Saturday, November 1, 2014

True Life: I Just Fell in Love with a Pop Album

(I did warn you this blog was eclectic.)

I'll preface this by saying that no, I don't listen to a lot of pop music. I don't drive, and when I do listen to radio it's usually in a gym or bar, where I have no control over what I'm hearing. That said, I've heard enough snippets of Ariana, Iggy, and Katy to know that there's not a lot of substantial stuff in Top 40 pop right now.

At least, that's what I thought prior to spending this past week streaming "1989" and finding that I couldn't stop listening to it. I've been wandering in a fog of infectious tunes for seven days, unable to get the words out of my head (though to be fair I haven't been trying that hard).

I was embarrassed to admit it at first, but now I'll say it for god and everyone to see: this is a fantastic album. I'm not being ironic; I truly like the music, and I like Taylor Swift herself a lot better having listened to it.

It's not that I've ever harbored a particular dislike for Swift, I just thought a lot of the hype was unfounded. Sure, her previous songs have been catchy and cute, but they just weren't for me (probably because I'd long since left my tweens by the time she arrived on the scene). The most notable memory I associated with Taylor Swift was the media circus a few years ago when she was releasing an album and the blogosphere devoted a significant amount of time and research to figuring out exactly which celebrity fling each song was about. Cue exaggerated eye roll.

But "1989" is different. It's a full pop album, for one thing - and I think the best decision Swift and her team made on this record was to lean into that 110%. Every song has a catchy, current hook, and I have no doubt that any of the tracks would fit in just fine with the current fare on the radio. But what sets it apart from the bunch is what Swift brings to the mix: not just the palpable sincerity she brings to each song but the lyrics themselves.

If you've been waiting for this record in the hope of more sappy ramblings about various celebrity boy toys, you'll be disappointed. Sure, some have combed the songs for hints of this, but I think to approach the album this way is to miss the point. To put it in a very simplistic way, this is a much more mature album. Sure, a lot of the songs still have that trademark romantic overtone, but even the ones that are most reminiscent of Swift's earlier work have a new layer to them, an acknowledgement that sometimes you make mistakes in love, and sometimes relationships have to end, and both of these things are okay. Apart from finding this refreshing myself, I love the idea of 15-21 year old girls hearing these kinds of things, and hopefully taking their cues from them.

As for Taylor Swift's "scandalous" love life? Don't worry, it's addressed on this album in a way I don't think she's ever done before. Don't get me wrong, the record is far from being a "fuck you" album, but the way Swift handles it is almost better, and certainly classier. She faces the popular perception that she's boy-crazy and confronts it head on, namely in the track set to be released as the album's second single, "Blank Space". The lyrics to this track (possibly my favorite on the album) are sharply sarcastic, and it really gives a great insight into how Swift has decided to handle her media-imposed identity. She's done pretending it isn't true that she's dated around, and she's done trying to apologize for it. Taylor Swift knows she's a player, and she's openly mocking our singular fascination with that aspect of her life. That kind of empowerment is something I can't help but applaud.

I think the other misconception about Swift is that she's somehow less intelligent than other musicians, perhaps because of the themes she tends to write songs about. While that not only seems like a ridiculous generalization (I do hate the idea that being smart or "worldly" means wholly dismissing notions like romance), you only have to listen to "New Romantics" to see that Swift is smarter than most people give her credit for. The song is a ridiculously danceable commentary on the Millennial generation, and one of the better commentaries I've seen to boot. The titular comparison between the current generation and the Romantics of the 19th century, angst-ridden and eager for stimulation, is astonishingly apt and I could probably write another several pages on that, but I won't.

I guess what I'm saying, and why I felt compelled to write this when I usually stick to literature and politics, is that I think it's time we give Taylor Swift the credit she deserves. By that I mean not just giving her our money or our ears, but giving her actual respect as a feminist, as an artist who has come into her own and made the praiseworthy decision to use her staggering fame to really make a mark rather than simply searching for the next big hit. She knows that there are literally millions of young girls out there being inundated with competing narratives of what a woman should be, and she's choosing to wield that power in a deliberate, responsible way. In my opinion, that's a pretty big deal.