1989, Taylor Swift’s lauded new synth-driven reverie, is not the sort of album one can quickly dismiss. And this is why I set aside all of the weekend to dismiss it. You may not have this sort of time to disburse on comprehensive loathing for on-trend popstrels refigured by the orthodox rock press as “important”. As such, I have prepared a range of objections to Swift’s music, Swift’s persona and Swift’s uncritical critics for your easy use.
But, if you don’t even have time for a crib, here’s a spoiler: they all suck.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about a record that exhumes and then robs from the corpses of the very best of ’80s pop is that, at times, I quite like it. My fondness, however, is down to incorrigible nostalgia for an extreme youth scored by Ultravox whose grandiosity rings in the record’s second single Out of the Woods. It is down to a hard hint of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, such as that in Welcome to New York, provoked by the impenitently cheap emotion of what may as well be a Roland Juno. It is down to my precious childhood memory, heard throughout the album but at highest volume in New Romantics, of the greatest pop duo to ever plug into a power board, the Pet Shop Boys.
Of course, none of this deluded longing for a Cold War childhood lasts much longer than two bars. The instant Swift begins to sing, as she has for the last eight years, of a largely unexamined heartbreak, I am very fucking glad I was raised in an era whose pop lyrics so often presaged the shadow of a nuclear winter. What it was to be a tween when even Duran Duran stopped to occasionally address the end times! Abyss was it in that pop dawn to be alive. But to be young was very Hades.
Of course, 40-somethings who are affronted by the theft of their dismal Euro-disco are not Swift’s target audience and she, and her expensive Swedish producers, are not obliged to please our memories by being entirely depressing. It is pointless and it is pompous to rail against the appropriation that has always powered pop and even though it might be nice if Swift tried, even just for a verse, to cease making us guess if it was a Jonas Brother or a One Direction singer who let her down so bad, it doesn’t really interest me. What does interest me, though, is how her enthusiastic young audience receives these vintage sounds of doom bound up with modern pep.
God. I am not saying it was Better in My Day. Not all of the pop texts of the ’80s were marvellously complex; see Too Shy by Kajagoogoo. And, even if we’re talking thrilling female pop personae, I don’t think there is a great argument to be made, despite Camille Paglia’s famous efforts, that Madonna gave much more to her Wannabes than lessons in fashion-forward consumption. I thought Madonna was a dick at the time and I still do.
However, every now and again, I do find myself agreeing with the unreasonable Paglia who chided Swift for “blandness and self-deprecation” cultivated from within a white, middle-class “airless ghetto”. While it’s true that Paglia resents and misunderstands all girl stars who came after Madonna — and nowhere is this better seen than her terrible misreading of the momentarily fantastic Lady Gaga — it is also true that Swift gives us a contrivance that is hitherto unmatched in its nothing. Paglia gets it right, as she does so rarely. This woman doesn’t breathe in her airless ghetto. She doesn’t even recycle old oxygen. She just gives us perky gasps of absolute zero and we collect them in the deep-freeze of meaning.
1989 is not whimsical nostalgia so much as it is the cryogenic coffin of history. This is where the past goes to die and the future is doomed in ice. Taylor Swift, a Hitchcock blonde and a Sandra Dee surfer girl and a catwalk model and a country bumpkin, takes all the cultural conversation from the past, both in her person and her music, and freezes it into a solid lump. She rips a bit of Cold War doom from its cultural moorings and weds it to some artless lovelorn country lyrics and couture and famous boyfriends and critics do not understand it. Chiefly because there is nothing but a solid lump of airless, freeze-dried lack to understand. And so, they review it very seriously and The Sydney Morning Herald gets all relativist on us and mentions it reverently alongside the noise-rock of Thurston Moore.
I am no particular fan of Moore and I think his band Sonic Youth were to Can as my own backside is to Swift’s. Probably, he deserves to be consigned to the same dirty freezer as Swift. But, at least the guy is working in a tradition that hasn’t lost sight of its place in the past and so refuses to kill the future. Whereas Swift, for all her apparently prodigious talents, gives us a breathless, detached lump of ice produced in an airless incubator.
This is not to say she can’t write songs. This is not to say she has not been previously selling mildly reheated stories of heartbreak as a kind of tasty Girl Power to young women who easily mistake low-calorie snacks for the meat of feminism. It is, however, to say that the flavour of history has begun to drain out of the most successful pop moments and has been almost entirely supplanted by ice, ice baby.
This is cold. This is nothing. Worse, this is nothing preserved. If the Pet Shop Boys, from whom Swift borrows so lavishly, were pop’s Gilbert and George, she is its Damien Hirst.