Taylor Swift's 1989: First Thoughts

She has left country behind, but her new album's a blast.

Big Machine Records
Hype for Taylor Swift's 1989 has built over two months of pre-release singles, television appearances, and online chatter. The Nashville-bred singer had said the record represented her coming-out as a full-fledged pop—not country—artist, and on Friday, it leaked online days ahead of its planned October 27 release.
Below, The Atlantic's Julie Beck, Emma Green, Lenika Cruz, and Kevin O'Keeffe discuss first impressions, what tracks stand out, and what the album means for Taylor Swift the pop star.

Kevin O'Keeffe: Ahead of 1989's release, I was tired. I didn't initially like "Shake It Off," but it grew on me. I didn't think much of "Out of the Woods," but I let myself fall in love. I hated "Welcome to New York," as all thinking persons do. With so much promotion—remember that her Yahoo! and ABC News live-stream where she announced the album was on August 18, so we got two months of non-stop speculation—I found myself ready to hate the album.
Surprise: I really enjoyed listening to it! It's got a good flow from track to track, and there are some songs that stand with the best of her canon. But maybe I'm just easily impressed because of my low expectations. Emma, how'd you feel about 1989 going into it? Were you ready to love? Or did you need to shake the hype off?

Emma Green: I didn't experience nearly as much Swift fatigue as you, Kevin, but I did have a bit of nervousness. I'm a 1989 girl from Nashville, so I feel a natural kinship with Taylor. And with all the hype and all the young things lining up to take Taylor's place, this album drop seems freighted with significance for her career and music more broadly. I've also been slightly annoyed by the narrative around T-Swift's choice to ditch country for the more fertile pastures of pop, largely because I feel defensive about my native Nashville.

But in delivery, Taylor does not disappoint. I can already tell that I'm going to get the same kind of sugary emotional satisfaction out of this album as I have had time and time before; the melodies are grandiose and the lyrics satisfying ("he's tall, handsome as hell"). From one '89er to another: thumbs up.

Julie Beck: The spectacle of the lead-up to a Taylor album is half the fun. It’s fun to be excited, and it’s fun to be exasperated. The kickoff offered by "Shake It Off" wasn’t the most promising start to Taylor’s transition to pop—it was a little bloodless for my taste, if catchy and fun. "Out of the Woods" reignited my hope for a good album; it had the nods to specific details of Taylor’s relationships that I craved, and I’m a fan of Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers too, so I liked the collaboration. I don’t want to talk about "Welcome to New York."

But while Taylor has finally reached the other side of the country-pop gradient she’s been moving across for years, and while I have some quibbles about overproduction, the core of what makes her great hasn’t changed. It’s a classic Taylor album—the upbeat songs shine, the slow songs slog. There’s a dud or two in there, but enough sharp lyrics and catchy choruses on the rest to more than compensate.

Lenika Cruz: First, I should say that I like Taylor, but I’m a fan of the casual-but-enthusiastic, radio-listening variety. In other words: 1989 is the first T-Swift album that I’ve listened to in its entirety. I felt neither fatigue like Kevin nor dread like Emma, but I agree with Julie that it’s always fun to be part of the hyperbolic frenzy that precedes the album actually dropping, to the extent that texting your friends with “omg did you hear new tswift!?” is fun (it is). While Beyonce’s surprise release of her surprise album last December epitomized the album-drop-as-spectacle phenomenon (for me at least), cueing up for my first listen to 1989 still gave me mini heart palpitations. While no song will ever quite top “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” for me, this album was, at first listen, a perfect and total transition from Taylor's countrified pop phase to this new cheekily anthemic and more stylistically diverse sound.

O'Keeffe: What stands out on this album for y'all? For me, it's "Wildest Dreams" by a country mile. It's sexy—can you believe it? She has been fun, girly, dark, deep, exciting, evocative, and a bunch of other great adjectives, but I would argue she's never before been sexy. Some are calling it Lana Del Rey lite, but I think that's unfair. Lana doesn't have a monopoly on singing about "rosy cheeks" and wearing a "nice dress" with a breathy voice on the chorus. Plus, almost every song on this record is derivative of some other pop artist. ("Shake It Off" as a riff on Avril Lavigne's "Boyfriend," for instance.) Even if this is a bit of a carbon copy, it's one hell of a copy.

Green: Mind meld: I've been listening to "Wildest Dreams" on repeat for the last 20 minutes. I loved the urgency of the beat in "Out of the Woods," but the lyrics were a little lame (or, at the very least, repetitive)—"Wildest Dreams" has the same forward motion with much better storytelling. I fervently disagree with the Lana comparison, though. Taylor is unabashed, all-consuming, earnest nostalgia, anticipating that her latest romantic entanglement is going to be a story while she's still in the middle of it. Lana is performative, cool-girl nostalgia, the kind that mocks you a little if you indulge; if anything, she's the wicked witch to Taylor's Glinda.

But let's not prematurely dismiss "Shake It Off," which perfectly fulfills its telos as a song to lip sync and head-bob to at the bus stop in the morning. (I was also initially charmed when I thought one of the lyrics was "bakers gonna bake," but, alas, debunked.) "How You Get the Girl" is equally satisfying, especially because it's Taylor at her best: telling a didactic love story about awkward people who just want to be enthusiastically, forthrightly in love.

Beck: Look, I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I don’t have a working ranking of every Taylor Swift song ever on an enormous mental spreadsheet. And “All You Had to Do Was Stay” has shot right up there for me, it’s knocking on the door of my Top 5 all-time. Is it better than “Enchanted” from Speak Now? No. Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing is better than “Enchanted.”

But this, to me, is the perfect Taylor pop tune. It has a tasteful amount of production, so it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly synthed. It’s danceable, but rather than just instructing you to shake off haters, the lyrics are thoughtful and melancholy (“You were all I wanted/but not like this”). With that first high-pitched “stay,” the chorus hit me in that way that choruses sometimes do, when you know immediately that this is going to be Your Song for the next week. The one you hit replay on for hours at work, the one you blast on your walk home and feel like you’re in a cool movie with it as the soundtrack, the one that eventually becomes an old standby.

Cruz: I’m not trying to be the contrarian here, I swear, but “Wildest Dreams” didn’t really do it for me. But every album has its Growers—the ones you’re inclined toward skipping or else guiltily force yourself to listen to, before it dawns on you that the song is actually divine. Maybe "Wildest Dreams" is my Grower. So, I really dug “Out of the Woods” (I'm a sucker for those glassy synths and drum machines), but I think “Blank Space” will be my next on-repeat jam, for at least a week. That sneaky, vaguely “Started from the Bottom” snare, dreamy multi-tracked vocals on the chorus, and the way she shouts “And YOU. LOVE. the. GAAAAME!” Also, these lyrics are deliciously pithy, as Swiftian lyrics are wont to be. If this were 2005, “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” would go in my MySpace headline. No shame.

Green: 2005—what were you, like 10 years old? Sorry, obligatory age shaming; it's one of the privileges of getting older, as Taylor probably also knows. She's come a long way since the "Our Song" days of impossibly perfect curly blonde hair and teenage teardrops all over her guitar, and 1989 makes it seem like she's not going to stop evolving any time soon. As I listen to this album, my confidence in Swift infallibility is reaffirmed; five albums deep, she's still got new stories, lyrics, and styles to share with a grateful world.

But I do feel some distance growing between me and Tay—which may not even be an acceptable nickname anymore, since she's moved to New York for a new life as even more of a Bright Young Thing. Her outfits have always been cool, but they're getting cooler; her production has always been smooth, but it's getting smoother. I've always liked to think Taylor is Just Like Us, willingly and happily buying into her awkward, earnest, down-to-earth persona. I'm not so sure that I feel that way any more; she may provide the soundtrack of my workday for the next few weeks, but she definitely seems to have launched into a whole different stratum of fame and life experience.

Beck: At its worst, 1989 feels like an advertisement for Taylor-as-pop-star. (To be fair, its worst is still pretty enjoyable.) But starting the album with “Welcome to New York” sends a specific message: We’re not in Nashville anymore. Every Taylor album is a reinvention, and I’ve written before about how as time went on, her increasing business savvy mirrored the rise of pop over country in her music. Both her image and her music are a little more calculated now, a little more polished. But I liked the rough edges.

She’s certainly famous enough now to do whatever she wants, and if she wants to climb the ladder of pop music, who could blame her? But Emma is right: She used to occupy a different niche, one that felt a little closer to everyday life, even if it was an illusion.

Cruz: This album, regardless of how we all feel about it, is going to blow things up even more for Taylor Swift, not that she was ever in danger of fading from view (or out of earshot). Taylor knows the haters are gonna hate, and she doesn’t care, nor should she. It’s tempting and fun to think of Taylor as a myth or an abstraction or as a cultural object, but in the end she is a popular artist, kind of in the way that Facebook is a popular social networking site. Every now and then Facebook adds new features, and users whine for a bit, but they keep using it. Some of Taylor Swift’s fans may feel betrayed, as if they’re entitled to a never-changing Taylor, but I’ve got no doubts they’ll stick with her for this album (it's a really hard to not like 1989) and whatever sonic shifts come next.

O'Keeffe: I don't know what the next step is for Taylor Swift, honestly. I keep thinking she's about to peak, and then she manages to raise the game. Along with Beyoncé (and to a lesser extent, Adele), she is thriving in a pop music scene where almost everyone else is just struggling to survive. I'm not sure how it's going to last, but if 1989 is any indication, the world will be listening to her for a while yet.