It never goes out of style.
Credit: Republic Records
Of all of Taylor Swift's albums, “1989” is the one that seems to have truly defined her career. It made her a darling with the general public beyond her fans and the critics. It’s the album that gave us hits like “Shake it Off,” “Blank Space”, and “Bad Blood”.
Nine years after its original release, Swift breathes new life into the record with “1989 (Taylor’s Version)”, complete with five brand new Vault tracks.
1989’s predecessor, "Red”, epitomized diaristic specificity. It magnified the most intimate details of Swift’s romantic experiences, turning them into public expressions. The media surrounding "Red" characterized Swift as overly attached, boy-crazy, and vindictive. "1989" originally stood as Swift's response to the critical, often sexist, media coverage she had received. On this album, Swift sheds her naivete, adopts an unruffled indifference, and learns to navigate a world that undervalued her songwriting while chastising her for her dating life.
Pop music aims to express the inexpressible in ways that masquerade as simple. In a way, “1989” is Swift's most impersonal album to date. She sacrifices aspects of her signature confessional style in favor of catchy melodies, fewer words, and ambiance. Still, the essence of Swift’s appeal, her ability to express her listeners’ most profound and personal emotions, is undistilled. This more mature and intricate perspective on life, coupled with its unmistakable themes, bestows upon "1989" a unique identity that sets it apart from Swift's previous music. This distinction becomes apparent even before listening to any of the songs. It’s the story of a complex young woman navigating the big city, exploring her freedom, making mistakes, and ultimately emerging unscathed. The album also introduced a distinct visual theme closely associated with New York City and polaroid photos. To this day, these elements continue to remind me of the "1989" era, so to speak.
The album opener, “Welcome to New York,” establishes the city as the great love of Swift’s life. “The lights are so bright, but they never blind me,” she sings over Ryan Tedder’s synthpop production. The song sets the tone for the rest of the album; if country music is about telling a story for the sake of relatability, then being a pop star is embracing the aspirational and leaning into the performance of it all. From the beginning, “1989” situates itself as an album to be watched. With its 80’s synth and layered vocals, the production can only be described as cinematic. (Plus, “boys and boys and girls and girls” did more for the LGBTQ community than You Need To Calm Down could ever dream of.)
Although traces of fairy-tale love and enduring heartbreak still linger, there's a noticeable shift in Swift's perspective from idealistic fantasies to harsh realities. The narrative evolves from portraying herself solely as a victim to acknowledging personal responsibility for the outcomes of her relationships. In “Style”, she sings “I said ‘I’ve been there, too, a few times”, alluding to an on-and-off relationship with implied infidelity from both sides. Following on the theme of self-awareness, “Blank Space” remains a standout track, and the closest thing to pop perfection on “1989 (Taylor’s Version)”.
With lyrics like “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they'll tell you I'm insane”, Swift makes it clear that she is hyper aware of her “serial dater” reputation, and satirizes the media’s ridiculous portrayal of her love life.
Even the more dreamy tracks like “This Love” and “Wildest Dreams” are not purely love songs; They’re just as much about the messy, internal feelings around relationships. “Wildest Dreams” is Swift at her fatalist best, foreseeing the end of a romance before it even begins. “This Love” takes a mature and subdued approach to the subject, exploring themes of longing and reconciliation. Swift embraces the chaos completely on “Out of the Woods”. Jack Antonoff’s influence on the track is pervasive, with its anthemic, cacophonous background and larger-than-life production. In what is arguably her most scream-sing-worthy bridge, Swift belts out, “Remember when you hit the brakes too soon/ Twenty stitches in a hospital room.”
The melodrama culminates in “Clean”. Bittersweet lyrics like “Ten months sober, I must admit/ Just because you’re clean don’t mean you miss it” and “You’re still all over me like I wine stained dress I can’t wear anymore,” showcase Swift's lyricism at its best, in a signature Taylor Swift ballad. The song focuses on the process of healing rather than the raw emotions of the breakup itself, marking a departure from some of Swift's earlier breakup songs. “Clean” features ethereal electronic sounds, intricate vocal layering, and a hazy quality that reflects Imogen Heap's influence.
Of course, we can’t talk about “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” without talking about the Vault tracks. "Slut!", co-written by Swift, Jack Antonoff, and Patrik Berger, surprised listeners by deviating from the satirical and tongue-in-cheek style of "Blank Space" that fans anticipated. Instead, it's a dreamlike, nebulous track in which Swift transcends the criticisms, singing, ““But if I’m all dressed up/they might as well be looking at us/and if they call me a ‘Slut!’/you know it might be worth it for once.”
"Say Don't Go," co-written with Diane Warren, is a classic Taylor Swift breakup anthem. The song delves into the aftermath of a relationship's end and has a sound that can be likened to a fusion of two tracks from the original "1989" album, "Clean" and "All You Had to Do Was Stay." Meanwhile, the emotionally resonant narrative of 'Suburban Legends' harks back to Swift's previous eras, drawing on her penchant for vivid details. It references images like incompatible zodiac signs, high school reunions, and a 1950s gymnasium, reminiscent of the storytelling found in her earlier work. “Now That We Don’t Talk” is perhaps the most “1989” of the vault tracks. It not only sparkles with '80s influences but also showcases Swift's versatile, dulcet vocals at their best. Plus, it contains, in my opinion, one of Swift’s funniest lyrics to date: "Now that we don't talk / I don’t have to pretend I like acid rock."
Credit: Beth Garrabrant
The standout among the five tracks is undoubtedly "Is It Over Now?". With lines like "When you lost control/red blood/white snow," it appears to be a continuation of the story initially introduced in "Out of the Woods." This time, Swift, assertive as ever, has much more to express. The song boasts one of Swift's most infectious choruses and is poised to quickly become a fan favorite.
Yet, it goes beyond catchiness, exemplifying Swift's storytelling skill by encapsulating the essence of the original "1989" and seamlessly threading it through its reimagined counterpart.
"1989 (Taylor’s Version)" is an album so remarkably consistent, any song could be a single. Despite having numerous producers, each with their distinct style and musical direction, the record remains cohesive in its sound. Every song feels like it belongs. The vault tracks bring depth and vibrancy to the work, creating a tapestry of narratives and emotions that resonate with the sounds and themes explored in the original album. "1989 (Taylor’s Version)" is not only a step toward complete ownership of Swift’s catalog, but also a celebration of the pivotal moment when she unequivocally claimed her identity within the pop landscape.
Vrithi Takkalapalli is a second-year biochemistry and English major, and an online writer for Rowdy Magazine. She loves Thai tea, the NYT crossword, and all things pop culture.