Taylor Swift Aims For Pop's Throne

Aug 20, 2014
Originally published on August 20, 2014 5:48 pm

On Monday, Taylor Swift announced her new album, called 1989 after the year of her birth, during a live stream that began with her greeting fans from atop the Empire State Building. Available in October, 1989 will include "Shake It Off," the song whose video she also premiered during the event.

Swift's choice of settings revealed a lot. She settled into a deluxe New York domicile last spring, and her sound has migrated away from her old home of Nashville, and country music too. Following up on the shiny success of the crossover singles from her 2012 album, Red, Swift announced that 1989 will be her first "documented, official pop album." She also said that this will be her most "sonically cohesive" set of songs, inspired by the happily ambitious pop sounds of her birth year, when Madonna, De La Soul, Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown, Roxette and Debbie Gibson all had highly danceable hits.

Like her earlier pop forays, "Shake It Off" was produced by multiplatinum Swedes Max Martin and Shellback, who've also worked with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Pink, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, Maroon 5 — virtually every major charting artist right now, with some notable exceptions, like Rihanna and Beyonce. Synth-driven and hopped up on horns, with a cheerleader chant at the center that's both self-motivational and just a bit snotty, Swift's new song is built to hang around the radio for months. She's written a lyric, about her favorite subject of "haters" who criticize her very public leisure time and love life, that's characteristically both self-deprecating and impetuous. But it matters little in this song. The whole composition exists for that competition-crushing hook, a kiss-off, pep talk, dance step and nostalgia trip, melted into the ultimate musical Charms Blow Pop.

This is Swift in empire mode. She was already on her way with Red, which sold more in its first week than any other album in a decade, and took her beyond both country music (which she'd already arguably redefined) and the still-loyal fan base of girls whom her music had guided through pubescence. But Swift has always stood slightly outside the pantheon of female pop stars that have defined the early 2000s. She's exceptional, partly because she's rarely made music primarily for dancing — the foundation of the Top 40 — and partly because she's never traded in provocation, the stuff that grabs attention instead of earning it. Though she's had her share of (mild, manageable) scandal, Swift has never been comically crude the way Perry tends to be, or pugnacious like Pink, or overtly sexual like Nicki Minaj or Rihanna. She's stayed above the fray. But now she wants to claim pop's inherently troublemaking center.

"Shake It Off" is her bounce off the bleachers, her tryout for the cheerleading squad — much more so than her earlier work with Martin and Shellback, which retained her trademark just-us-girls vulnerability. Checking off the boxes, Swift puts her all into belting clichés ("I never miss a beat," "haters gonna hate"); she raps, though thankfully only for a moment; she lets the song's gigantic beat (which, in another cliché deployment, she declares "sick") direct her. She's having fun showing how she can be just like the other mega-selling girls. In fact, she can best them.

What Swift probably knows, and will just ride out, is that pop requires overstepping, and, it follows, a certain refusal to be either tasteful or sensitive. She surely intended the song and video's appropriations of multiracial styles — the nods to rap, the twerking, the phrase "sick beat" itself — to work as both a comical critique of other artists who've recently caught heat for alleged minstrel moves (ahem, Miley) and a jab at her own status as the queen of Stuff White People Like. But they jar, because they feel strategic and unintentionally unkind. When a joke is built around someone looking ridiculous doing something uncharacteristic, it's easy for the behavior, not the person doing it, to become the humor's target. Performing many different kinds of dances — ballet, breakdancing, the robot — in the video, Swift plays the inept Everywoman (as she has, often). But the fact is, she's not every woman, she is a particular woman who normally doesn't shake her booty the way a Fly Girl would, and who normally wouldn't use a phrase like "sick beat," and "Shake It Off" sets up those cultural crossings as pretty crazy. Swift's critique suggests she wants to have her pop and somehow stay above it, too.

Right now, as others have noted, Swift doing a dance like the Tootsie Roll is extra-risky, because so many white performers are using black styles as a bridge to everywhere — authenticity, erotic freedom, commercial success — while artists of color stand to the side or in the background. In 1989, the mood might have been lighter; in 2014, it often seems like pop itself runs on a devouring sense of privilege, a trash-all-barriers spirit of unquenchable arrogance. For Taylor Swift to tap into that spirit is truly something new. But she's still smarter than the average pop star, and 1989 itself may be more complicated than "Shake It Off." It will be interesting to see how this new Swift story shakes out.

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Over the last few years, you could make a pretty good argument that the biggest pop star in the world was actually a country star.

Taylor Swift is the last person to sell more than a million copies of an album in a single week. This - in a time when people supposedly aren't buying albums. This week Taylor Swift announced her new album. It's called "1989," for the year she was born. And she debuted a new song called "Shake It Off."


TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) 'Cause the player's gonna play, play, play, play, play. And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. Shake it off, shake it off.

MCEVERS: NPR's Music's pop critic Ann Powers is here to talk with me about the new album. Hey, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: I mean, it sounds like this song is already a pretty big deal. Where did you first hear it?

POWERS: I heard it exactly the way Taylor Swift wanted me to hear it; first, which was during an online event, a live stream sponsored by Yahoo and ABC. She debuted it online to millions of people. But then I got in my car - I had to drive somewhere - and immediately, I mean immediately, "Shake It Off" was on the radio. This song had a million views on YouTube almost instantly. It's already heading toward the Top 40. It's an instant hit.

MCEVERS: So what's the story behind this song, "Shake It Off"?

POWERS: Taylor Swift is, you know, the most commercially successful pop star. But, her music, as you mentioned in the introduction, is rooted in country - or was rooted in country music. Now - she stated during her live stream - she really wants to make just mainstream pop music. Here's Taylor, talking a little bit about what this album is going to sound like.


SWIFT: In my opinion, we made the most sonically cohesive album I've ever made. We made my favorite album I've ever made.


MCEVERS: When someone like Taylor Swift is trying to become a mainstream pop star, does she sound like every other mainstream pop star, or does she sound like Taylor Swift trying to do pop music?

POWERS: So the sound, honestly, is a lot like a Katy Perry song or a Beyonce song. It's produced by Max Martin and Shellback, who worked with her on her previous pop hits like "I Knew You Were Trouble."

And she does sound very much like what's on the Top 40 and what was on the Top 40 in 1989 - that's going to be the name of her new album. It was the year she was born and it was the year that artists like Paula Abdul and Madonna were having huge hits, and Janet Jackson, who's definitely someone she's looking to.


SWIFT: (Singing) But I keep cruising, can't stop won't stop moving. It's like I've got this music in my mind singing, it's gonna be all right.

POWERS: The sound of "Shake It Off" is multiracial. It's influenced by African-American music and you know, it has horns, it has - as she says in the song, a sick beat. She raps a little bit. But because it's Taylor Swift, the song "Shake It Off" is confessional; it's about how people have criticized her for dating too many guys.

So we have that in the song, along with that very, to my ears, kind of generic but really irresistible kind of cheerleader phrase, shake it off, which again, has been in pop at least since the 80s, back since Toni Basil did her song, "Mickey" - we all remember that one. We're going to hear Taylor roar, just like Katy Perry, and that's what she's doing in this song.

MCEVERS: That's Ann Powers, NPR Music pop critic. Thanks so much, Ann.

POWERS: Thank you.


SWIFT: (Singing) My ex-man brought his new girlfriend. She's like, oh, my God. But I'm just going to shake. And to the fella over there with the hella good hair, won't you come on over, baby, we can shake, shake, shake. Yeah. 'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play. And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.