1989 Taylor Swift
Credit: Sarah Barlowe

Aug. 18, 2014, is a date that will live in infamy. At least, it might for any loyal Taylor Swift fans whose cowgirl boots were knocked off that evening around 5:08 when the singer spoke a tiny, three-letter palindrome: ”pop.”

Swift was announcing her new album, 1989, in an online live stream with all the high-budget intimacy of an Apple keynote, and she used the occasion to say that this would be her ”very first documented, official pop album.” For anyone who still cherished her as a country starlet with a crush on Tim McGraw, this was a game changer — maybe the biggest since Swift started straightening her hair around 2010.

For the rest of the world, the news landed with a resounding ”Huh.” Wasn’t she already mainstream? Wasn’t that a dubstep beat on 2012’s ”I Knew You Were Trouble”? Weren’t ”We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and ”Red” and, hell, even 2009’s ”You Belong With Me” really just pop-fueled pickup trucks with Tennessee plates? Actually, ”pop” doesn’t mean anything but ”popular” — and by any metric, Swift already is. So the declaration seemed to be less about music than about competition: In some small-minded circles, country has a junior-varsity rep, while pop is the Olympics. And Swift wants us to know she’s ready for her shot at an all-around gold medal.

With 1989, she should earn at least a silver. Executive-produced by Swift and Max Martin, the album is preloaded with potential hits, from the chant-along fight song ”Bad Blood” to the lovers-on-the-run hymn ”I Know Places.” ”Shake It Off,” the kinetic first single, is already a No. 1. (Less likely to top the charts: the underripe Big Apple ode ”Welcome to New York” and the blatant CoverGirl-commercial bait ”Style.”) The title, 1989, is both a wink to Swift’s birth year and a nod to that era’s music, which she evokes on the Jack Antonoff-co-written ”I Wish You Would” and ”Out of the Woods,” ballads with driving beats that complement her cinematic verses, such as ”You took a Polaroid of us/Then discovered/The rest of the world was black and white/But we were in screaming color.”

Lyrics like that — aching and pinpoint-specific — used to be Swift’s specialty. At her best (2010’s ”Dear John,” 2012’s ”All Too Well”), she’s the most vivid songwriter of her generation, able to summon the storm clouds of every heartbreak you’ve ever had with one couplet and then sweep them away with another. But too often on 1989 she’s trying to win at somebody else’s game, whittling her words down to generic love stuff over flowy synthesizers. That’s because pop, as a musical genre, is most precisely defined by what it isn’t: not country, not rock, and not rap. Swift isn’t any of those, but she isn’t 100 percent pop, either — she’s still too unique, too identifiably herself.

That’s a good thing, by the way. So if she makes another pop album next? Great. If she wants to write R&B, or show tunes, or a nü-metal concept LP? Mazel tov. But if she ditches what makes her special to get there, then she’s doing a huge disservice to her fans — and an even bigger one to herself. B

Best Tracks:
”I Wish You Would”
”Bad Blood”

  • Music