Anyone interested in the craft of pop music would do well to study the new album 1989 by Taylor Swift. Packed with melodic, lyrical and instrumental hooks that you cannot help but remember even after the first listen, this most recent effort is the hallmark of today’s pop market.
1989 brings the intentional craft of manufactured pop-hit production to the level of perfection. The album displays excellent songwriting structure where verses, pre-choruses and choruses flow into each other with a refined balance between expected anticipation and refreshing surprise. It hits you in just that ever so sweet spot of memorability and fluff that drives hordes of frenzied teenagers to shows, screaming in anthemic delirium to be part of the shimmer that this music delivers in spades.
The concern with this incredibly well produced album is the lack of depth to it beyond its shimmer. Like a Cinderella fantasy, the lyrical content is built of stuff that dreams are made of: narration about the singer’s longing for, feeling jilted by or righteous indignation at, and occasional delight in encounters with, some elusive, ephemeral prince. Yet the narration seems empty, without heart or honest presence. Listening to the album is like looking at a piece of perfectly polished, transparent glass inside a calculated, pristine frame.
1989 is ultimately not art so much as it is a well-crafted product driven by a clever corporation whose goal is reach and profit. It is lacking in the human presence that would allow music lovers to truly engage with it. Within its slick environment, there is nothing to grab onto, no emotional conversation, no empathy, no point of connection.
Even Swift’s inclusion of raw song sketches in the album, that she says she creates on her phone to send to her producers, does not communicate the true vulnerable intention they seem to stage. We hear her out-of-tune voice stumble through a melody as she searches for a phrase. We hear guitar and piano chords plunked out as possible chordal progressions to support a new idea. We hear Taylor’s vocalizations of what seem like placeholder vowels that will eventually become words as she fleshes out a song.
But the apparent innocence of this effort is belied when Swift cutely explains in an audio segment on the record that she shares the state the song was in before she handed it off to the producer — who wrapped it up the following day. Like Cinderella who goes from rags to riches when she meets her fantasy prince, it seems as though these raw ideas are not only handed off to producers, but also delivered to a a keen troupe of songwriters who whip the sketch into shape to complete a finished, ready to market product in 24 hours. This suggests that either much of the musical value of the album is attributable to the highly skilled craft of her production and manufacturing team, or that the demo said to be presented to the producer was further along than showcased. Either way, it leaves us with the sense that the album is not connecting honestly through music to the listener.
In the face of such well-produced, yet insubstantial work, we have choices. We can decide that we don’t care about the lack of heart connection, and dance along to Shake It Off. We can feel angry that such music is part of a mega machine that supports and cultivates greed and wanting in consumers. Yet doing so actually co-creates with that machine and pulls us from our truer self – humble, loving and whole. We could also applaud Taylor Swift for being exactly where she is, without judgment, and commend the clear commitment she has to delivering what she feels is her best at this time.
We do not need to buy into any shimmer – or purchase albums based in that illusion. We can have compassion for those who have bought into the illusion that catchy hooks and millions in sales will bring happiness. We can see that we are not so different. We too so often look for something shiny outside ourselves to give us a sense of temporary happiness.
We have the choice as music consumers to support music that makes our souls sing. May we engage with music where we feel the heart of the performer, and witness in compassion and encouragement when musicians take the risk to come into humble presence with us – because when they do so, the true magic happens.