Back in November 2017, Billboard celebrated Taylor Swift's singular pop catalog in the days leading up to the release of her sixth LP, Reputation, by asking five writers to argue for one of her first five studio albums as her best. Here, Richard S. He made the case for 2014's 1989, Swift's fifth album, and her most successful pop crossover to date.
By Taylor Swift's fifth album, her coming-of-age stories had already been told. When you're in your mid-twenties, once you've survived first love and heartbreak, all you're left with is yourself. 1989 captures the feeling of having grown into your adult self, when all that's left to do is announce it to the world.
With her singles from 2012's Red, Taylor Swift had already made the unequivocal leap to pop radio. But two years later, with 1989, Swift set out to record her "first documented, official pop album" -- and that distinction made all the difference. The essence of Swift's songwriting, her effortless ability to vocalize the listener's intimate emotions, is still intact. But 1989 pushes everything further: Using fewer words, Swift embraces more adventurous melodies, moods, production.
Country music is about storytelling, but being a pop star means embodying the art through your image, videos, and everything you stand for. So even without any overt country songs, 1989 is the definitive Taylor Swift album. If Red was the turning point of her career, 1989 is the culmination.
"Welcome to New York," the album's opening track, reaches past Taylor's earliest role models (Carly Simon, James Taylor, Shania Twain) to Bruce Springsteen. On 1984's Born in the U.S.A., The Boss -- another lifelong singer-songwriter -- moved past traditional guitar-rock, embracing pop without compromise. "Welcome to New York," like "Born in the U.S.A.," opens its album with unapologetically glossy synths, the sound of a clean break from the past.
And like Born in the U.S.A., 1989 had seven singles (counting Target-exclusive bonus track and fan favorite "New Romantics"), each of which couldn't be more different from the last. Six were collaborations with modern pop maestro Max Martin, who's worked with every star imaginable. But Swift is one of the rare few who's a confident enough songwriter to push him to new heights.
"Shake It Off" hides its genius in plain sight. Every second is an individual, overlapping hook -- vocal melodies, horns, drum rhythms -- all amounting to one giant earworm. It's an astonishingly complex composition, a puzzle where you can't imagine all the pieces fitting, until they suddenly fall into place. Using only three chords, Swift takes us on a journey from anxiety ("Got nothing in my brain! That's what people say!") to self-acceptance. It's life as a pop song: the constant stream of hooks can seem overwhelming, until you learn to embrace the chaos.
But "Bad Blood" turns the tables -- you don't have to shake it off. It’s both diss track and affectionate parody, where the joke is how closely it resembles a Katy Perry song, down to Taylor’s spot-on Katy imitation in the verses. And if you thought Taylor-pop was totally serious, there's "Blank Space." In the video, her first of several collaborations with director Joseph Kahn, Swift embraces her media image -- the hysterical maneater, who breaks up with boyfriends to write songs about them. She mocks herself, as well as the gossip industry for perpetuating her image and us for buying into it, only to reveal the ultimate truth: we all live for drama. “Blank Space” is one of the best songs ever written about pop, a master class in fame as performance art -- and the foundation for each of Reputation’s four singles so far.
Fourth single “Style” showcases Swift’s songwriting at its purest. She snarls her way through brooding verses -- a midnight drive on a dark road -- until suddenly, the song blooms into a glorious, sun-drenched, hair-blowing-in-the-wind chorus. With the simplest major/minor shift, she evokes worlds of emotion. And in an era where traditional pop bridges have, in fact, gone out of style, Swift digs further into them. “Take me home!” she belts. Is it meant to be optimistic or terrifying? Three years later, we still don’t know. The song's lost highway never ends.
These aren’t pure love songs, like “You Belong with Me” or “Love Story." 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. On “Out of the Woods," a chaotic, Jack Antonoff-shepherded pop symphony worthy of Brian Wilson, she narrates a love that was doomed from the start -- and learns to regret nothing, even the near-death experience ("Remember when you hit the brakes too soon/ 20 stitches in a hospital room?") that brought about the relationship's end. It all culminates in the Imogen Heap collaboration “Clean”: the Taylor ballad to end all Taylor ballads, in which she finally lets loose the tears she’s been holding back the entire album, and forges a new beginning.
With 1989, Taylor Swift moved beyond love songs. The album spoke to a generation of millennials living through uncertain times, looking for stability as young adults. Taylor’s songs offer no easy answers, but endless emotional generosity.
True blockbuster albums only come along a few times a decade. They’re not just about hit singles -- they redefine the cultural zeitgeist. 1989 wasn’t driven by nostalgia, but channeled the spirit of the late ‘80s to breathe new life into 2014 pop. Taylor’s cited influences -- Madonna, Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel – didn’t just chase trends, they were auteurs. They made pop music at the highest level, which felt completely unexpected yet instantly familiar at the same time.
1989’s had an unusually long cultural afterlife. It grew so big it broke her previous ritual: a new album in October/November every two years. She was just 24 when 1989 came out -- now she’s 27, and Reputation comes out this Friday. Like Michael Jackson following Thriller with Bad, the stakes seem impossibly high. But regardless of how Reputation’s received, we're still talking about its predecessor, living through its songs. Empty hype and marketing are soon forgotten. You can’t manufacture the kind of attention Taylor Swift commands -- you can only earn it.
The LP became Taylor's third straight to sell over a million copies in its opening frame -- a near-impossibility in the post-CD era -- notching the best first-week numbers by any artist since Eminem over a decade earlier. In total, the set spawned three Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits and was eventually certified 6x Platinum, making 1989 the kind of commercial behemoth that served as its own throwback to the late-'80s pop period Swift had tried so hard to evoke. But in 2014, her fans already knew she was an all-timer. 1989 just confirmed it for everyone else.