On 1989, Taylor Swift captures the transition from the carefree days of “feelin’ 22″ that she was exploring on Red, to the more cynical, world-weary experience of a woman transitioning from girlhood into — shaky, unsure — womanhood. That her self-actualization requires the help of pop’s super-producer boys club, including Max Martin and Ryan Tedder, is disheartening — Swift has always been lauded for her solo songwriting, but to “come into her own” as a pop artist, she is relying on men to create her sound. While 1989 is missing her signature confessional anthems, Swift still perpetuates the idea that being a straight white woman in 2014 is to be endlessly tortured by man-boys and mean girls. To survive and thrive in that environment, one must kowtow to the status quo by accepting the help of the establishment. Part of what made Swift’s early albums so revelatory was her perceived artistic autonomy, but 1989 hints that this autonomy couldn’t take her as high as she wanted to go.
The specificity of a song like “All Too Well” from 2012′s Red made her struggles poignant — at least, as poignant as the romantic struggles written from teenage memories can be. The song, which many speculate is about Swift’s relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, tells the story of a sweet romance — singing along to the car radio on a weekend drive, a forgotten scarf lost to the history of the failed relationship — with an attention to detail and narrative clarity unlike anything else on the radio. Swift’s head-banging, piano-pounding Grammy performance of the song is one of her strongest, her voice pure emotion over the simple instrumental. As a result of flashy production and significantly less lyrical heft, Swift consistently falls flat on 1989. She is no longer telling stories; she’s only crafting skin-deep hooks. For a pop star whose songwriting is far stronger than her vocals, the change is not for the better. Even when she is supposedly calling out a foe, as with “Bad Blood,” her takedown rings tinny. With a boom-clap foundation and vocals Auto-Tuned into oblivion, the song, while catchy (as all the songs are), sounds more primed for the cheer squad taking shots at the opposing team than a real reprimand to someone who has wronged her. The emotional heft Swift communicated in previous efforts is transformed into a generic finger-wag.
While we’re left to speculate who Swift looks to reproach on “Bad Blood” — though many presume it to be Katy Perry — 1989 is, in its own way, revealing. In an attempt to ape the production of ’80s pop — the synth-filled echo chamber of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins — 1989 is stark, cold and disingenuous, not to mention at times sounding downright cheap. The groovy electric guitars on “Style” sound like GarageBand presets, and Swift tries to make up for her vocal weakness with a generous use of reverb. Her commitment to nostalgic pop is commendable, and certainly a good formula from which to build, but the follow-through comes off sounding more like the brainchild of a person whose only experience listening to ’80s pop was at a middle school dance in 1999: more Savage Garden than Genesis, more Mandy Moore than Madonna. It’s all machine, very little heart.
Despite the saccharine trappings of those artists, though, it’s almost impossible to keep a pop record entirely clean in 2014. It’s still difficult to imagine Swift “grainin’ on that wood,” but there are still the first hints of Swift as a sexual being here. However, like the production of the album itself, sex and desire are represented superficially — red lipstick and “tight little skirt[s]” on “Style”; “your clothes on my bedroom floor” on “Clean.” Romance and sex in Swiftland are all a performance: Even she seems surprised by the fact that she is in possession of a corporeal body, as her twerking-pantomime and signature surprised face indicated in the much-discussed video for lead single “Shake it Off.”
Yet even with its stilted lyrics about sex, 1989 is important because it’s filled with evidence of the insidious damage the patriarchal influence on romance does to young women. Taylor used to write about love with a sparkly-eyed innocence. Now, she writes of it like a superficial and draining war of the sexes. With lines like “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” Swift is perpetuating that same lie that has long been her bread and butter — men will hurt you, but damage sure makes for a good song. There is just no fairytale ending promised at the end of every song here. By pop-ifying her confessions, she has traded the personal for the jaded truisms that come out of the mouths of women in their mid-20s in New York bars, tired of being victimized by men but unsure how to escape the cycle. It’s like the pop-music equivalent to HBO’s Girls, but with basically no sex and a significantly younger target audience.
Taylor Swift consistently quantifies her desirability to the opposite sex by illustrating her skill in winning and possessing men like objects — her ability to steal the guy from the head cheerleader, to convince the bad boy to give her a ride on his motorcycle — as well as her ability to look pretty and wear the right shade of lipstick. The evolution of her hetero-normative sexual dominance began with her self-titled debut, when the height of romance was finding a boy who thought her eyes shone brighter than Georgia stars as on “Tim McGraw.” Her childish desirability turned to a celebration of the accidentally hot nerdy girl on “You Belong With Me” off of 2008′s Fearless, to straight-up girl-on-girl crime on her slut-shaming anthem “Better than Revenge” from 2010′s Speak Now. On Red, her most critically acclaimed album, Swift focused less on her victimhood at the hand of hotter girls and her own shortcomings as a sex object. She was exploring themes of grownup romance with a newly minted 20-something’s hope that the Disney dreams she sang about on her first album were still possible. Although she’d already been knocked down by love — the heartbreak you should have seen coming on “Trouble,” for example — it was still possible. Romance is dead on 1989. Taylor Swift is hot and “insane,” as she repeats so many times on “Blank Space.” Her youthful dreams nowhere to be found.
We see the sexiest side of Swift on “Wildest Dreams.” She takes on a Lana Del Rey-like sensuality, furtively touching on the idea of desire, sighing her way through memories of an encounter during which “No one has to know what we do/ His hands are in my hair/ His clothes are in my room.” Her “red lips and rosy cheeks,” and the fact that the she was “tangled up with you all night,” suggest consummation. But there is no climax beyond her paramour eventually leaving her, with a significantly less sexy memory of Swift “standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset.” Romance may be dead, but even in her slight sexual awakening, Swift needs to remain unsatisfied — or at least needs to maintain the myth that romance trumps sexual fulfillment. Her womanhood can never be fully realized if her meteoric rise, which is clearly designed to eclipse both Katy Perry and Beyoncé in terms of commercial viability and longevity, is going to continue at its current pace. She still has her army of Polaroid-collecting, screaming, little-girl fans (and their parents) to protect, of course.
Taylor Swift has successfully broken the bonds of her country past, although any struggle to do so is entirely put on for the sake of her underdog narrative. But that’s all that it is — another tightly woven story created by the reigning queen of confessional songwriting, designed to put her in the ultimate position of power. And for a woman in 2014, that position is still one that requires an ownership of victimhood. By maintaining her surprise-face at her own success, Taylor Swift is the perfect pawn in the societal war against women, one which, unfortunately, is being lost. For every sparkly pop hook and flawless earworm she creates, there is also a young fan learning that to be a girl is to be in pain, to be a woman is to be unsatisfied, and that romance is repeated victimization at the hands of men until, eventually, one goes insane. While this might be a true representation of one’s mid-20s when everything goes to hell, there is a better world out there. Swift may one day write an album celebrating the moment when she realizes it won’t always be this way: Men don’t have to be cruel and women don’t have to be crazy. For now 1989 is an important reminder that no matter how far women have come, there is still an unbelievable amount of work to be done.