Graded on a Curve: Taylor Swift,
1989

I like to think I’m an open-minded individual. But in truth I’m about as open-minded as Cotton Mather. Still, I occasionally attempt to broaden my horizons by listening to music I know damn well I’ll hate. And that’s where Taylor Swift comes in. People I respect have been telling me for years how great she is, but I was damn well sure the odds of my enjoying her music were right up there with being killed by space debris.

But something happened on my way to the vomit bag. Turns out I love Swift’s music. It’s frothy pop fun and comes complete with an important societal message, namely that romantic relationships are hell, guys are cretins who don’t know a good thing when they see one, and the best way to take revenge on the pricks is by skewering them in song. Swift’s tumultuous love life has long made for juicy tabloid fodder, and people with nothing better to do spend a lot of time putting names to the subjects of her songs. One thing they know for sure; fuck with Taylor’s heart and you’ll have your balls handed to you on Disney+.

1989 marked Swift’s total immersion into synthesized pop music. It’s right there in the ad campaign for NYC that is “Welcome to New York,” the only song on the LP not about interpersonal relationships of the fucked-up sort. Instead it marks the end of Swift’s transformation from Nashville ingenue to Manhattan sophisticate. She makes this very clear in the funky “”Style,” which harkens back to “Vogue,” Madonna’s celebration of the Manhattan glam dance scene.

On the beat-heavy “Blank Space,” Swift warns that looks can be deceiving (“I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”), brags about her superhuman transformative powers (“I can make the bad guys good for a weekend”), but concedes she’s willing to go the distance if you are. On “All You Had to Do Was Stay” boy hurts girl then wants girl back, but she’s not the sort of girl who hands out second chances.

On dance pop anthem “Shake It Off” some perky horns accompany Swift’s cock-sure disco floor attitude (”I never miss a beat,” she sings, “I’m lightning on my feet.”) But she’s also telling the whiners on the scene to get over it already (“While you’ve been gettin’ down and out/About the liars/And the dirty, dirty cheats… /You could’ve been gettin’ down/To.. this… sick.. beat”).

On “Bad Blood” Swift sings, “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes” after accusing her ex- of turning their love into a knife and gun fight. On the moody and atmospheric “Wildest Dreams” all she asks is that her bad boy ex- (“He’s so bad but he does it so well”) see her again, if only in his “wildest dreams. ”How You Get the Girl” is a primer for guys looking for pointers on how not to blow it with the opposite sex. “This Love” is just what you’d expect from its title, namely a breathless ballad based on the old cliche that if you love someone set them free, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll come back again..

Taylor Swift more or less sums up 1989 with the devil-my-care lines “Oh my god look at that face/You look like my next mistake.” But you play with her feelings at your own risk–do Swift wrong and you’ll be portraying the asshole in her next smash hit. Swift has come a long way from Tennessee–nowadays she’s a player playing with the players. And when she comes out bruised she doesn’t let it stop her; Taylor Swift may have a willowy voice to match her delicate frame, but she’s tougher than she sounds.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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