Taylor Swift’s fans don’t just like her, they love her, adore her, and they’ve purchased over 1.28 million copies of her new album, 1989, during its first week of release in the US alone. This makes 1989, which came out at the end of October, the highest selling US release of 2014, and the biggest selling album in a single week since Eminem’s The Eminem Show, which sold 1.32 million copies in its second week in 2002. Swift’s two previous albums, Red (2012) and Speak Now (2010) each also sold more than a million copies in their first week. Before that, her debut and sophomore albums – Taylor Swift (2006) and Fearless (2008) – together sold more than 14 million copies internationally. As well as buying records, Swifties display their feverish and zealous commitment to their idol through their staunch defence of her in the face of any criticism (or joke), their sustained screaming, and their ongoing attempts to actually become her.
But TaySway is a polariser: haters really hate her. She’s been taken to task by Jezebel (then again, who hasn’t?) many times over the years for being anti-feminist and normative (Tay did once say she wasn’t a feminist, but now that she’s BFFs with Lena Dunham and knows what feminism really means, she’s totally embraced it). ‘Reasonswhyihatetaylorswift.tumblr.com’ is actually a thing. Mostly, I avoid telling friends I genuinely like her, because I get teased (sometimes I’m just flashed an embarrassed grimace in response).
The Swift divide is interesting because it’s often based upon what people determine her character to be. Critics attack the way she presents herself: as an authentic artist whose music is an expression of her inner self and true feelings. But these frustrations differ from those directed at an artist like Lana Del Rey, who exposes the contradictions in the concept of authenticity that she also seeks to evoke. Rather, the issue for many feminists and critics is that they simply don’t like Taylor’s version of authenticity, which happens to be embodied by a blonde, white, straight, American women from a reasonably privileged background. The fact that her songs are almost solely about boys and love (but rarely sex) hasn’t helped, since critics have read this focus as perpetuating the virginal female stereotype. To her detractors, these flaws are so great that they erase any other good work she may have done – like becoming an internationally renowned songwriter at the age of sixteen, or articulating feelings that millions of young girls around the world identify with.
I wonder if the release of 1989 will change this. As its title suggests, 1989 represents Swift’s almost complete transition into 80s-style electropop, with a cascade of thrumming bass lines, synthesised power chords and echoey drum beats. Her vocal arrangements tend toward the rhythmic, rather than the melodies which in the past had been her trademark. Tay’s country heritage hasn’t totally left her – she still tells stories through her songs, and she still sings about being a small-town girl in a big old city. Her familiar acoustic riffs return in ‘How You Get the Girl’, and thematically, 1989 doesn’t stray far from her previous works (girls and boys falling in love and breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and never ever getting back together), but there is a sense that Taylor has grown in some way. On ‘Clean’ she demonstrates a command of her medium – the pop song – in a way she hasn’t quite done before, with a goosebumps-inducing level of tonal precision and vocal control.
Her growth as a musician is particularly evident if 1989 is understood as part of her ongoing artistic trajectory. Her first album, Taylor Swift, was released when she was just 16. It was a dose of pure country joy, with songs about Tim McGraw, pick-up trucks, and teardrops on her guitar. She honed her country style over her next two albums, the first being Fearless, which catapulted her into the mainstream, and later Speak Now, an album of incredible emotional intensity and clean production, perhaps the apex of her country work. Red was a transitional album that retained her signature twang but incorporated a more synthetic sound, with a gesture toward dubstep and electropop. While musically innovative and a clear step away from her previous work, the album had a whiff of contrivance about it, as if Taylor couldn’t quite decide what genre she wanted to belong to (of course no one ‘needs’ to belong to a genre, but I felt that she didn’t manage to convincingly and effectively blend genres).
If you actually give Swift’s records a spin, it’s clear from 1989 that she’s matured both musically and in her skills as lyricist over the past eight years. It’s the type of record you might like even if you’ve hated Swift throughout her career so far, because it feels so current, so unlike what she’s done before. That’s not to say it’s totally innovative: if I didn’t know her voice so well, I’d assume some tracks were collaborations with Robyn or Haim or Lorde. I’m also not trying to tell haters to ‘give her a chance’ (or maybe I am) but more to change the baseline of critique. To add more nuance to the discussion. It’s crucial to consider the politics of Taylor’s position as a role model for young girls, but also to remember that young girls are the ones that put her in this position. She’s an artist and complex person: she also embodies a set of Western ideals which are difficult to separate from her success. Maybe we can start to untangle these complexities by focusing on her musical development, as well as her perceived character.