Taylor Swift: The Peppiest Pop Star We Have Right Now

Oct 31, 2014

Taylor Swift's fifth album is called 1989, the year she was born. For the past few years, she's been the young queen of country music, by far its biggest-selling artist. But 1989 sidesteps country music entirely to become Swift's first pure pop album. Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Taylor Swift's new album - her fifth - is called "1989" which is the year she was born. For the past few years she's been the young queen of country music, by far its biggest selling artist, but "1989" side-steps country music entirely to become Swift's first pure pop album.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW YOU GET THE GIRL")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Stand there like a ghost shaking from the rain. She'll open up the door and say, are you insane? Say, it's been a long six months and you were too afraid to tell her what you want. And that's how it works. That's how you get the girl.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: She began her career as country music's hardest-working ingenue, crafting sophisticated story songs that somehow managed to convince listeners of her innocence and heartache. She became a superstar on the strength of albums filled with elaborate metaphors for the heartache her choruses assured us would never break her down. Now Taylor Swift arrives as a fully-formed pop star with songs inflicting and transcending the heartache any mature adult is capable of and the key to her success this time out is one of the best tricks a pop music artist can pull off - songs that nod fondly at youth while yielding the pleasures of adult artistry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF THE WOODS")

SWIFT: (Singing) Looking at it now, it all seems so simple, we were lying on your couch. I remember when you took a Polaroid of us then discovered the rest of the world is black and white but we were in screaming color. And I remember thinking, are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of woods yet? Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods? Are we in the clear yet?

TUCKER: That's "Out Of The Woods," one of the lush melodramas Swift has assembled with collaborators such as Max Martin and the Swedish songwriter known as Shellback. Swift still teases her fans with little details that may or may not refer to romantic autobiography, but she's mindful that if you want to make hits that last longer than the time it takes to hit the refresh key on your browser, you don't do it by setting your day planner to music. Nope - you do it with melodies that build something new atop previous styles and with vocals that convince listeners that they can and should sing along, preferably at the top of their lungs. She develops all of this with witty efficiency, on a song such as "Style."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STYLE")

SWIFT: (Singing) Midnight you come and pick me up. No headlights. Long drive could end in burning flames or paradise. Fade into view oh, it's been a while since I have even heard from you. Heard from you. I should just tell you to leave 'cause I know exactly where it leads, but I watch us go 'round and 'round each time. You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye and I got the red lip classic thing that you like and when we go crashing down we come back every time 'cause we never go out of style. We never go out of style.

TUCKER: With its callback to James Dean as a style icon and its musical paradox - a disco beat that is downright languid - "Style" could have been just a bit of callow piffle. But it's on a song like this that Swift's technique really takes hold. She writes one syllable for each beat in the chorus. That has the effect of nailing the rhythm down tightly. At the same time, the melody soars like something Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder might have cooked up during the decade before Swift was born. On "Style" and on a song such as "Blank Space" she's making big ballads that aren't inflated with gassy sentimentality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLANK SPACE")

SWIFT: (Singing) New money, suit and tie I can read you like a magazine. Ain't it funny rumors lie and I know you heard about me. So hey, let's be friends, I'm dying to see how this one ends. Grab your passport and my hand. I can make the bad guys good for a weekend. So it's going to be forever or it's going to go down in flames. You can tell me when it's over if the high was worth the pain. Got a long list of ex-lovers, they'll tell you I'm insane 'cause you know I love the players and you love the game. 'Cause we're young and we're reckless...

TUCKER: The danger for Taylor Swift was never that she'd go off the rails and start snorting or twerking, but rather the opposite - that she'd become a chilly, shut-down control freak. Instead, she's writing vigorous material free of irony, songs that are intricately clever, music that has pep. In fact, despite "1989's" goal to establish her as a proper grown-up, what I like most about it is the music's reminder that Taylor Swift is the peppiest pop star we have right now.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Taylor Swift's new album, "1989."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE IT OFF")

SWIFT: (Singing) I stay out too late, got nothing in my brain. That's what people say. That's what people say. I go on too many dates, but I can't make them stay, at least that's what people say. That's what people say but I keep cruising, can't stop won't stop moving, it's like I got this music...

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