So I've got this memory from my childhood running through my mind fairly frequently and for no discernible reason, interminably looping in my subconscious like a good pop song secured with saccharine to the inside of my head. The memory actually revolves around a pop song with that very earworm quality, Backstreet Boys' "Larger Than Life," a decadently self confident bit of carefully constructed pop that like most successful Billboard singles was once oppressively ubiquitous and with time has drifted away from us all; occupying its modern role of the nostalgia-inducing, forehead-shaking time capsule of who we used to be. I'm six years old and my best friend David and I are flailing wildly, dancing circles around his kitchen counter island, trading lyrics back and forth as his archetypally foxy older sister laughs long and hard.
David would go on to define the large majority of the development of my individual identity until some time around the start of high school when the fundamental divide between us (He convinced his Dad to purchase season tickets for Wake Forest basketball, I convinced mine to let me go to an Underoath show on a school night) got bigger with every budding hormone. But we were best friends once for somewhere around twelve years, longer than any other friendship in my admittedly short life and that day, "Larger Than Life," David's sister's laughter, and his smiling face bobbing alongside my own won't go away. In middle school, our friend circle was no stranger to incessant interpersonal accusations of faggotry coupled with physical displays of our burgeoning masculinity in the form of beating the shit out of each other (okay, beating the shit out of me). But in the year of "Backstreet's Back," we were dancing in that kitchen without a shred of the self consciousness, shame, guilt, and repression inherent in both our final years as friends and in the minds of a large percentage of human beings when encountering the world of POP MUSIC.
Enter Taylor Swift. You know her; she's the one who stays out too late, goes on too many dates, etc. Her early Country-by-way-of-Conneticut singles left me wondering if her connection to the genre of the white working class American south was developed primarily due to the influence of the "several Quarter horses and a Shetland pony" that her family owned growing up. So began a prolific career of ideologically bankrupt singles, dripping with the disingenuous air of a white girl that was not to be trusted. While Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna were busy defining what a post millennium pop star could be, actively forming a landscape of strong female black pop icons who made bold moves to proudly infuse their aesthetic with the blackness, powerful sexuality, and unashamed gender identity that rang true to their own experiences, Taylor Swift was playing dress up in a Nashville studio. Since the beginning, America's baby deer has always been aiming to make pop music. Take 2007's "Our Song," a country/western aesthetic grocery list delivered via conceptual puppy love pop song. You got Swift singing in a twang surely the product of the only person in America taking a class to gain, not loose, a southern accent to benefit their career in the entertainment industry. The song is completely soaked with Nashville session musicians and their incessant, over-produced banjo and fiddle interjections which stink up the place like the Budweiser born piss of the redneck Dads of Swift's target demographic in 2007. The video even features images of Swift sitting on the porch of a Plantation style house wearing a prom quality violet dress that makes it look like she just got back from a fucking debutante ball.
A lot has changed since 2007 for Taylor Swift and that guy she wrote "Our Song" for her freshman year of high school now finds himself part of a large family of eskimo brothers including a Jonas, Harry "Fifty tattoos, three nipples, One Direction" Styles, a sexy werewolf, John "My dick is sort of like a white supremacist" Mayer, a fucking Kennedy, and Garfield Creator Jim Davis. In what came off as an attempt to write a song about each and every last dude over the years, Taylor Swift' s full length records from 2008 to 2012 seemed to be primarily concerned with the formulation of an autobiographical travel log in the form of a guitar-based pop record, weirdly reminiscent to electric Bob Dylan's fantastic New Morning LP, replacing Dylan's ruminations on meeting Elvis and receiving an honorary degree at Princeton (things only the Bob Dylan can do) with empowered victim anthems about how sad it is to fuck John Mayer ("Dear John") and enacting revenge on the greatest living pop musician for upstaging her at a MTV circle jerk, making her a household name, and not being punished enough by the year long period of cultural crucifixion that almost drove him to suicide (Clearly, these are things only the Taylor Swift can do).
If you can't tell by now, I'm not the biggest fan of America's #1 white girl. It's been that way since I first heard the shrill voices of the future Southern Belles I grew up with, belting "Our Song" like it really was theirs; that goddamn banjo echoing through the dark gym of middle school dances past while I scrawled down Fall Out Boy's "Dance Dance" on the DJ request sheet and made my way outside to the drink table in search of a fifth cup of Sprite and a respite from the alienation of not getting it. My grudge festered and by 2009, it got ugly. Somehow I found myself consumed in a vicious pop argument, screaming like a maniac whilst waiting in line for a Four Tet show, drunk in the way only a seventeen year old can manage or even desire, cursing Swift for presenting herself as a heartfelt singer/songwriter while purposefully dating famous older men in the hopes that she could write a tabloid-esque song about their shortcomings. I remember the scared looks on my friends' stoned faces but not who I was arguing with, perhaps it was Taylor herself.
Things change, I change, Taylor changes... In between the diss tracks and country facades, Taylor managed to produce "You Belong With Me," one of the most irresistibly brilliant pop songs of the 2000s standing effortlessly next to era pop giants like Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and really any of the six Katy Perry #1 Singles from the decade. With 2012's Red, Swift tested the waters of modern pop, making a big ol' splash with the one-two punch of the incessantly unforgettable "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "I Knew You Were Trouble," Taylor Swift's Dubstep anthem, whose charismatic power is tantamount to the incredulity that those four words are in that order in real life and not being spoken by a seventeen year old girl on acid. The change I witnessed while lapping up these Swift singles with quiet self conscious restrain was the strategic insertion of Max Martin, the Swedish Yoda of American pop music, whose hands are involved with the production of every single song mentioned in this paragraph except for "You Belong With Me" (Which I assume he would have liberated the banjo from had he the chance).
Max Martin also co-wrote and produced most everything the Backstreet Boys ever did including "Larger Than Life," the score of David and I's kitchen boogie; the moment which marks my childhood discovery of the unquestionable and profound power of ecstatic pop meaninglessness. Max Martin has devoted a lifetime to big money making assertions of "Don't fight it, feel it" and Taylor Swift's latest record 1989 is a big, dumb, beautiful culmination of that ethos. Just like "Our Song's" completionist attitude to aesthetic representation of Swift's chosen appropriation, 1989 hits almost all the pop buttons with the added mechanical precision of Martin's big mechanical hit makin' dick. "Blank Space" may be the best song the robot who embodies Taylor Swift's mortal shell has ever spat out, shamlessly cribing the work of pop peer Lorde, and turning it all the way up for a final product that's going to dominate charts for a long, long time. "Wildest Dreams" combines cooing, balladry, nostalgia, and wish fulfillment in a package designed to make America's collective member stand at attention. There's competition inherent in every track, appropriating hip-hop terminology ("Blank Space," "Shake It Off") and electronic production trends ("All You Had To Do Was Stay," the knockout bonus track "New Romantics"), effectively embodying the image of Swift sprinting confidently to the finish line, hoping to leave "perpetually dressed for a Quinceañera" Ariana Grande, amphetamine queen Katy Perry, and enfant terrible Miley Cyrus in her wake.
I'd be remiss to not mention the monolith that is "Welcome to New York," which has managed to piss off more people than I ever thought possible for a synth pop song. I've lived in New York, both in Manhattan and Brooklyn, for the last four years so I will be the first people to tell you I have no business talking about the tragedy of gentrification, "old New York," or the morality of Swift's album opening statement. I grew up in a well-off white household far from Oz wherein the word gentrification was often utilized as a synonym for "nice" by my well intentioned father. My introduction to the city was four years after CBGB shut down, well after even the space's transformation into what I assume is a place for rich dudes who wear blazers and t-shirts to shop in the hopes that someone mistakes them for an aging member of Motley Crue. Other people are mad at Taylor Swift's siren song from the top of the Empire State, and some are showing it in increasingly delightful ways. Overall, "Welcome To New York" must be viewed as a pop song first and foremost and in that sense it succeeds. Let yourself buy into the M83 reminiscent synth warmth of the song's intro portion and you'll find yourself quickly forgetting the death of Downtown, stake planted firmly by Swift's anthem and correlating tourism campaign, working in a similar way to the "God is Dead, Let's Dance" glee of fellow gentrification all star Catey Shaw's impeccable "Brooklyn Girls," a real contender for my favorite pop song of the year.
My biggest complaints with Taylor at this moment actually have more to do with the inclusion of three "voice memo" demos in the deluxe edition of the album and the implications of back handed, ironic fetishization of my beloved pop. The choice behind the iPhone brand voice memos presumably revolves around Swift's career long obsession with convincing people she writes her own songs, something I have never believed for a second, as well as a slap in the face of the pop gods. I guess after all real big pop records don't have to announce themselves as such as 1989 has done. A large part of the "Shake It Off" video is the emphasis on Swift's inability to dance, a coy jab at the authenticity of the admittedly inherently inauthentic nature of pop. This "oh, did I just happen into a Pop song?" mentality is the grossest part of the album by far. Have you seen a Katy Perry video lately? She literally never dances, a feature her video's editing and back up dancers mechanically obscure, placing everything in the right place for pop efficiency and reverence.
At its best, 1989 is a constant reaffirmation of the power of pop to transform anyone, seduce everyone, and obliterate reason and conscious thought in favor of pure pleasure. This analysis can only work if you believe in Pop as the great equalizer; something so inherently, confidently stupid that anyone can get down. It's nothing close to the majesty that is the current landscape of K Pop, an oasis where American sensibilities of irony and individualism are completely absent, but its a step in the right direction as far as Swift's career is concerned and you can consider this hater to be won over. In the past, Swift's appropriative ways made me seethe, a reaction I can attribute to the fact that she embodied all the hypocrisy, ignorance, capitalistic greed, and oppressive elements of Pop, all the while insisting upon herself as something holier than thou. 1989 is like a coming out party for Swift's obvious part in the machine. Sure, the "Shake It Off" video borders on racial parody, showcasing Swift's seemingly defiant insistence that African American culture can be tried on like a Halloween costume, placing an entire race on the same plane as cowboys and pirates, all for the benefit of Taylor's dress up game. But all's fair in pop and I find myself more offended by the song's snooze-worthy breakdown than Taylor Swift's Al Jolson antics. Once again, have you seen a Katy Perry video lately? By embracing pop and shedding her country nonsense, the inevitability of Swift's oppressive white privilege has a chance to drift away, another soul saved by worshipping at the alter of the most American art form there is.
Words: Nick Boyd