2014 was a rough year for pop music. At the end of October there had not been a single album to sell a million copies. Sluggish sales and the growing prominence of streaming services have encouraged even reputable artists to be persuaded into gimmicking their album releases (U2’s intrusive iPhone 6 fiasco suddenly made Bono and the gang seem very tired). Additionally, various others in the pop genre continue to feel the pressure of our à la carte culture and trade the integrity of concept albums for a dozen or so unrelated hit singles packaged into one release. Poor sales and a fight for relevance can cause even the most creative to make horrible creative decisions. And then, there’s Taylor Swift.
Great music is always being made. If you look for it there will continually be complex, challenging, and inspiring composition and lyrics being produced in every genre. Claiming an entire year of music as bad is a blanket statement. However, popular music’s commercial success and failure is easier to define and measure. And in 2014, music was losing this game. Then late in the 4th quarter the girl in the bleachers took the field and sold a million copies in her album’s first week. In a year that found the music industry longing for the past, leave it to an album titled 1989 to save 2014.
This was not without significant risk. Taylor Swift (or T-Swift) released her first single “Shake It Off” with the announcement that she was ditching her bluegrass roots for the bright neon of synth-pop. This would typically be treated as a sell-out move to cater to what’s trendy right now, but ingeniously she had an answer for that: “Haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate, hate).” When someone invokes that sentiment, there is no rebuttal without sounding like a dusty horse’s ass. Saying “haters gonna hate” is a short expression for “I give exactly zero fucks about your protest.” That’s an inarguable burn. It seems asinine, but when you’re 25 it’s an exceptional answer to your old fart critics. And Taylor Swift seems to always have the right answer. You could argue she’s been positioning to make this move all along.
Before I go any further you should know I am not a big fan of T-Swift’s music. For a long time I didn’t care for her at all (for reasons I explain below). However, I do pay attention when an artist’s music (first and foremost) pushes the needle effectively. That garners respect regardless of how much you like their songs. And nobody in pop music has done this as independently as T-Swift. From the beginning she has made all the right moves to raise her profile without being pulled by puppet strings. She does what she wants and it turns out that what she wants is what the general public wants. She debuted in 2006. In 2014, she’s the most bankable star in music.
T-Swift’s first sure fire hit was 2007’s “Teardrops on my Guitar” (gag). I figured some 44 year old pony tailed dude in Nashville wrote a pretty teenage girl a song about her laying in her bedroom crying because her label knew it would be noticed by all teenage girls who indeed spend their time laying in bed crying. I mistakenly thought she was being operated by a machine (her label’s name is Big Machine Records). A machine programmed with a song making algorithm to maximize revenue that dispensed her to country music because pop was already oversaturated by moderately talented teenagers (who later had to twerk their way to relevance). And this was at a time when the landscape of country music was shifting. Kenny Chesney blew the doors off of what Garth Brooks started. Country music was now pop music and it was for a teenage girl’s taking. In comes T-Swift.
I soon discovered Taylor wasn’t being operated by a machine. She was the machine. Country was a solid platform for her because it provided more flexibility to be a singer/songwriter, which is what came naturally to her. Disney does not want their young pop stars writing songs. They control the message which we all know is, “wholesome and family approved, but we definitely want your Dad to find her uncomfortably sexy.” Country gave Taylor the license to write her songs (some with help). And that of course allowed her to do what she ingeniously does best: Connect with her fans with exactly what they want before they even knew they wanted it. She wrote songs about liking boys, but then delivered the edge all young girls learn to rejoice: songs about when those boys become dicks. Nothing terrifies guys more than a girl’s ability to publicly bash you. Girls know it, and when they can, they celebrate the crap out of it. It has a rallying effect. Thus, Taylor just earned a legion of fans that not only listen to her music, but believe in her too. When people believe in you they’ll follow you anywhere.
Contemporary country at that point was now full on popular music. Taylor had all the exposure she needed for her fan base. And then, there was Kanye. If you want to raise a star’s profile in today’s social media world nothing works faster than empathy. To be clear, I love Kanye West’s music. I think he is a genius. He is always 10 steps ahead of his genre. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t just a colossal prick. He’s very clearly an arrogant douche. So when a douche bullies and embarrasses the girl next door in front of millions, regardless of what you thought about T-Swift’s music, the empathy poured in from all different corners. And she collected. That “real girl” connection she feverishly works so hard to maintain with her fans was amplified ironically by standing completely still as a babbling rapper made her look as real as it gets.
Swift milked the Kanye embarrassment (for more than it was worth). And as attention and accolades built up she certainly started displaying a more obvious comfort level and confidence with her celebrity. She amped up her edge (threatening exes left and right as they fearfully prayed “please don’t say anything about my penis.”), but T-Swift never lost the goofiness that her fans adore. This might be why she’s earned the friendship or admiration of some seemingly really cool people (some I’d like to hang out with – Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Kendrick Lamar).
All this maneuvering, marketing, and cleverness made the full on pop music switch an easy one, and one that left her making no apologies for it. People asked her why she made a pop album and her answer was “because I wanted to make a pop album.” Again, zero fucks. And 1989 came in the 11th hour of a struggling year, selling the most copies in one week since Eminem’s The Eminem Show in 2002. Her album is very clearly the highlight of 2014 and it’s not even just a given hit because of her name. She turned in a quality album receiving positive reviews. It’s not my choice of music, but there’s no denying how well crafted and sticky the melodies are to garner its favorable reception. Rolling Stone summed it up well: “Deeply weird, feverishly emotional, wildly enthusiastic, 1989 sounds exactly like Taylor Swift, even when it sounds like nothing she’s ever tried before.” It came late, but 2014’s album of the year belongs to T-Swift. The machine 25 years in the making.