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THOUGHTS ON POP MAGIC
Taylor's 1989 Is a Cure for What Ails Us

Here’s a familiar artist trajectory: Chafing at producer-driven, synthetic pop, singer/songwriter embraces “real instruments,” traditional forms and live sounds—the better to give voice to her “authentic” self.

Leave it to Taylor Swift to go the other way with it.

Of course, Tay may have been Nashville’s biggest star, but like Wonder Woman, she ruled their world without being of it.

It’s pretty clear that the ’80s dance-pop she sang into a hairbrush to as a wee thing is the ideal vehicle for where girlfriend is at now. But do not mistake its high gloss for disposability; Taylor’s aptitude for hitting the emotional mark is undimmed. 1989 is a knockout.

It’s a fairly unremitting assault of madly ingratiating hooks and (in her own phrase) “sick beats,” with her voice vaulting over drum-machine pulses and vintage-synth beds.  Lead single “Shake It Off,” the playfully seductive next single, “Blank Space,” the beguiling “Style,” the winsome “Welcome to New York,” the percolating “I Wish You Would,” the saucy “Bad Blood” and—Jesus, you need the whole track listing? It’s freakin’ wall to wall.

It’s scarcely a bombshell that she’s penned another batch of canny, catchy songs—even hipster musicians who only listen to The Beatles in mono have long acknowledged that Tay’s Kung Fu is strong.

What’s startling to me is that she re-envisions the sonic universe once ruled by Madonna, Pat Benatar, Janet Jackson, Roxette and, I dunno, T’Pau and finds such contemporary bliss—much the way Quentin Tarantino can transform the tropes of drive-in shoot-em-ups and Shaolin battles into something urgently, boisterously now.

Yeah, I just compared TS to QT. Deal.

My “critical assessment” of the album doesn’t matter much, even to me. But goose bumps don’t lie. Pop music at its absolute best is a tonic for shitty times, a bright, ear-pleasing refuge from the bad-news feed and its attendant toxic commentary.

Zooming down the freeway and into the jittery arms of another deadline day, blasting the new Taylor Swift record, I—an ostensibly jaded, arguably male trade-magazine hack of a certain age—felt something. If I’m not mistaken, that’s what it’s all about.

A few years before Swift was born, Thomas Dolby bristled at critics who argued that synthesizers have no soul. The soul doesn’t come from the instrument, he declared. It comes from the musician.

And if you think Moogs and drum machines can’t be bent to the emotional imperatives of Taylor Swift’s songs as authentically as banjos and mandolins, I have four words for you.

Welcome to New York.

 

 

 

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