Taylor Swift's 1989 : Deep Retro-Pop Fun

Taylor Swift’s 1989 released in October of 2014, sold 1.27 million albums in its first week and debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. By the end of the year it had sold 3,660,000 copies, remaining at the top of the chart for most of that time.

The album remained at or near the top of the charts throughout the first half of 2015. Through this June it has sold a total of 4,950,000 copies sitting at #2 on the charts just behind James Taylor’s Before This World, which debuted at #1—his first #1 album.

Taylor Swift is named for James Taylor, so how great is that? How great is Taylor Swift’s album? For most of this time, while paying attention to the numbers, I’ve ignored the album of pop inspired by the music of Swift’s birth year, 1989.

Why? I just didn’t think it would appeal to me. Yet, Swift is a vinyl fan. As far back as 2010 she told Entertainment Weekly: ““The vinyl is really important to me because I’m so in love with the concept of an album – a collection of memories from your life that you’re giving to people. It’s a piece of you. Buying them on vinyl is just taking that one step further and acknowledging that albums are important.”

She even tours with a turntable! Swift recently took her music off of Spotify and more recently convinced Apple to pay royalties during its streaming roll-out saying “You don’t give out free iPhones, why should artists supply free music”? That girl’s got balls!

So finally, I bought the double LP set of thirteen tunes just to better understand the album’s “legs”. What is it about 1989 that has kept it for so long at or near the top of the charts? After all, it’s not DSOTM or some kind of elaborately produced “concept” album. It’s a retro-synth-pop album!

I didn’t expect to like it. I just wanted to understand it. It’s obviously not aimed at people my age. It’s for kids. But a funny thing happened: I can’t keep it off my turntable and during the almost twenty four hour trip to Bangkok (with a Tokyo layover) I played it repeatedly on my iPhone. When Taylor sings directly into your ears, you do tend to get “tingly” all over.

After all of the plays I understand its appeal and why it keeps selling. So in case you’re not familiar with the record, let me explain why you should buy a copy.

The concept was simple: produce a pop album inspired by the music and production typical of 1989—the year Taylor Swift was born, which would mean primitive programmed percussive beats, “old school” synth backing tracks, pulsating bass lines, chrome-sheened, icy vocal processing and all of the studio tricks that helped produce that era’s “sonic signature”.

Ironically, in 1987 NARM (The National Association of Recording Merchandisers) claimed in a letter to its constituents that “After October 30th, 1989 there will be no more vinyl pressed in the USA.”

The album opens with “Welcome to New York”— a “three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust” “Baba O’Riley” progression with a primitive synth rhythm track that will take you back to when MTV was happening. The hook is as infectious as the backing track that while familiar to “old folks” must sound new to young ears.

Swift sings about moving to New York and starts in Greenwich Village where:
“Everybody here was someone else before
And you can want who you want
Boys and boys and girls and girls”.

In that short lyric she’s talking to disaffected youth of all stripes, telling them there’s a way out. Imagine yourself that young listener carried away by the song’s exhilarating message. Swift is donating all of the single’s profits to the New York City Department of Education. Seriously.

Her voice is both pure-toned and powerful with not a hint of vibrato. There's little in the way of level modulation either. It's more on and off, ending with breathy exclamations reminiscent of Alanis Morissette's

“Blank Space” is like a diary entry:

“Saw you there and I thought oh my god
Look at that face, you look like my next mistake.”

She describes herself as “…a nightmare dressed like a daydream”.

The chord progression and especially the synth arrangement and pounding beat will for sure take older listeners back to the mid 1980’s “New Wave” era. It’s skillfully produced and performed. Ditto the side closer “Style”, which expresses a power couple feeling invincible. It can move young listeners forward while taking older ones back to a time when such things were not just important but essential.

Side two begins with “Out of the Woods”, which, with its minor key and ominous bass drone sounds to me reminiscent of vintage Peter Gabriel, though were he to write the lyrics it would be about escaping from a political kidnapping, whereas Swift’s is about mending a troubled relationship.

I’m not going to go through the entire album, but there’s really not bad song on it and most are multi-faceted and ridiculously catchy as well as being obscurely familiar without revealing their inspirations. If your system does deep bass you'll get plenty from this record.

What really seals the deal for me is the lack of cheap and tawdry posturing, which so pervades pop music today. Less so in 1989.There’s more than a little bit of Cyndi Lauper, Outkast, Madonna and FYC (Fine Young Cannibals) in the grooves of this record.

“How You Get the Girl”, which tells guys how to do just that is among the most interesting while “Shake It Off” is a most shallow dance-pop confection that is still great fun and contains musical and production elements that will awaken deep memories of The Cars, The Supremes and more recent ones of OutKast. It’s a message song about not letting the opinions of others get to you.

There are break-up songs, songs of regret, and there’s a song about the burdens of being in the public eye.

Swift herself sums it up best in a liner note to her adoring young fans:

“This is a story about coming into your own, and as a result….coming alive.”

There was a story not that long ago about how Joni Mitchell had nixed Taylor Swift playing her in a bio picture but that really wasn’t true. Mitchell had actually nixed the script. Now that I’ve gotten to know more about Swift through this album I think she’d be perfect playing Mitchell and I’ll tell you why: she’s clearly not shallow and not a vacuous pop-icon, though she’s playing one now because that’s what the times demand, much as Mitchell played the Laurel Canyon “hippie chick” in her early career because that was the cultural environment in which she found herself.

Once Mitchell had established herself in that milieu, she broke free of it to become a “jazzer”, taking her first steps on Court and Spark and then Hejira and beyond. Who would have guessed “the lady of the canyon” would end up collaborating with Charles Mingus?

I don’t think we’re yet seeing the real Taylor Swift. So if you’ve dismissed Swift to date, you might find this album appealing and interesting if you give it a chance. It even sounds good, within the constraints of synth-pop (though it does not sound nearly as good as what the late Martin Rushent managed with Human League or what Alex Sadkin did with The Thompson Twins). I think, though, that she’ll grow into something far more interesting and provocative, so I’m glad I bought into the album because it will be more satisfying watching her grow as an "insider".

The record is a collaborative production effort between Swift and producers Max Martin and Swedish producer/songwriter Karl Johan Schuster (better known as Shellback). Also involved were Jack Antonoff (Fun) and Ryan Tedder. Antonoff co-wrote and produced “Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would”.

The 180 vinyl issue is well-pressed though I’m not sure where, nor is anyone credited for lacquer cutting. The gatefold packaging is okay, though the artwork must make the Polaroid folks happy.

Superfuzz's picture

I like seeing you review all kinds of music, even stuff like this which ain't my cup of tea. It sure is catchy, that's for sure.
BTW, that lack of vibrato you hear in her voice is something called auto-tune. Not saying it's good or bad or otherwise, but auto-tune is all over this album.... "pure-toned" is not how I would describe it...

VirginVinyl's picture

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free

Steelhead's picture

Sorry, cannot agree with this one. I had this on my ipod and thought I was punked but it turned out that my wife ordered it. I could not delete it quick enough. Snobby critic pooh pooh, Naw, I bought Katy Perry (like teenage dream), Ariana Grande (kid has pipes), and Charli XCX because I liked her attitude, appeal, and a couple of songs. They are fine guilty pleasures.

Listen to Courtney Barnett for an interesting voice and intelligent lyrics.

Peace out and I do not deny Ms. Taylor her success but come on Mikey I think you got hit with jet lag.

Michael Fremer's picture
Nothing more. Some of the "analysis" you can find online is ridiculous!
Zardoz's picture

Is this available on 180 gram? The only one I have seen listed is on a 2 lp standard vinyl.
Courses for horses of course, so I can understand if some won't agree with your review, but I have gone back and forth about picking this up myself.
Thanks for being there Michael.
Good listening,

Michael Fremer's picture
I didn't weigh the records but they are definitely heavier and thicker than 120g....
Lofty's picture

The girl has an analog rig and Mickey falls head over heels for her. Cute.

Toptip's picture

She has a different type of rig too. And legs.

Michael Fremer's picture
When Taylor commands "Right here, right now", I put on a dog collar, barked at the speakers and had an involuntary release of precious fluids.
jags79's picture

Chris Squire passed away. Yes Yessongs. What a wonderful album!

Michael Fremer's picture
But I agree. Played my original "A" George Piros mastered pressing and sounded great...
MrRom92's picture

The EU pressing and U.S. pressing feature different artwork, and were cut/pressed in different facilities. Although I highly doubt that either was cut from anything more than the 24/41.1 they have available as a master, as we all know the cutting chains and engineer can have a big influence on the end result. I would have liked to have seen you do a shootout between the two pressings - the curiosity kept me from buying the vinyl when it was released, although i think at this point I personally would just stick with the 24/44.1.

tube dog's picture

you were running a high fever or you were delirious or you were abducted by aliens before you wrote this review. Stay thirsty my friends.

thxphotog's picture

..the CD for my 12 year-old daughter and we immediately listened to it on an hour-long drive. Honestly I looked forward to being alone with it so I could crank it up louder than my daughter would tolerate! Guilty!

AlanWK's picture

So Taylor likes vinyl...now you know what Mr. Young meant by "fashion statement".

elliotdrum's picture

When I owned a record store I was always careful to not judge people for what they liked and didn't like.
But.....I sentence Mike Fremer to listen to Aretha Franklin
on CD (especially the Atlantic sides) everyday for the rest
of your life.
Good Luck!!!!

Michael Fremer's picture
I'll stick to the vinyl if we can negotiate that...
Paul Robertson's picture

I was the same as Mike, never giving this or any Taylor S a shot. But what an interesting read this review was. It's got me thinking I may have to get the vinyl for my wife (she's got the CD), and say I was just thinking of her ;-)

Borbarad's picture

Well, I just had to register after I've seen this review on your page,

Normally I'm just a passive reader fooling your page and videos. My setup is rather simple (Transrotor Fatbob TMD, Quintet Black..)... but hey ;-)

Anyway 1989 is definitely not as good as my fav Genesis Seconds Out or the Callas Carmen pressing based on the new remasters which I'm listening quite lot, but and its a big but...1989 is brilliant. I think it's probably one the best Pop albums of the last 15 years. I've even been to her Cologne concert and I'm getting a lot of stick from my colleagues for admitting of listening to Taylor Swift.

So, yes 1989 is great and I think it's just the beginning. But where did you get the 180 pressing - in Europe I've seen so far on the net is only the 120 pressing available.

I also like RED and there is a also a vinyl available but you cannot get one copy in Europe.


chervokas's picture

"I’ll tell you why: she’s clearly not shallow and not a vacuous pop-icon, though she’s playing one now because that’s what the times demand, much as Mitchell played the Laurel Canyon “hippie chick” in her early career because that was the cultural environment in which she found herself."

I wonder if you've let yourself be a little bamboozled by some kind of association on this point....I don't think Swift has EVER played the shallow, vacuous pop-icon. She's always been the smart, sharp eyed lyricist capable of great emotional insight, and excellent storytelling who never really pandered to pop tart sales cliches (if anything this album is more of a turn in that direction than anything previously in her career). I mean, this is a woman who had a publishing contract at 14 and could write a line like "you made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter"-- that compresses on entire emotional biography of a song's character into a single line of beautifully balanced construction. To me 1989 has been kind of a step back for her. It's not bad, but it doesn't have the stylistic range or emotional reach of, say, her previous album Red, which remains, I think, her best work.

Michael Fremer's picture
That reaches us older folk is as I described her accurate or otherwise but I take seriously what your write and will get "Red".
Michael T's picture

I'm surprised to hear that your pressing has no inscriptions! I purchased mine on the street date (about three months after the CD) from Amazon. It clearly has the "RJ" (Ray Janos) inscription along with the Sterling Sound stamp. It also has the "U" inside of a circle indicating a United Record Pressing product (actually sounds great for a URP - they have stepped it up!). I also weighed it with my stylus gauge and it's approximately 150gms.
The music is great! I am 46 (not in the demographic either) and play it frequently. The sound quality is excellent, especially for a modern pop release. It doesn't have the usual compression/limiting which drives me nuts. There is plenty of tight, deep bass, and it sounds great across all frequencies. As a matter of fact, local speaker designer Gary Koh of Genesis Loudspeakers recently played it on vinyl for an audiophile crowd to showcase his $200k Dragon speakers before shipping them out!

Michael Fremer's picture
A Sterling stamp on mine or a circled U but I'll double check...
littlebird's picture

I´m new to this forum after decades of following Mr. Fremer articles in Stereophile. :-)
I notice that sometimes here it is not clear if the vinyl version is superior (or why) to the CD release of some albums, such as the one reviewed here. Please take a look at this:
As you can see, the CD is dynamically compressed trash when compared to the vinyl release.
I think that website is one of the most useful tool for the discerning buyer nowdays. It clearly shows that most CDs nowdays are mastered with heavy compression in order to give a false (and soon fatiguing) perception of power. As that is not a perceived need with vinyl, their mastering is usually done with far less dynamic compression.
As you can see, that website is collaborative work in progress where anybody can provide their measurements obtained with some easy to find tools. I think all this info could be useful to round up Mr. Fremer´s excellent reviews.

BillK's picture

My experience with 1989 was quite strange… or perhaps not.

I initially obtained it on CD, and found it to be an OK pop record - compressed, not very exciting aurally, and in general just sort of nice background music.

But on a whim I purchased it on vinyl, and… quite the difference. Fuller range, Taylor is placed in a soundstage and it's just very musically satisfying in comparison.

I readily admit to being a fan of Taylor's in the first place, but to me the vinyl made the album much more enjoyable to listen to as opposed to just sort of being "there."

Kudos to whomever pressed it as well; it was reasonably quiet and sounded very high quality, where a vinyl copy of her older album "Speak Now" was on par with most of the mass-produced product coming from labels in the mid-1980s - a little noisy and not very satisfying.

littlebird's picture

Billk: If you read my previous post and go to the linked website, you can check that the vinyl edition of this record has far better dynamics than the heavily compressed CD version. The mastering is completely different. That is not really a proof of superiority of the vinyl format against the CD format. I strongly believe the all-analogue option the best by far, but it's a shame that most mastering engineers today are simply killing the music in their CD masterings.

uphoria6's picture

Hi Mike,
glad you reviewed this one. Taylor Swift is definitely the real deal. 1989 isn't even her best record. To my ears that would be Red. It is the kind of record where the "filler" actually adds to the hits. "Holy Ground" is pop perfection...

BBGForever's picture

I rather sniffly bought this on CD, as requested, for my 8 year old daughter last Christmas. I've since bought both 1989 and Red for myself on vinyl. One of the great things about getting older is that you begin to care less about what's perceived as cool & I am happy to tell anyone that this is a great pop record. She also gets my vote for calling out Apple and making them shit a brick.

Great in-depth review in an age when such things are hard to come by.

fstanke's picture

Is this album free of digital links in its production?