1989 and Pop in 2014

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So Taylor Swift is a pop star now – it’s true, she said it herself. 1989 is her ‘first documented official pop album’, a pretty bizarre description which has nonetheless pretty much been taken at face value. She may previously have had record-breaking albums, multi-platinum singles and arena-filling tours but this was…something else. Something not pop. Something to do with guitars.

1989 has been greeted with the kind of hysterial, ostentious hyperbole which characterises poptimism, with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS about SQUEEING and imagined ‘real music’ snobs who are gnashing their teeth at her popularity (hello, NME). I’ve written about this kind of thing many times previously – about how it stems from a patronising, insecure relationship with pop where there’s an implicit sense that this stuff is actually beneath the person SQUEEING. They write in the persona of what they imagine a pop fan to be – an over-enthusiastic child. They think they’re being transgressive in liking the most popular act on the planet, simply because it’s ‘pop’.

One of the central tenets of this approach is an opposition to any serious consideration of what they’re professing to love: see the big push-back against critical discussion of Swift’s Shake It Off video. This stuff is just fun! It’s just silly! Don’t take it seriously! SQUEE! So the critics don’t actually perform any criticism. Yet the concept and execution of 1989 says some rather interesting things about modern pop. The fact that it was signposted very explicitly as Swift’s first pop album is fascinating enough in itself, given that she’d sold over 100 million units prior to its release. Yet the signposting did its job, with pop audiences previously ambivalent to Swift jumping on board and delivering her biggest first week album sales to date.

Swift is clearly a canny operator but I think both this and the Red campaigns have marked her out as an artist with an enormously perceptive appreciation of how pop music currently works. Previously viewed as a ‘country’ star, with Red she made a real push to broaden her already massive audience. This happened most obviously with the choice of Max Martin as a collaborator but there were more subtle aspects too. The lead single features that line about her douchebag boyfriend listening to ‘some indie record that’s much cooler than mine’ while third single 22 features ‘cool kids’ scoffing at her (“Who is Taylor Swift anyway?!”) as she sings of dressing up ‘like hipsters’. I didn’t see a single review which grasped just how clever this was in positioning the enormously popular, all-American Swift as some outsider artist who wasn’t taken seriously by ‘music snobs’ (as opposed to being a multi-Grammy Award winner who’d performed with very-credible-indeed artists like Stevie Nicks, the Rolling Stones and The Civil Wars). Swift got the poptimism which dominates the current music scene and was tickling its tummy with an imagined victimhood. Suffice to say, it worked a charm.

With 1989, it was pushed further. Signifer was heaped upon signifer to let everyone know that Swift had ditched those boring, ‘authentic’ guitars and was now FULL-BLOWN FUN POP YAY! Yet, again, I’ve not seen any review which has grasped this as a marketing approach above all else (and I’m not particularly saying that as a criticism). Swift understood perfectly that this was the route to the hearts (and more importantly, the wallets) of listeners turned off by the ‘rockist’ trappings of the country-pop she’d previously been associated with. So in comes more Max Martin and also the equally ubiquitous Ryan Tedder. The first single, Shake It Off, was a self-conscious statement of intent which went out of its way to sound like it could have been from a heap of other current pop acts. As it happened, most of the rest of the album wasn’t particularly different from what she’d done previously in terms of the actual songs – but the production (synths over guitars) and the framing concept were more than enough to turn this into a sense of some dramatic transformation.

Indeed, 1989 was presented by Swift as an homage to an era of ambitious pop when artists like Madonna, the Eurythmics and Phil Collins (all name-checked by her) were making “the most incredible, bold, risky decisions as far as pop music goes”. Again, this has largely passed without comment. Yet if you look at the execution of Swift’s vision it’s surely a testament to just how moribund pop is right now? If we look to Swift’s apparent inspirations, they had little in common beyond being popular. In fact, if you look at the big pop acts of 1989 it’s pretty remarkable just how diverse they are and, not uncoincidentally, how little overlap there is in their collaborators. Swift, in contrast, has ‘gone pop’ by working with the same writers/producers as Katy Perry, Britney Spears, P!nk, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Jessie J, Jennifer Lopez…I could go on. Far from being ‘incredible, bold, risky’, Swift has again managed to package a pretty conservative move as something transgressive.

Now this isn’t to say that Swift doesn’t stamp herself over 1989 creatively or even that it’s a bad record – at times it’s a very good record. Nonetheless, it seems sad that that rather than being perceived as previously delivering her own unique take on pop, Swift has to be incredibly obvious and aim for homogeneity in order to be widely received as a ‘pop artist’. It’s even sadder that few amongst the folk who are supposed to love this music the most have bothered to take it seriously enough to move beyond patronising stock responses.

One such stock response is the accusation of ‘nostalgia’ when contrasting the present with the past. Yet if Swift calls on the spirit of 1989 to frame her record, it seems fair enough to look at how pop and its appreciation has changed in that time. There may undeniably be much brilliant music being made now but there’s a real sense that the possibilities for pop music have narrowed. I thought about this while reading a compelling piece on ‘the scourge of relatability‘ which argues that the criteria for judging art, and how we approach it, has been changing:

…to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Now certainly that’s pushing all the buttons that will lead to accusations of ‘snobbery’ and the rest, but it’s difficult not to look at 1989 and its reception without thinking that we do indeed ‘expect the work to be done for us’. People had to be told that Swift was now pop and, for a great many, that meant it was now okay to like her. It’s ‘ambitious pop’ as something dreamt up in focus groups rather than as a dazzling ferocity which demands to be noticed, which shakes things up, which does something different. I think today’s pop scene is starved of this – it’s why there was such an enormous response to Beyonce’s audacious album release, something which seemed to belong to another age of other-wordly superstars (even if it still featured people like Tedder, Pharrell and Sia). 1989, then, is a perfect album for our modern pop age – but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

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