Taylor Swift's '1989' Album: 10 Dream Collaborators From 1989
Here are the producers, songwriters and music video auteurs that could make T-Swift's next project truly feel like a blast from the past.
"I was listening to a lot of late 80's pop music," Taylor Swift explained to her audience on Monday's big announcement Livestream. "And how bold those songs were, and how that time period was a time of limitless possibilities." Swift was, of course, explaining the inspiration behind what she would soon reveal as her upcoming album: 1989, titled both after the year of Taylor's birth and said period of pop imagination.
1989 was certainly a year of bold songs and boundary-pushing. It was also the year of Milli Vanilli, Michael Damian and Mike and the Mechanics' "The Living Years," hopefully none of which Taylor Swift was listening to a ton of during the production of her fifth studio album. But more importantly, it was the year of Madonna's "Like a Prayer," Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814, Paula Abdul's "Forever Your Girl," and plenty of other landmark albums that a budding pop acolyte like Taylor would be wise to search out and learn from.
Of course, it's one thing to study the pop music of '89 like a textbook, and another to go out and actually work with some of the people who made that music possible. If Swift really wanted to create an album that feels like that "time of limitless possibilities," working with any of these 10 collaborators would be a good way to start. (Note: we tried to keep it at least slightly plausible, so apologies to the excluded Dust Brothers, Robert Smith and Prince Paul, all of whom could probably make incredible music with Swift in some alternate dimension.)
Everyone remembers Debbie Gibson as the irrepressibly peppy teenage singer of "Electric Youth" and "Shake Your Love," but she was much more than your average mall-pop mouthpiece. When Gibson went to No. 1 with "Foolish Beat" -- a classic breakup ballad that Swift would undoubtedly have been proud to call her own -- she became the youngest female artist ever to write, produce and perform a Hot 100 chart-topper all on her own, doing so at age 17. Gibson would be a natural collaborator with Swift, a fellow former teenage superstar, either as a co-producer, co-writer, or even a duet partner. Hearing the two trade verses on a "Beat"-like torch song would just be ridiculously thrilling for pop fans.
If Taylor wants to go big with her pop sound, it got no bigger 25 years ago than the glossy effervescence of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, the U.K. writer/producer trio behind the biggest '80s hits for the likes of Rick Astley ("Never Gonna Give You Up"), Kylie Minogue ("The Loco-Motion") and Bananarama ("Venus"). Their sound, which has practically become synonymous with late-'80s pop, was bursting at the seams with keys, bass and horns, all of which had been synthesized to sound like it was being played by the same instrument. It'd be a long trip from "Tim McGraw" to SAW, but you could bet they could make you forget all about Taylor's Nashville days within the first 10 seconds of their first song with her.
Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds
Before he became the premiere balladeer of the '90s, thanks to his work with Boyz II Men and Madonna as well as his own solo career, Babyface was one of the premiere writer/producers of the New Jack Swing era. He and L.A. Reid helped make stars out of Bobby Brown ("Every Little Step," "Don't Be Cruel"), Pebbles ("Girlfriend," "Giving You the Benefit") and Karyn White ("Secret Rendezvous," "The Way You Love Me") in the late '80s, with a zippy, pumped-up brand of R&B fusion. It's not Taylor's thing historically, but given the soulful strut of lead single "Shake It Off," it might be something she's not averse to delving into at this point of her career.
Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis
Of course, if Taylor is looking for a radio-ready late-'80s R&B sound, Jam & Lewis were basically the Max Martin and Shellback of their era. Aside from co-writing and producing the majority of Janet's Rhythm Nation 1814 -- including classic singles "Miss You Much," "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" and the title track -- Jam and Lewis penned smashes for George Michael, New Edition, Luther Vandross and a countless number of other artists from that era and others. Ballad or uptempo, there's really no telling what their dense, hard-hitting sound could do with Swift, and given the duo's ability to string hits well into the 21st century, they could do it without making it sound explicitly like a period piece, too.
Not all of Taylor's new songs have to be genre-benders, though. If she wants to go straight MOR with her ballads -- and for better or worse, 1989 was an absolute golden age for MOR -- Richard Marx, who had two Hot 100-toppers in that calendar year alone, would be a pretty good candidate to help out. Marx's ballads were big, obvious, and effective -- whether "Right Here Waiting" makes you want to sob, punch something or both probably depends on whatever adolescent memories you have associated with it--and he's gone on to a second career as a writer for others, penning 21st-century hits for 'N Sync ("This I Promise You") and Luther Vandross ("Dance With My Father"), proving his style translates across eras. Taylor's next "Back to December" isn't just gonna write itself, you know.
As much a lock as Marx might have had on MOR balladry in the late '80s, Warren dominated the pop song form for about two decades. She had some of her biggest successes in Swift's era of study -- Chicago's Warren-penned "Look Away" was actually Billboard's No. 1 song of the year in '89 -- but Warren wrote nine number-one hits between 1987 and 1999, many of which are still the go-to audio for when anyone things of the Big Pop Ballad. Her productivity slowed down some in the 21st century, but she was tapped by none other than Beyonce for 2011's "I Was Here." If Warren's still hot enough for the Queen Bey to come calling, it would behoove Taylor to get her number right quick as well.
If Taylor was looking for a little more "power" than "ballad," though, the balances might tip away from Warren and towards Desmond Child. In the late '80s, Child was the de facto producer for rockers looking to cross over, helping to break Bon Jovi to the masses on 1986's Slippery When Wet, then also putting in work for Joan Jett ("I Hate Myself for Loving You"), Aerosmith ("What It Takes") and Michael Bolton ("How Can We Be Lovers?") before decade's end. Child wrote songs with pop accessibility and rock hooks, the kind which Swift could absolutely destroy were she so inclined. (Robert "Mutt" Lange might also be a consideration here, though Taylor might not want to risk upsetting CMT Awards co-star Shania Twain by working with her super-producer ex.)
Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly
Steinberg and Kelly weren't the most visible or renowned songwriters of the '80s, but the duo wrote more of the decade's enduring hits than you probably realize, including Madonna's "Like a Virgin," Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," Heart's "Alone" and most relevantly to Swift's '89 project, the Bangles' "Eternal Flame." "Flame" would be a good model of song for Taylor--a big ballad with relatively little pomp and circumstance, just gorgeous harmonies, smart songwriting and an unforgettable melody. (For the record, Tom Kelly has since ceased songwriting, so Swift might be better off seeking out Steinberg with his new songwriting partner Josh Alexander, the pair of whom have penned 21st-century hits like JoJo's "Too Little Too Late" and Demi Lovato's "Give Your Heart a Break").
So far we've only listed songwriters and producers, but Taylor is gonna need someone to film videos for all these songs, right? (Unless she got legendary "Shake It Off" director Mark Romanek for a full-album deal, in which case, cool and never mind.) If so, Dominic Sena would be a good late-'80s option -- before moving to feature films like "Gone In 60 Seconds" and "Swordfish," Sena helmed videos for Richard Marx, Jody Watley and most importantly, Janet Jackson, including Jackson's accompanying Rhythm Nation 1814 film. Sena's videos helped redefine Jackson's career multiple times over, with some of the most inventive choreography seen on MTV at the time. Again, not Taylor's lane to date, but "Shake It Off" has us thinking maybe she's ready for the change.
But really, if you're talking blockbuster videos in the late '80s, you're talking one guy. Fincher would go on to Hollywood auteur status in the '90s and '00s, but first he was the original MTV wunderkind, basically redefining the medium's possibilities with his large-scale late-'80s work for Aerosmith ("Janie's Got a Gun"), Madonna ("Express Yourself") and Paula Abdul ("Straight Up"), among others. Fincher's vision and ambition barely fits within the constraints of 2010s music video, which is why the only call he's taken in the last eight years has been for JT and Jay Z, but if Taylor wants the best for her "first documented, official pop album," there really is no substitute for Fincher.