A Smattering of Twee and 1989 Words on Taylor Swift's 1989

Hello Dames Nation!

This week, we're trying out something a little bit new-- a "Bossy Take", wherein we, your Dames, go in-depth (great, great depth) on a particularly popular piece of pop culture. For our inaugural run, we're taking a look at theonly platinum album of 2014, Taylor Swift's 1989.  You'll find our 1989 words on this august subject just below our traditional TWEE AS HELL links. We hope you enjoy it! 

Twee As Hell

Bossy Takes, Issues #1: 1989 by Taylor Swift

This week, your Dames immersed themselves in the music sales juggernaut that is 1989, Taylor Swift’s first fully pop album. She’s been moving steadily (and, we think, strategically) toward pop since at least her crossover country-pop singles like “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me”. As official poptimists ourselves, we were curious about the songs besides the monster hit “Shake It Off”, and Sophie made a pact with her 9 year-old daughter to buy and share a copy, anyway, so here we are!

Sophie: Let’s start by talking about where we were situated in re: our views on Ms. Swift prior to the release of this album. I have been fairly pro-Swift since “Love Story”, which I think is as good a song as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, and I own a copy of her album RED. So I have been primed to be into 1989 from the get-go, despite being aggravated by the admittedly dunderheaded parts of the video for “Shake It Off”.

Margaret: Whereas I’ve been more ambivalent about her from the beginning. I’ve been following her since 2007, when I remember vividly driving around rural Ohio with my college bestie, listening to country radio (as we were wont to do), and picking apart “Tim McGraw.” At the time, it seemed like someone outside the genre aping it badly. What it was, in fact, was the sound of a unique voice straining against the tropes of her genre… primed to completely take over the world.

Sophie: Here’s where I admit I’ve never heard “Tim McGraw”, ha! Clearly, we are more connoisseurs of pop music generally than Taylor Swift experts. Is that fair to say?

Margaret: Definitely! Prior to 1989, I’d only ever heard her singles. And by “heard” I mean “sung along to with abandon at every available opportunity.” At some point, around when “You Belong With Me” was released, Taylor started being held up as a paragon. She was used (mostly by male critics) as a way to shame other artists for being too sexual, or insufficiently creative, or whatever, and, as a result, my response to her “star image” curdled. I have a very complicated relationship with the paragons men tend to mistake me for-- Taylor, Zooey Deschanel, other pretty ladies with bangs and cardigans who are deemed “wholesome.”. The narcissism of small differences-- they look like me, but the don’t feel like me inside.

Sophie: Well, you know my feelings about the utter bullshit of false dichotomies! There’s nothing un-creative about being an interpreter of song! And I’ve always seen Taylor’s “short skirts / t-shirts” as clever lyricism & economic character delineating, not an indictment of female sexuality!

Margaret: There’s definitely an element of girl-on-girl crime in her early work (“Better Than Revenge” being the worst example) BUT! There’s also an element of girl-on-girl crime in adolescence, SO I don’t know why people act like Taylor Swift invented it. As for me, when people’s responses towards Taylor started being more knee-jerk dismissive (around the time RED was released), my feelings towards her became warmer. And her move in the direction of Pure Pop has been a huge boon for me. I feel like I have different expectations from a good pop song than I do from a good country-or-other song, so her unspecific-sometimes-to-the-point-of-empty lyrics bother me much less when paired with a bass drop than when paired with a banjo. Which probably explains why “We Are Never Getting Back Together” was the first song of hers I ever bought. And 1989 has built on the sound of RED in ways I really enjoy.

Sophie: Same. I think we both dig that synthy groove a lot. We have a lot of thoughts about “Blank Space”, so let’s start there. It’s a parody of the tabloids’ fascination with Swift’s love life, but if you listen to the song divorced from that, her vocal, which sounds genuinely heartbroken in places, also supports a more earnest reading: “I invite craziness into my life, I enjoy it, I feed off of it, and then I’m kind of miserable afterwards, but I also can’t wait to do it again, because I’m only going to be this young & this reckless once.” I really look at the song itself as a separate text from the video, because the video only supports the “Oh, you think I’m crazy? I’ll GIVE you crazy!” narrative. Which is super-fun, but also a little flat in comparison with the song by itself.

Margaret: I agree that the video’s narrative is flat compared to the nuance of the lyrics. I think I respond to this song so strongly both because it’s just SUCH A JAM and also because it has a different, more complex type of introspection than I’ve previously seen in Taylor’s big singles. She’s saying really interesting things about herself, she’s being a bit caustic, she’s casting herself as part antagonist/part victim in a way I find really compelling. And the video is so great-- although it would be better if she actually murdered her unsatisfactory beaux instead of just chasing them away with her Violent Emotions.

Sophie: TOTALLY. I was really hoping she would go to the full Lady Bluebeard extreme, with a room full of bloody corpses. This song is such an interesting country-to-pop bridge, too. The twang is not out of her voice, and I am absolutely bonkers in love with the way she harmonizes brokenly with herself at the end of the song. The vocal on “Boys only want love if it’s torture / Don’t say I didn’t warn you” is straight out of First Aid Kit’s toolbox, and it’s just...man, goosebumps, every time. The mask of glibness is gone at that point.

Margaret: Ever since you pointed that out to me-- the First Aid Kit parallel-- I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. It’s such an interesting observation.

Sophie: I’m really enjoy playing Spot The Musical Influence with this album (also Spot The Red Lipstick Reference, but that’s a whole other thing). I think she’s being really playful, and maybe giving shout-outs to some of her favorite ladies of pop - I hear Robyn on “Welcome to New York”, Rihanna on “Wonderland”, Lana del Rey on “Wildest Dreams”, and whispers of Haim and Lorde all over the place.

Margaret: I feel like there are breathy vocal interjections throughout all the songs that sound SO Lorde-ish to me. The song where Lorde’s influence is strongest is “I Know Places”-- it reminds me of her so much that every time I hear it, I just want to go listen to “Royals.”

Sophie: Yes. There are songs where the playful trying-on of her sisters-in-pop’s clothes takes a turn into...how would we describe it? A kind of drag? A kid going out in her glamorous cousin’s favorite outfit that doesn’t quite fit? “I Know Places” is one and the other bad standout in this area, to my ear, is “Bad Blood”.

Margaret: Right-- you pointed out that “Bad Blood”, with its cheerleader chorus, was kind of a Katy Perry rip-off. Is that maybe too harsh?

Sophie: No, that’s fair. Well, it’s less a rip-off and more a giant flashing sign saying, “Hey, I am not just mad at SOMEONE. I am mad at Katy Perry!”  

Margaret: When you pointed that out, I was like “Ooooh, maybe that’s why I liked that one so much so fast?” Because, musically, I really do enjoy “Bad Blood.” Lyrically, though, it made me wonder about the link between my own Swift-grinchiness and knowing exactly which real life beefs all of her songs are about. Supposedly, this one is about Katy Perry stealing her backup dancers. If I were ignorant of that context, I think I’d be more apt to over look iffy lyrics like “we used to have mad love,” but I can’t help but think “DID you and Katy really have ‘mad love’, Taylor??? Is stealing someone’s backup dancers truly such a 'bullet hole'?”

Sophie: Yeah, if that’s the real story behind the song, it feels like a huge overreaction to a staffing problem. On the other hand, there’s a long tradition of female singer-songwriters turning their personal lives into beautifully catchy pop goodness, and Swift is perhaps the biggest, most perfect exemplar of that in our culture right now. That doesn’t bother me as much as the seeming pettiness, and the fact that with that cheerleadery style, “Bad Blood” doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album as well as it could have. The combination of pettiness and sloppiness is what sits wrong with me.

Margaret: I think very personal songwriting is completely legitimate, but I do think dirty-laundry-airing songwriting can be tricky, because it necessarily invites this kind of discourse. “Is she being petty?” “Were they really in love?” When you can say definitively “No, not petty” (Stevie Nicks about Lindsey Buckingham, for example) or “Yes, they were in love” (Beyonce and Jay-Z to some listeners), then it reinforces the song’s story. But when it’s shakier -- like the number of songs (GREAT songs) she’s written about Harry Styles-- my reaction to it is more complicated. I think it’s hampered my enthusiasm for Swift, even though that’s not really fair.

Sophie: She’s clearly able to do it well, too, which makes the meh songs that much more lamentable. The other major criterion I consider is: can I listen to and think about this song as a song completely separate from whatever “real” story is behind it? If yes, it’s a winner. “Style” is a near-perfect entry in the kiss-and-analyze category. It kills me softly - it’s really cool (sonically, and thematically - oh, she is trying so hard to play it cool, and failing so completely) and really sad, and I am a total sucker for a tragic-yet-proud synth anthem. It’s my favorite right now.

Margaret: And “Out of the Woods,” which is maybe the most explicitly autobiographical song on the album, really hits me. I love the production on the song and the specificity of the lyrics is really wonderful. It feels like “emotional miniaturism” rather than pettiness-- something small, but dear. Something closely examined.

Sophie: Yes, there’s something so 19th century novel about it. [Voices of Harold Bloom & Bob Boilen: You’re crazy for this one, Brookover!] I think that’s what I love about “Style”, too.

Margaret: WELL. We have managed a pretty impressive volume of paragraphic breeziness on this subject. Should we wrap up with our three must-own songs from the album?

Sophie: Yes, let’s! Mine are: “Style”, “I Wish You Would”, and ughhh so hard to choose just one more. I will probably go with “Blank Space”, but “Welcome to New York” and “New Romantics” are strong contenders. I could easily pare this album back to a perfect 10. You need an editor, Swifty! (Hi, after thousands of words here, that’s irony. I know.)

Margaret: I listened to “Welcome to New York” four times in a row after you said you loved it, just trying. And it still grates on my ear-- something about the NYC Board of Tourism lyrics and the repetitive phrasing? I can't quite put my finger on it.

Sophie: You’re in good company. Slate’s Carl Wilson doesn’t like it, either! I think he said it was one of her worst songs, ever. It’s cool! I’ll just keep dancing on my own. Reasonable Bossy Dames can disagree.

Margaret: TRUE! An observation reinforced by the fact that our three must-owns have only one overlapping song-- “Blank Spac.e, My other two are “Out of the Woods” and “Clean”, although the video I’m most excited for is “Bad Blood.” And that seems like as good a place as any to stop!

Sophie: We hope you have enjoyed this edition of Bossy Takes. To be totally honest, we just hope you’ve read this far, ha! We will now reward your heroic efforts with this week in miscellaneous cultural recommendations.

Unrelated to Anything Else Herein, But Delightful to Us & Maybe to You, Too

Kim Gordon's memoirwill surely rock. Excuse us,RAWK. London's Borough Market celebrated its 1000th anniversary with the opening of aReal Apple Store, highlighting the diversity of this noble & delicious fruit. Never change, England:

Varieties included the Ananas Reinette with its distinct pineapple flavour, the unattractive Knobby Russet which, covered in knobbles, shows beauty is in the eye of the beholder with its strong, firm but delicious flesh, the Robston Pippin, a favourite of Charles Dickens, and the Victorian Adams Pearmain which recalls a bygone era with its autumnal colouring.

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