By Amanda Wicks
This month marks the tenth anniversary of Taylor Swift’s self -titled debut album, which was released October 24, 2006. Throughout the month, we’ll take a look at all five of her studio albums, starting with her most recent one: ‘1989,’ which was released two years ago this month, on October 27, 2014.
From the opening track “Welcome to New York” on Taylor Swift’s fifth studio album 1989, it was clear that the one-time country star’s transformation to pop singer was complete. It wasn’t just that she was trading Nashville for Manhattan (which she was), or that she was shedding her country music identity for a more polished, synth-driven pop sound (which she was). It was also that her storytelling had ascended to skyscraper heights.
Before she began singing about the thrill of relocating to the northeast and finding herself in the rush and thrill of the city, the song’s opening beat — punctuated by a double handclap and ’80s synths — marked this as an entirely new chapter for Swift. The music became as important to her storytelling as her lyrics. This was a story about moving to NYC, and it sounded like it. But while critics everywhere claimed that 1989 was Swift’s big move into pop, she didn’t fully leave her country roots behind.
To overgeneralize for a moment: country music loves telling stories, while pop music tends to pursue more pleasurable paths. It’s not as though pop songs can’t be about stories (many are) or that country songs can’t be a feel-good anthem (again, many are), but the narratives so intrinsic to country music don’t generally find the same kind of home in pop. Pop as a genre tends to favor a more visceral reaction from listeners, one steeped in entertainment. At least that’s the direction in it’s been going in ever since Cheiron Studios formed in the early 1990s and Swedish producer Denniz PoP and his team structured pop music to create a tangible, almost addictive, effect.
PoP and his team, which included successor Max Martin, were responsible for some of the pop world’s biggest hits, including Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” and even Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” Each had a particularly metered approach so that rhythm and lyrics matched up in a way that is designed to be pleasurable to the ear; to PoP’s team, this is a science as much as an art. The sound Cheiron developed and which other studios have attempted to mimic transformed the producer’s role into something closer to songwriter. Martin, the man behind all three of those songs, earned ASCAP’s songwriter of the year title in 1999.
Country music, on the other hand, loves weaving a different kind of tale. It’s like a friend used to tell me when we’d meet for happy hour after a particularly harried week. “Pour me a whiskey shot and let’s write some country songs,” she’d say, referencing the genre’s affection for tragedy. Any recounting of how our week felt like we were building verses and choruses full of country tropes. Whether penning happy or sad tunes, there’s a long tradition of storytellers in country music. Carrie Underwood’s 2015 album Storyteller is the modern version of what female country artists like Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, and even pop artists like Carole King all rose to fame on: their ability to write one compelling story after another.
Swift follows that path, putting out album after album of songs both personal and imagined. Other artists like Ryan Tedder, who wrote two tracks on 1989 with Swift, and Ryan Adams (who covered the entire album on his own release, also called 1989 ) have praised her songwriting ability.
Pair Martin’s ear for pleasurable rhythm and meter with Swift’s narrative lyricism and what resulted on 1989 seemed like pop gold. That’s not to say it completely left country in the rearview mirror, although that was the story being told in the media. On the pulsing “Wildest Dreams,” Swift exemplifies that feeling of falling for someone who won’t last. The chorus paints a picture of what could be their last moment together, or at least the one Swift would prefer framing in her memory. “Say you’ll remember me/ Standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset, babe/ Red lips and rosy cheeks/ Say you’ll see me again even if it’s just in your wildest dreams,” she sings on the chorus. It could easily be a country song, but with its heartbeat-esque rhythm, underlying moody synths and the echo that carries from the last word Swift sings on each verse, Martin transforms this heartbreaking song into gleaming, shimmering pop.
More than a partnership that led to a few great songs, though, Swift and Martin cultivated a unified album. Martin co-wrote seven of the standard edition’s thirteen tracks. And on those thirteen tracks, Swift told a story from beginning to middle to end, painting the picture of a relationship from start to finish. Everything from the opening “Welcome to New York” to “Style” to “How You Get the Girl” progresses in a real-time of sorts, each song building on information listeners have been handed in the previous one. Beyoncé took a similar approach to her 2016 album Lemonade.
For listeners accustomed to pop songs as being stand alone tracks meant for a late night drive with the windows down or an energizing moment at the club, Swift’s 1989 offered something more complete. It retained its country roots even while melodically country was nowhere to be found on the album. 1989 was a storybook because everything worked together, everything held weight, and everything progressed in one direction. Swift’s fans already knew she could write a song and tell a killer story, but partnered with Martin, whose own ability had long differentiated him from the producer crowd, she made a new kind of pop-country hybrid.