“In Screaming Color”
Taylor Swift was already a big star in 2014 when she released her fifth studio album: 1989. But this became one of those giant pop albums, like Adele’s 21 and Whitney Houston’s eponymous first album. Suddenly people who claim to not even like pop music know these singers’ names and, when drunk, reveal that they know a surprising amount of the lyrics. And the fans that love the album… really love the album. People get personal about it. People get defensive about it. It’s more than just the soundtrack to a certain part of their lives: it can become a part of their identity.
So it was with 1989. It was everywhere, but yet fans didn’t feel the need to apologise for liking it, even though it was everywhere. And its fanbase was surprisingly broad. The number of men my age (early 40s) who have professed to loving this album is… statistically significant, shall we say. Every other week it seems, someone new declares “Look, 1989 by Taylor Swift is a great album and I don’t care who knows it…” So popular has it proved amongst older men with indie leanings that the alt-country artist Ryan Adams actually released a cover version… not of one of the 1989 songs, but of the entire album. (Was that, and its critical response, Olympic-level mansplaining? I’m hardly the best person to judge that, to be fair.)
So what is all the fuss about? Even Swift’s staunchest critics tend to admit that she is good at writing songs. (A surprisingly undervalued skill for pop stars, perhaps.) But, as the Ryan Adams album suggested, people who write songs for a living tend to be a lot more vocal about it, and say that she is an extraordinarily talented songwriter. There is a craft to being able to condense and communicate a complex emotion over the course of a short song, and make it feel totally spontaneous on the one hand, and utterly timeless on the other. A very few people have that quality. Eminem has it. I’ve long been singing the praises of both Suzanne Vega and Tom Waits as people who really understand the craft of songwriting. And Taylor Swift has it by the container-load.
A good example of these skills on 1989 is the first track : Welcome To New York. I’m not someone who has ever really been bewitched by the idea of New York as a city, but yet by the first chorus I can actually understand the attraction:
Walking through a crowd, the Village is aglow / Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats / Everybody here wanted something more / Searching for a sound we hadn’t heard before / And it said: welcome to New York… it’s been waiting for you…
And the second verse captures it even better:
When we first dropped our bags on apartment floors / Took our broken hearts, put them in a drawer / Everybody here was someone else before / And you can want who you want / Boys and boys and girls and girls…
The music is stripped right down: what sounds like no more than 3 keyboard parts at any one time, over a very basic drum machine rhythm. And over that, her signature melodies that spend more than half the time on the same note. And it all blends together to create a sense of space, and of something epic and awe-inspiring.
The song that follows it is similar sonically but couldn’t be more different in tone. Blank Space was the first of her songs that I really listened to, based mainly on the buzz that it was creating online, and I maintain it is one of the greatest pop songs ever written.
It’s a classic feel-good pop song, but it’s also a tongue-in-cheek play on the Femme Fatale / It Girl trope, as well as a send-up of her public image. And when you listen to the lyrics (“Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane / But I’ve got a blank space baby… and I’ll write your name”)… it’s actually pretty dark. And yet it’s clear, particularly from the video, that she’s having an absolute blast, and that’s something that’s infectious about this album. Like Freddie Mercury, she’s someone who is very good at communicating that they’re having a great time, and that tends to rub off on the listener.
Which brings me on to my next point: Taylor Swift is a great songwriter, but is also good company, and I’m find that increasingly important as a music obsessive. For example, I don’t think Nick Drake was one of the world’s great lyricists (“Nobody knows / How cold it blows / And nobody sees / How shaky my knees / Nobody cares / How steep my stairs / And nobody smiles / If you cross their stiles…”) but he’s good company to listen to. The world that he creates is an enjoyable place to be. When you put someone’s album on in your headphones, you’re sort of letting them into your head for a while, and maybe when I was younger I liked to invite clever and acerbic people in because I thought they were cooler than I was. Now I find those same artists slightly more annoying with each second that passes, and I’ll take genuine warmth and enthusiasm over smugness any day. That’s not to suggest that 1989 is all saccharine; there is sarcasm and cynicism in there two. But the tone is generally self-deprecating, and more interested in vulnerability than competitive stylishness.
So it’s a very well-crafted, catchy pop album made by an artist with a very likeable persona, and that’s rare, but not unique. And not everyone was impressed by it when it was released, and some wondered if it was actually an album that was about anything. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine of online encyclopedia AllMusic wrote:
Undoubtedly, she has the charisma and chops to be convincing on both bubblegum and ballads but 1989 is something else entirely: a cold, somewhat distant celebration of all the transient transparencies of modern pop, undercut by its own desperate desire to be nothing but a sparkling soundtrack to an aspirational lifestyle.
Now, I’ve always had an extremely low opinion of the standard of pop music journalism, but for once I think this is quite insightful. Even if I disagree with it. There is something sparkling about this album, something transient. And yes, I think it is a soundtrack to an aspirational lifestyle. In fact, if I had to pick one word to describe this album then ‘aspirational’ would do nicely. But this is not an album that aspires to a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, like so much pop music is. The only consumer brand I can think of that is referenced is from Out Of The Woods:
You took a Polaroid of us / Then discovered / The rest of the world was black and white / But we were in screaming color…
And perhaps it’s that, the Polaroid, the cult camera that Instagram built its look around, that suggests maybe 1989 is one long Insta-feed about what a #blessed life Taylor Swift has. But if you look for the standard elements of the social media life-faker (the utterly carefree life of endless travel and adventure, of celebrity encounters, of a physically beautiful body/partner/family, of no financial worries, of an excess of success) you won’t find actually them in this album.
I think the reason why fans responded to this album so strongly is because of the thing it is actually aspiring to: emotional intensity. And I think that’s made fairly explicit in the lyrics. It’s aspiring to live in screaming colour, when the rest of the world is in black and white. It’s aspiring to have the kind of romantic relationships that make you wonder, when it’s over, if the high was worth the pain. It’s perhaps even a celebration of making mistakes in love, in the hope of experiencing something transcendent in the process.
And… if you’ve read any of my other eulogies on this site, you might notice I’m something of a broken record on this when writing about this recurring theme. On Suzanne Vega. On Vermeer. On the movie Twilight even. The common theme to all of them is the belief that emotional intensity is the ultimate hedonism. This is essentially the philosophy of the Romanticism, the artistic movement that began in Germany in the late 18th century and spread throughout the world. And, as you may have gathered, I go for it in a fairly major way. And I think it’s no accident that on the special edition of 1989 the last song is called New Romantics, and has the chorus: “Baby, we’re the new romantics / Come on, come along with me / Heart break is the national anthem / We sing it proudly…” That sentiment appears again and again on the album.
I think 1989 is something of a mission statement from someone who, like most of the great songwriters I’m a fan of, is obsessed with using songwriting to explore and understand how romantic relationships work. (She doesn’t always write alone, incidentally, but at the end of the 1989 special edition she cannily added recordings of her taking her song ideas to her producers and songwriting partners for the first time, so it’s clear what is written by her exclusively.)
And for me what makes this album so unique is that it seems she’s not especially interested in the reality of most relationships. She is interested in the fairytale – in the way that, when young adults, we wish they would turn out. Which may seem like a backhanded compliment, but this is actually much more difficult to do than to write about the reality. Any singer-songwriter at any open mic night can sing about the reality of relationships, simply by bitching about their exes. It’s not hard to do: you just keep a diary and pick the best bits. But expressing that incredibly elusive fantasy relationship that so many people spend so much of their lives dreaming about is incredibly difficult. Precisely because it is so elusive. If you make it look too perfect and simple, it just seems ridiculous and unrealistic. If you add any complexity and you get it wrong, it just seems ridiculous and unrealistic.
And the thing about this album is that I can absolutely see why some critics might feel that it’s cheesy and clichéd. It… kind of is. But when you’re absolutely caught up in what feels like ‘fairytale’ love, everything you say and do, everything you want, looks ridiculously clichéd to those around you, but to you it is all absolutely real and genuine. And you understand why these things are so repeated that they become clichéd.
Having been married for a bit now, I feel that (fingers crossed and touching wood, because I obviously don’t want to jinx it) I understand from the inside what that kind of fairytale relationship looks like. It’s more complicated and surprising than I thought it would be. The important parts are not the parts I expected. And actually… it’s not exactly like the picture painted on 1989. It’s not screaming colour – the colours are more subtle. But then I don’t think this album was supposed to be about married fortysomething life. I think it’s about that questioning process, when you’re trying to figure out what you really want, and whether it even exists. And I think it nails that emotional state perfectly.
Of course, a lot more than half of what we take from music is our own experiences projected onto it. But even so, when I hear these lyrics (particularly the last line) from the penultimate track on the special edition of this album, it feels like something I recognise:
“You two are dancing in a snow globe round and round / And he keeps the picture of you in his office downtown / And you understand now why they lost their minds and fought the wars / And why I’ve spent my whole life trying to put it into words…”