The ’80s Vibe on Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ Is More Than Just Synth Deep
What do we talk about when we talk about 1989? Well, these days, mostly we talk about Taylor Swift: That's what she named her just-released fifth album, and as she's repeatedly stated in interviews, it was heavily inspired by the music of the era.
But when it comes to that music, we tend to talk about a certain set of artists -- critically beloved acts, generally, as well as trendsetters who, looking back, had the biggest visible influence on what was happening and what came next. Swift has name-checked several of them during her '1989' press tour -- Peter Gabriel, Eurythmics, and "anything that was in a John Hughes movie," just to settle on a few -- while plenty of pundits have singled out Madonna as a Patient Zero for the synth stabs and dance beats that propel the record's arrangements (a connection further underscored by a Rolling Stone cover shoot that deliberately evoked the video for Madge's hit single 'Cherish,' released in -- surprise! -- 1989).
Those comparisons are all apt in their way, although a person would really have to be stretched out on their tiptoes to draw a solid line between '1989' and Peter Gabriel (particularly the groundbreaking world music he was focused on in '89). Like just about any hit album from the late '80s, '1989' boasts a big, impeccably produced sound, carved out of blocks of keyboards and drum programs, wrapped in vocals that have been layered in reverb with care. The hooks are like porcupine quills: evolved to burrow in with ease, removable only under anesthesia. The choruses soar.
But if you were alive in 1989 (and aware of music, unlike little Taylor, who entered the world in the last few days of the year), you probably remember that there were really only so many Peter Gabriels and Madonnas pushing the pop envelope while critics laid palm fronds at their feet. The music of the era was really more solidly defined by a group of artists who were far more comfortable in the middle of the road -- both demographically as well as musically -- and that's where Swift really hits the mark with '1989.'
The late '80s were crossroads years for pop. Then as much as ever, Top 40 radio stations catered to young listeners, but at the time, there was still a long list of veteran artists who were able to play both sides of the demographic divide really successfully, aping current trends to woo the kids while trading on older hits and established name value to ensure continued sales from their parents. This led a lot of acts down musical pathways that cost them credibility with longtime fans -- just ask anyone who watched Jefferson Airplane turn into Starship, or who remembers Heart's corset-and-hairspray years -- but from a commercial standpoint, it worked very well.
The net effect, from a musical standpoint, was a long stretch of years in which artists who were young enough to pursue pop stardom but old enough to know better focused their efforts heavily on material that was written with a wizened songsmith's sense of musical craft and a teenager's lyrical perspective. Chicago had one of the biggest hit singles of their career in 1989 with 'Look Away,' a simpering ballad overloaded with the kind of melodrama most rational adults abandon before beginning their senior year of college; singer Bill Champlin was 41 when the band recorded it. Cher, though she may actually be ageless, was even older when she embarked on the late '80s power ballad run that included 'If I Could Turn Back Time.' Grace Slick was nearly 50 when she cut her vocals for the middle school dance anthem 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now.' You get the idea.
But this isn't about singling bands out for humiliation -- musicians, like everyone else, have bills to pay, and there's no shame in exploiting a harmless musical formula. The point is that as much as we tend to focus on synths and club culture crossover when we talk about the mainstream '80s, the end of the decade was arguably just as strongly characterized by an overwhelming earnestness and utter lack of ironic detachment, topped off with a glossy dollop of high drama.
This is not to say that no mainstream pop act ever tried to play with a little irony or sarcasm during the mid-to-late-'80s, but as often as not, those attempts were so widely misconstrued that the songs ended up becoming anthems anyway, often for the things they were supposed to lampoon (Gabriel's 'Big Time,' Bruce Springsteen's 'Born In the U.S.A.,' Huey Lewis' 'Hip to Be Square'). When that kind of thing is sailing over people's heads while they gobble up stuff like "I'm a cowboy / On a steel horse I ride", you might as well just go ahead and record a power ballad.
Every situation is as painstakingly cinematic as a scene from St. Elmo's Fire and love is always life or death.
What's ultimately just about perfect when it comes to '1989' is that Taylor Swift has always written from an utterly '80s standpoint anyway -- which makes sense, given that from the time teenaged Taylor burst on the scene with her debut album in 2006, she's genuinely been dealing with all those larger-than-life emotions that the era's biggest, corniest hits traded in. Her take on relationships here is more mature than it's been on previous efforts, but that stands to reason, and she still comfortably resides in a lyrical space where every situation is as painstakingly cinematic as a scene from St. Elmo's Fire and love is always life or death.
Backing up all that youthful angst and excitement is a nuclear arsenal of songwriting and production craft, including input from Top 40 overlord Max Martin, OneRepublic frontman/song doctor for hire Ryan Tedder, and Bleachers/fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff -- all of whom aid and abet the record's overt '80s-ness without being too gimmicky or precious about it. In interviews, she's talked about wanting to make sure she assembled the right team for these songs, and everyone who got the gig clearly did their homework.
What that means in the context of '1989' is that Swift and her collaborators effectively toe the line between inspiration and pastiche. Unlike any number of '80s-inspired retro-pop records, it keeps its tongue firmly out of its cheek, and uses its sound as a palette instead of a bag of tricks; when she opens her swooning ode to the Big Apple, 'Welcome to New York,' with the line, "Walking through a crowd, the village is aglow / Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats," it's totally, melodramatically '80s, and it makes perfect sense in context without ever seeming self-conscious.
That feeling permeates through '1989,' powering the programmed dazzle of the arrangements as well as made-for-MTV lyrics like "Midnight, You come and pick me up, no headlights / Long drive, could end in burning flames or paradise" ('Style') and, "Say you'll remember me / Standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset" ('Wildest Dreams'). Listening to the album is the aural equivalent of watching J.J. Abrams' '80s Spielberg homage 'Super 8' -- like returning to your childhood home and discovering a room you never knew was there.
Listening to the album is like returning to your childhood home and discovering a room you never knew was there.
It all adds up to as utterly charming a pop album as we're likely to hear for some time -- one that strains to shower the listener with widescreen musical experiences that would pair perfectly with quick-cut, acid-washed music videos featuring glamorous people in beautiful empty warehouses and rain-slicked city streets; one that melds the synthetic corn of Paula Abdul and Peter Cetera without seeming to sacrifice a single iota of sincerity in the bargain.
Perhaps most impressive of all, these songs hearken back to an era in which pop music was allowed to take its towering position in the cultural landscape for granted -- when the biggest stars commanded the attention, and spoke to the experiences of, audiences of millions. Maybe it takes the youthful naivete of a twentysomething star who's only ever tasted multi-platinum success to try and recapture that cheesier, more innocent time within the diminished confines of the earbud era, and in all likelihood, it's just another sonic way station on Swift's continuing trail of chart domination.
But whatever happens next, the middle of the road has rarely sounded as sweet as it does in '1989,' an album that encapsulates the highs and lows of the year that inspired it in the best possible way.