1989: Tay Tay Finds Her Stride
History’s most revered artists are not the ones who come busting down the gates with their style already clearly defined, but rather those who developed their voice in distinct eras. It would seem history favors the slow burn as opposed to the iconoclast. Miles Davis was famous for the radical reinventions of himself he would perform every few years, from his bebop beginnings in Charlie Parker’s quintet to the genre-defining hard bop of his Blue period and his groundbreaking electric fusion records. Picasso as well famously began crafting his distinct artistic style during his somber Blue and subsequent, jollier Rose periods before beginning to flirt with African influences and finally developing his signature cubism, creating his most enduring works like the haunting Guernica. Even in heavy metal’s own microcosm of the musical universe, bands like Gorguts, Voivod, Isis, Katatonia, Meshuggah and each of the Peaceville Three took until at least their second album to find their respective voices. Though each inhabits a disparate strain of the same broad musical phylum, they are all also in turn defined by one singular characteristic beyond their defiance of metal’s ringing cliché of “the early stuff was better”: each is regarded as an innovator of their particular style. The aforementioned are collectively held in high esteem for their convention-obliterating art across genres, media and disciplines. Allow me to be the first to induct a new name into these hallowed halls: Taylor Swift.
With the release of her fifth album, 1989, Swift is the latest in a long line of creative artists leading careers dictated only by their own supreme artistic drive. Rather than follow trends, Swift, like others before her, creates them. Since the release of her self-titled debut nearly a decade ago, Swift has undergone a personal and musical revolution the likes of which the pop world has hardly seen since David Bowie last changed genders. She’s not the first to attempt to do so and surely won’t be the last, but she is made an outlier purely by nature of her success. Soon after the release of her own self-titled album in 2001, Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson pulled a complete career 180, abandoning her contemporary Christian sound, rebranding herself as Katy Perry and assaulting the radio with a slew of trashy pop hits. While Perry has indubitably enjoyed great financial success, her transformation was an overnight affair from “girl next door” to “girl with over a dozen Facebook pages dedicated to her breasts.”
Swift’s evolution has been far more natural a metamorphosis. Her musical style from Taylor Swift to Speak Now could most accurately be described as pop with faux-country trappings. Much light has been made of her early, formulaic approach to songwriting: simple, four-chord pop songs dressed up in just enough banjo and pedal steel to be called ostensibly country. Swift could easily have remained complacent and scored hit after hit with middle school girls, but chose instead a far more ambitious career move. Stagnation is the sworn enemy of real art, and if 1989 accomplishes nothing else, it proves Swift is anything but static.
Perhaps it may seem inaccurate to imply Taylor Swift exemplifies “real art.” To hear the renowned philosopher Theodor Adorno tell it, pop music of any stripe is a simple, repetitive tool used to pacify the masses. According to Adorno, pop music synthesizes entertainment values and mass art. Rather than work as a tool of the composer to express the ineffable, pop music is art commodified for the masses, standardized for generality and accessibility. Because the music industry is just that, an industry, it exists solely to sell art rather than to promote its creation. Its approach is by necessity formulaic: recognizable musical and lyrical motives allow songs to be digested en masse without excessive listener discrimination, a concept standing in direct opposition to Adorno’s fundamentalist Marxist individualist outlook. Devoid of personability, pop music is purely a product, and one that represents to a tee the problems of capitalism. Commercialist forces drive each song to sound like a “better” version of any other, stripping away any hopes of genuine personal communication. Musical standardization reflects the oppressively alienating power of capitalism itself. The fleeting pleasures mass art proffers are distractions from said alienation, and as such drive consumers to demand ever more music to self-medicate and keep them unaware of their true condition.
Adorno’s analysis becomes even more critical when he considers the implications of mass art’s rise to prominence. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, communities each had highly individualized artistic traditions. Industrialization and the subsequent population centralization in urban areas both contributed to the replacement of folk art with mass art—for a tangentially related example perhaps more relevant to this particular site’s readers, consider Cosmo Lee’s brief blog post “Has the Internet killed regional sounds?”, in which he argues ease of access to just about all of recorded music has contributed to increased homogeneity among bands across a multitude of styles.
And yet, according to Adorno, no complaint can be made if a culture cannot bring itself to contribute something of greater value to itself. If a more satisfying alternative is unavailable, nothing is particularly wrong with pop music. For Adorno, objectively better music does indeed exist. To his generous credit, Adorno avoids simply contrasting popular and classical music. In fact, Adorno is unafraid to knock classical music (or rather its audience) down a peg. Classical music, in his eyes, exists only to pass the time for disinterested, indiscriminate listeners who applaud its familiarity without comprehension.
For Adorno, only music that offers “truth” is of any lasting value. Arnold Schoenberg and other radical composers offer more “truth” than any other music of the era, challenging and engaging listeners with alien sounds in direct opposition to the standardized harmonic and melodic framework of pop music. “Truth” here is defined in a most interesting manner: the recitation of conventionally true things represents not truth, nor does that of transgressive or socially opposing concepts (within the capitalist market, the anti-establishmentarian views of punk and hip-hop are nothing more than another marketing scheme to appeal to and draw in unsuspecting listeners). Artistic truth is relative to the setting of its inception, yet somewhat contradictorily, integrity is granted only to art created autonomously of its socio-economic context.
This serves to impose a number of limitations on art. A general desire for aesthetic beauty places a premium on that quality, thus turning it into a capitalist end goal; the quest for beauty curtails autonomy, thus objectively good music can no longer be aesthetically pleasing. Music—or art of any kind—that can be easily understood at a superficial level neither discloses or opposes the socio-economic framework of the culture at large and is therefore unworthy.
There are a number of problems with Adorno’s argument. The easiest to address is that of the nature of beauty and its role in capitalist artistic creation. Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, among many, many others in the jazz world, produced both commercially-oriented, easily-listenable records as well as some the most challenging in the genre. Adorno claims any music that achieves popularity is inherently lacking in artistic truth, for any message accessible to so many people must by nature have been watered down to achieve profit. Coleman, Coltrane and the aforementioned Miles Davis stand in stark opposition to such an assertion.
Far greater is Adorno’s oversight regarding class struggles. Again, he admirably makes the important distinction (or perhaps in-distinction) that classical music is not exempt from criticism solely by virtue of tradition. Still, as a Marxist, it seems incongruous of Adorno to sing the praises of rather highfalutin members of the art world and folk art while condemning new music that attempts to convey similar truths. In other words, Adorno makes the inherently classist move of adulating high art while disregarding the lowbrow. In his attempts to discern between truthful art and the watered-down music of the masses, Adorno fundamentally betrays his Marxist philosophy.
An ideology based entirely on class unity, Marxism seems as if it should be diametrically opposed to Adorno’s imposing barriers of entry to the world of true art. Marx’s original stated goal was to dismantle the bourgeois, and yet Adorno’s philosophy (at least in regards to music) works against said purpose, lengthening the divide between the high and lowbrow. Put plainly, the barriers between high and low culture are inherently classist in a manner that a true Marxist would deem wholly counterintuitive to the cause, and yet Adorno seems to seek to extend such barriers.
Still, perhaps such walls should exist. A distinction between Taylor Swift’s new album and the triumphs of man seems necessary at a cursory glance, and yet in an age where such disparate elements are easily accessible by anyone with a computer, perhaps this is not the case after all. Little evidence is necessary for such a claim: when anyone regardless of socio-economic status can reasonably access and create art, culture is essentially classless. Globalization and digitalization have removed the prohibitive barriers to entry that once forbade the lower castes from enjoying the same art as the upper crust of society. Culture now moves fluidly among the classes independent of socio-economic context: Adorno’s wishes fully realized.
Ostensibly, of course, this meandering wall of text is a review of Taylor Swift’s 1989. As alluded to earlier, 1989 finds Swift defining her style for herself. While her earlier albums fell neatly into the vague, country-fried annals of pop music populated with Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler and other goddess of American Idolatry, 1989 breaks new ground. Where its predecessor, 2012’s Red, flirted with cross-genre pollination—the arena rocking opener “State of Grace” and the dubsteppy “I Knew You Were Trouble” sticking out in particular—1989 embraces new sounds with aplomb. Gone are the plinking banjos, limp pedal steel and muted guitars that once formed the backbone of Swift’s sound to signify “I swear, this is country music!”; in their stead are gutsy synths, pulsing basslines and driving electro drums. Even the ill-planned rap section of lead single “Shake It Off” has its place: Swift dispels the album’s aura of high drama with her charming, just-cringeworthy-enough persona and simultaneously gives a nod to her former incarnation as acoustic guitar-toting country diva.
This isn’t to say the album is without flaw. Trite lyricism and twee hooks are two areas in which Swift needs no assistance, but OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder dishes it out in spades anyway on the unfortunate album opener “Welcome to New York”; the choice of Noel Zancanella as producer does nothing to help its overwhelmingly dull atmosphere. Elsewhere, the album can drag on a bit, though thankfully not quite to the extent of the hour-plus onslaught of Red. There are moments, surely, of transcendence where Swift proves she can write a solid, fun song that still carries emotional weight without falling into her perpetual ex-boyfriend trap. Still, Swifts trips over her own feet on “Style”, an ode to her time spent with—oh, how clever—One Direction’s Harry Styles.
In all, the lack of a “country” feel is 1989’s strong suit. Swift sounds positively revitalized after trading in the folksy tropes for retro synths. Her songwriting has improved and thankfully moved at least somewhat past the stale references to lost love that have up to now so dominated her discography. The choice of Max Martin as her primary collaborator was a wise one, but as a whole the album is frontloaded with weaker songs interspersed with the singles, and many listeners are sure to never make it to the far superior second half of the album. Still, 1989 represents Swift finally finding herself: after four albums, none of which spoke to the real her, Swift’s new identity—musical and personal—is exactly what the fans have been waiting for.
1989 is out now. Buy it from Taylor’s official store here.