Graded on a Curve: Taylor Swift,
1989

Well now that Taylor Swift is in cahoots with Joe Biden to rig this coming Sunday’s Super Bowl in favor of boyfriend Travis Kelce’s team the Kansas City Chiefs in what one conservative pundnut has called a “psyop,” and the right-wingnut lunatics who despise her for endorsing Democrats and presumably turning their innocent little girls into brainwashed pop music trollops are crawling all over one another to issue doomsday predictions should this vile and sinister plot succeed, with one shithouse-crazy rat of a commentator by the name of Rogan O’Handley even going so far as to bluntly warn that a Chiefs victory will result in, I kid you not, World War III and millions of innocent deaths, it seems as good a time as any to say that Swift is hardly Leo Rothstein (remember the 1919 Black Sox!) but rather a pop phenomenon and powerful cultural influencer possessed of immense talent and charm. I like her. I like her music. And I hope she is part of some sinister cabal to rig the Super Bowl. I love a good deep-state conspiracy. And I hate the San Francisco Giants.

Swift, as everybody who hasn’t lived under a rock since 2006 or so knows, began her career as a country artist before moving popwards and ultimately diving into the deep end of the synth-pop pool with 2014’s 1989. This led her to both immense popularity and cult status, with her fans, known as Swifties, hanging on her every last word, lyric, song, album, fashion choice, and romantic imbroglio, the last of which she often refers to in her songs.

Adulation has come with a good bit of slut-shaming and stalking—she was a real asshole magnet before she became the target of conservatives, most of whom are terrified of her because she has an enormous base and could actually entice them into voting, because the last thing the right-wingers in our fair nation want is young people voting. They tend to vote for the wrong sorts, namely politicians who aren’t members in good standing of the ever-growing lunatic wing of the Republican party.

Swift’s appeal is easy to understand. She’s bright, charismatic, has a great voice, writes catchy pop confections, and isn’t Charlie Daniels. And she’s not afraid to take musical risks, as she did with 1989. And they’ve paid off—1989 has gone nine-times platinum, which I think translates to sales of three billion copies, although I’m terribly bad at math. The country folks may not have liked it, although I’m betting many happily followed her into synth-pop territory. Her true fans, I’m guessing, would follow her anyway. If she were to collaborate with Laibach, or the ghost of Pol Pot for that matter, they’d be there to cheer her on.

1989 is an infectious piece of work—Swift goes all in with the synth-pop thing, and she has the pop melodies to pull it off. Opener “Welcome to New York” is a powerhouse synth- and optimism-drenched, bass-booming dance track about how New York City (big surprise) is the ideal place to recreate yourself as a fabulous new creature:

“When we first dropped our bags on apartment floors
Took our broken hearts, put them in a drawer
Everybody here was someone else before
And you can want who you want
Boys and boys and girls and girls.”

I’m not sure the Big Apple “has been waiting for you”—frankly it doesn’t give a shit about you, and will gladly take a bite out of you before you can take a bite out of it—but Swift’s right when she sings, “Everybody here wanted something more/Searching for a sound we hadn’t heard before.” And I believe her when she sings, “The lights are so bright/But they never blind me.”

“Blank Space” is one of several songs on the album about her status as a gossip mag staple, and one thing I love about Swift is that instead of sounding bitter about it she comes off sounding amused and cheerfully defiant. She doesn’t sulk. She plays it to the hilt and has fun with it. “Got a long list of ex-lovers,” she sings, “They’ll tell you I’m insane.” And she basically admits her picker’s on the blink: “Saw you there and I thought/”Oh, my God, look at that face/You look like my next mistake.” She’s one of the Young and the Reckless, is well-acquainted with “Magic, madness, heaven, sin,” and she’s acutely aware that life being life and romantic love being romantic love “the worst is yet to come, oh, no.” But hey, if you’re willing she’s willing—she’s even got a blank space in her datebook just waiting for your name.

On the propulsive “Style”—one of the best things about 1989 is that most of its songs have real get up and go—Swift flips the script. This time her love is indestructible. “And when we go crashing down, we come back every time,” she sings, “’Cause we never go out of style/We never go out of style.” And why? They’re fashion plates! “You got that long hair, slicked back, white t-shirt/And I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” “Out of the Woods” is all fuzz bass and big bad drum thump and has Swift feeling less hot and heavy than stuck in a feedback loop of erotic dread: “Are we out of the woods?” she sings again and again, and while the answer isn’t forthcoming you get the distinct impression they’re not and never will be.

Mid-tempo bummer “All You Had to Do Was Stay” is nonstop dance funk; vocally Swift goes from recrimination mode to breathless in a broken heartbeat, and I love the way the backing singers put so much shine on that “Stay” that it’s blinding. “You were all I wanted,” she sings, adding, “But not like this,” and if this is (and I doubt it) a follow-up to the song before it she never got out of the woods. The super-fabulous “Shake It Off” is killer, a high-intensity workout on which Swift takes a high-dive straight into her tabloid notoriety, a subject she addresses with apparent glee from the song’s beginning:

“I stay out too late
Got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say, mm-mm
That’s what people say, mm-mm

I go on too many dates
But I can’t make ’em stay
At least that’s what people say, mm-mm
That’s what people say, mm-mm.”

Love the way she laughs after that “I go on too many dates,” love the sax blurt too, ditto the spoken word section (“Hey, hey, hey/Just think, while you’ve been gettin’ down and out about the liars/And the dirty, dirty cheats of the world/You could’ve been gettin’ down to this sick beat”) even if I’m not sure she pulls off the tough girl intonation. And the sorta rap section that follows gets me every time. That “And to the fella over there with the hella good hair/Won’t you come on over, baby? We can shake, shake, shake” is good clean infectious fun, and that “hella good hair” always makes me laugh. This one’s so, so good it’s hard to believe it didn’t climb to the top of the pop charts and stay there forever.

“I Wish You Would” is dance floor inspirational and sonically colossal. It has this great guitar intro, then it gets really big and ecstatic, and Swift’s in a real rush to get her message (seems she regrets hanging up on her beau and wishes he’d come back) across. But the lines that snag me go, “I wish you were right here, right now, it’s all good” because they’re the perfect expression of a romantic stoicism that gets to the heart of Taylor Swift’s philosophy of love.

“Bad Blood” is pure pop brilliant, has a chorus so catchy and so big you can’t help but jump around to it like a damned fool, and I love the lines “Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes/You say sorry just for show/If you live like that, you live with ghosts.” Bottom line is her guy fucked things up so bad there’s no making them right, which makes him just one more notch in the belt of Swift’s colossally messy love life. If I was a Swiftie I’d be doing some deep theorizing about who exactly she’s talking about. Jake Gyllenhaal? Nah, ancient history. Harry Styles? I doubt it. John Mayer? What the hell was she doing with that schmuck in the first place? I mean, why not just throw all your standards out the window and hook up with Ed Sheeran? Damn. Maybe I am a Swiftie!

“Wildest Dreams” opens with a moody synth that says “Here comes a ballad” and sure enough that’s what you get. Swift sounds so breathless you’ll be tempted to hand her an inhaler, and while the song is hardly world-altering the chorus is big time irresistible. “How You Get the Girl” is more like it, has this funky beat over which Swift utters lots of nonsense syllables before going romantic instructional manual on you. It’s really quite simple. First you fuck up, walk away, whatever, then you come back and say something like “I want you for worse or for better/I would wait forever and ever/Broke your heart, I’ll put it back together.” And presto, “that’s how it works/That’s how you get the girl, girl.” That is if she doesn’t slam the door in your face, taser your ass, or temporarily blind you with bear repellant. I’ve experienced all three.

Like “Wildest Dream,” “This Love” is a lush ballad on an album that is otherwise a nonstop dance party, and which I wish was a nonstop dance party, but what are you going to do? It’s possible Swift feels a moral obligation to melt the little romantic hearts of her fans, and she succeeds, especially on the choruses. It’s also the least synth-etic song on the LP—you get some actual guitars and while it sure as hell ain’t a country song it does seem to harken back to an earlier incarnation of Taylor Swift. “I Know Places” is a mid-tempo song that doesn’t do much for me until the choruses, and lyrically it doesn’t cut the cake either: lines like “They are the hunters, we are the foxes” turn what is basically yet another song about the unseemly public fixation on her benighted love life (“Somethin’ happens when everybody finds out/See the vultures circling, dark clouds”) into a cliche fest.

The album’s only problem is it peters out towards the end, the songs go from irresistible and unstoppable to dour and workmanlike, which is also the case with closer “Clean,” which is anything but contagiously likable. Lyrics along the lines of “The drought was the very worst (Oh-oh, oh-oh)/When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst” bode ill, as does, “When the butterflies turned to dust that covered my whole room.” And the lines “You’re still all over me/Like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore” make me think of Monica Lewinsky. I do have a soft spot for the way she plays with “clean”—he’s clean as in sober, while she’s clean as in she’s finally washed the radioactive waste of their love right off her. But otherwise the song doesn’t cut it—the tempo plods and “Clean” is one of those rare cases where an undeniable chorus fails to come to the rescue. And not to nitpick, but I’ll be damned if I can understand how you can scream when your lungs are filled with water.

Taylor Swift is an immensely talented artist with the daring to constantly re-invent herself. But almost as importantly she’s a threat to the patriarchy, more of a threat to the patriarchy even than the likes of, say, Bikini Kill, for the simple reason that she’s a certifiable superstar with a mass following of the kinds of people who scare old white man the most—young girls that come in a rainbow of colors.

And what a gift that is. To be able to write great pop songs devoid of political commentary while still driving the far-right tin-foil contingent to the point of apoplexy. She’s both stealth bomb and sex bomb, and probably makes the likes of Rage Against the Machine wonder where they went wrong. The future—hell, the fate—of the U.S.A. is in the hands of those young girls, which makes Swift my kind of American hero. She’s on the side of the angels and she makes great music, and because she’s on the side of the angels and makes great music we may, Taylor Swift help us, just stand a chance.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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