Eight years ago Taylor Swift's debut single "Tim McGraw" was released to critical applause and platinum sales; a sweet-sounding modern country ballad, it fondly mourned her first boyfriend in a pointedly open-hearted way, with lyrics addressed directly to a lost love. On Monday night, Swift’s latest single "Out of the Woods" dropped on iTunes. With its computerized beats and '80s synths, it’s a big change from the country music Swift once made, and marks her clearest move yet into straight-ahead pop music for her upcoming fifth album, 1989. Jack Antonoff of the bands fun. and Bleachers co-wrote the track, and it sounds a bit like those groups, a little like Haim, and a lot like Scottish electronic act Chvrches.
What’s fascinating, though, is that even as Swift pulls from a whole new sonic palette, “Out of the Woods” feels like a spiritual successor to “Tim McGraw.” She has performed a rare pop feat—trendily redoing her sound but maintaining her distinct identity.
"Last December, we were built to fall apart/Then fall back together," Swift sings to her latest ex-object of affection on "Out of the Woods." "Your necklace hanging from my neck/The night we couldn't quite forget." The mix of specific details and more generic metaphorical material is classic Swift. So is the subject matter: She has always specialized in songs about romantic tumult, particularly reflecting back on break-ups; whether she's nostalgic ("Holy Ground") or scornful ("Picture to Burn") or regretful ("I Knew You Were Trouble"), there’s never any mystery in the listener’s mind about her emotional point of view.
The Internet has decided "Out of the Woods" is about One Direction's Harry Styles, who Swift dated for a bit. Hunting for such celeb-identifying clues in Swift's lyrics and liner notes has long been a game her fans love to play; she indulges such speculation and yet tends to keep things broad when discussing her lyrics. But it really didn’t matter who each song on her last album, Red, was about. The driving theme of the record was what casual listeners (myself included) really connected to: Being in love is stressful and exciting! It kinda drives you nuts! Each song could be about a different person or just about different sides of one relationship. What’s important is that Swift writes so firmly from her own perspective every time.
When "Tim McGraw" debuted in 2006, the maturity with which the then-16-year-old Swift looked back at a failed relationship was impressive. The song was so obviously derivative of the modern country scene Swift worshipped and rapidly broke into, but it was written smartly enough to stand out. Even then, Swift knew that being sad about a lost love is a universal feeling, but used the cliché to her advantage, naming her song after the musician it was echoing and somehow attaining personal ownership of the love-ballad formula. She’s doing much the same on “Out of the Woods.”
Another aspect of her identity remains intact in the 1989 era. There's always been a clinical, practiced feel to Swift’s music, even at the start of her career, and that's part of what turns some people off. Her recent single "Shake It Off" came with a video that saw Swift dancing through various pop-visual tropes of her lifetime; as an announcement of her official transition away from country music, it felt like a press release, effective but also blatant and inauthentic. "Out of the Woods" makes a calculated statement, too, but it’s a heartening one: Even as she experiments with a different genre, even if that means she sounds like a lot of what else is on the radio right now, she’s still going to stand out by writing clearly articulated personal anthems.
People are probably going to keep guessing at whose sound she's trying to imitate with each subsequent single from 1989. Some listeners will complain that Swift is just venally changing her sonic identity to keep up with everyone else. But the truth is that she’s one of the most important people in pop not for how she sounds, but for what she says and how she says it. She's writing songs from a point of view you can remember days later. There aren't too many other mainstream artists you could say that about right now.