in the future. After an album filled with excitement, confusion, serene scenes, and screams for resolve, she finishes the project with an optimistic wink, “The best people in life are free.”