On Taylor Swift's Most Sinful Album Yet (Sort Of)


The world is tired of Taylor Swift pretending that she's a virtuous country star, and the announcement that 1989 would be a "pure pop" album inspired by Like a Prayer-era Madonna was accompanied more than anything by a collective sigh of relief. No more of this chastity-driven power pop -- time for teen moral collapse!

On first listen, our cynical hopes and dreams have been fulfilled -- 1989, sonically, is a post-Weeknd future-pop record, borrowing in equal parts from Sky Ferreira and Max Martin. It's dark, over-produced, and occasionally almost sexy -- but it's also a Taylor Swift record, and that means that no matter what the temptation, the American collective soul is probably going to be okay.

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The thing about 1989, and Sky Ferreira, and the world of pop music in general, is that it's all kind of naughty. Sky Ferreira uses the f-word a lot and might do heroin, Max Martin produces songs that might be about sex (yikes!), and Madonna was making out with Jesus 25 years ago.

These scenarios are extremely far removed from the moral values of Taylor Nation, and it's hard to work those values in a sonic landscape that was created to channel dark sexuality. History shows that an obligation to moral integrity doesn't matter much in pop music, but in this case the person who most beholds Taylor Swift to Taylor Swift's morals is paragon of virtue Taylor Swift herself.

It's fascinating, then, to watch her navigate this amoral territory. 1989" is full of lyrics that churn toward PG-13 allusions before pulling out at the last minute. "Takes me home, lights are off, he's taking off his -- COAT!" "The night [...] we decided / to move the furniture so we could -- DANCE!" "It's 2 AM, in my room" -- !!! -- "I think of you." (Whew, close calls.)

There are enough clothes left in bedrooms and ambiguous references to various forms of physical contact to make Tipper Gore a little bit uncomfortable, but no one reasonable is going to have a conniption about any of this. It's about as dirty as Frozen.

Innocuousness aside, the lines that stick out most from this album are the darkest ones. Single-slot track "Blank Space" has some of the most morally complex lyrics in Swift's catalog -- "'It'll leave you breathless / or with a nasty scar / got a long list of ex-lovers / they'll tell you I'm insane." Over its mournful tune and hollow production, "Blank Space" would be a resignation song from anyone else.

Turns out, it's about hope -- "I've got a blank space, baby / and I'll write your name." This is either about serial killing (never out of the question for pop stars) or finding emotional fulfillment in moral ambiguity. The admission that fulfillment is possible at all in that kind of murky territory is startling coming from Swift, and the result is a surprisingly thoughtful pop banger.

"Style," another single prospect, is even bleaker. The sound is ominous post-disco, and the lyrics play with the failure of classic teenage dream hopes, concluding with a demand to "take me home." This would all be pretty tantalizing, but Taylor's primary self-descriptor, other than a "tight little skirt" (a line that she double tracks, to hilarious dramatic effect) is her "good girl fate."

It's all very confusing and hard to read. The mood persists throughout the album: Taylor slut-shames herself, alludes to her mistakes, experiments with the verb "lying down," and admits that she's worthy of hatred -- all the while insisting that she can shake it all off. It's never quite clear how she feels about any of it -- one gets the sense that she hasn't quite figured it out herself.

If we're going to put this in terms of the Christian conservatism that still can embrace Swift a little longer, pop music is sinning music, and 1989 has her playing around with sinning pretty hard. It's remarkable that her descent into depravity doesn't shallow out with a pseudo-country guitar ballad to placate the Moral Majority -- instead, it ends with the Imogen Heap-featuring dream-pop number "Clean."

"Clean" is built around a basic rain metaphor with all kinds of unhappy complications -- stained dresses, addiction, dead flowers, drowning. It's one of the most confessional tracks in Taylor's catalog, a straight out admission that she's done something contradictory to her regimented virginal persona. It would be vastly out of place on Fearless, and it flies in the face of the moralistic girl who once chastised Camille Belle's bedroom activities on Speak Now.

But it's also the only conclusion this foray into pop darkness could have come to. Taylor's sunk into the closest thing her PR team will allow to darkness, and she's come out with a wine-stained dress that's nevertheless clean.

This, I think, is "Taylor Swift in 2014" in a nutshell. For all its Sky Ferreira riffing and Madonna posturing, 1989, oddly, might be Taylor's most moralistic album. It's not wholesome, and it's not quite G-rated, but there's some hella good virtues in there. You've just got to shake them out.


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