Who’s the most influential female singer in America in 2014? While persuasive arguments can be marshalled for Beyoncé and Katy Perry, 24-year-old Taylor Swift has done something neither of them—or any other musician, for that matter—has ever done: selling a million-plus albums during a debut week … for the third album in a row.
And while she was at it, she even switched genres.
Swift’s fifth studio release, 1989, abandons her country roots entirely, presenting a supremely polished, hook-drenched, electro-pop set of 13 songs courtesy of co-writers (all known hit maestros) Max Martin, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff. Talking with USA Today, Swift said of the obvious ’80s influence on this album, “I really loved the chances [musicians of that time] were taking. I loved how bold it was. It was, apparently, a time of limitless potential. … The idea of endless possibility was kind of a theme in the last year of my life.”
Gushing about “endless possibility” aside, however, 1989 (the year she was born) never ventures far from the singular subject that has captivated Swift from the outset of her career: romantic relationships. Here, however, the wide-eyed innocence and delightful wonder that marked Swift’s early efforts has been replaced by a deepening agnosticism regarding the possibility of “happily ever after.” “I wrote about the thrill I got when I finally learned that love, to some extent, is just a game of cat and mouse,” Swift says in the album’s liner notes. “There is no ‘riding off into the sunset,’ like I used to imagine. We are never out of the woods.”
Accordingly, “Out of the Woods” ponders how long a relationship has to be good and healthy before you know it’s going to stand the test of time. And “How You Get the Girl” alludes to marriage vows (“Then you say/I want you for worse or for better/I would wait forever and ever/ … That’s how you get the girl”). “This Love” suggests that sometimes we have to let love go in order to get it back.
“Clean” describes emotional health after a bad breakup in terms of sobriety: “I think I am finally clean/ … Ten months sober/I must admit/Just because you’re clean/Don’t mean you don’t miss it/Ten months older/I won’t give in/Now that I’m clean/I’m never gonna risk it.” Similarly, “All You Had to Do Was Stay” describes Swift as someone who doesn’t double back on a relationship after she’s been rejected (“People like you always want back the love they pushed aside/But people like me are gone forever when you say goodbye”).
“Bad Blood” insists deep emotional wounds can’t be dressed with superficial bandages (“Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes”). On ” Shake It Off,” Swift’s determined not to let “haters” and “fakers” wreck her self-esteem.
” Blank Space” tells a prospective beau, “I could show you incredible things/Magic, madness, heaven and sin,” then warns, “Got a long list of ex-lovers/They’ll tell you I’m insane/’Cause you know I love the players/And you love the game.” Throwing caution to the wind, she adds, “‘Cause we’re young and we’re reckless/We’ll take this way too far/It’ll leave you breathless/Or with a nasty scar/ … ‘Cause darling, I’m a nightmare/Dressed like a daydream.” “Style” narrates a dangerous midnight rendezvous with another bad boy: “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye/ … And I got that good-girl faith/And a tight little skirt/ … Take me home.”
Swift taps into her inner Lana Del Rey on “Wildest Dreams,” where she more than hints at one last night of passion with someone she knows isn’t good for her: “I said, ‘No one has to know what we do’/His hands are in my hair/His clothes are in my room/And his voice is a familiar sound/Nothing lasts forever/But this is getting good now/He’s so tall and handsome as h—/He’s so bad but does it so well.” Later, she tells her lover, “You’ll see me in hindsight/Tangled up with you all night.” The song concludes with this desperate plea: “Say you’ll see me again/Even if it’s just pretend.”
“This Love” finds Swift trying to take the edge off a breakup by rebounding sexually with someone else (“Tossing, turning, struggled through the night with someone new”). “I Wish You Would” finds her longing for an ex at 2:00 a.m. as she regrets the mistakes that drove them apart. By the end of the song, her wish for his presence seems to be granted (“2:00 a.m., here we are/See your face, hear my voice in the dark/We’re a crooked love in a straight down line”). “Clean” visualizes the residue of a toxic relationship this way: “You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.”
“Welcome to New York” compliments the metropolis for being a place where “You can want who you want/Boys and boys/Girls and girls.” A handful of mild profanities include misuses of God’s name, “h—a” and “d–n.”
1989 isn’t as naughty, racy or deliberately provocative as albums we’ve seen from many other young, popular female singers lately. (I’m talking about Arianna Grande, Jessie J, Iggy Azalea, etc.) That said, the quiet, confessional way that Swift sings about her flings and flames, past and present, is still disquieting when we consider how her fans, many of them quite young, may hear lyrics like “I’ve got a long list of ex-lovers” and “He’s so bad but does it so well.” Taylor’s obviously gotten to the place where sex is just part of the “game of cat and mouse” that she now says love is.
Isolated moments here and there hint at her not-quite-dead-yet yearning for something more permanent. Taylor Swift is not completely “over” her haunting dream of true love, and it still lurks in the background at times as a trammeled and trampled ideal. More often, though, she’s willing to settle for something that feels “good” in the moment—even if she knows deep down that it’s anything but. As for tomorrow? Well, the future just doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.