Thursday, November 6, 2014

I Love Taylor Swift, But Her New Album Sounds Terrible and I Might Hate It

Posted By on Thu, Nov 6, 2014 at 3:21 AM

I tried it with my amazing-sounding fancy vintage headphones. Nope. - JAIME LEES
  • Jaime Lees
  • I tried it with my amazing-sounding fancy vintage headphones. Nope.

Taylor Swift and I go way back. She doesn't know this, but we've had a relationship since the beginning of 2007 when I caught the second half of "Teardrops on My Guitar" while flipping through radio stations one day in my car. The song sounded so good so immediately that I stopped the scan button to listen to the whole thing. I hummed the chorus for the next few hours, and when it wouldn't get out of my head, I gave in and looked up the artist. Taylor Swift, said the Internet. Never heard of her.

Because I'm a curious type, I called up my friend Kelly who is into country music and was like, "Who is this singer, Taylor Swift?" and she told me that Swift was some new teenage singer/songwriter who had been blowing up the country charts. I had no idea. Modern country isn't usually my thing, but the song kind of floated around in my head for the next few weeks. Then I poked around online and found some streams of other songs on that album including "Our Song" and "Should've Said No." Holy crap, they were good. Then I bought the album and was like, "Jesus Christ, all of these songs are so damn perfect. How is this person only sixteen years old? It must be some kind of trick."

Some time later I was home sick on a weekday and I happened to catch a Taylor Swift appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It was our first proper (stalker/stalkee) introduction. Before I saw this appearance, I assumed that she was just a generic blond country singer; I had no idea that she was so adorable and funny. She played a killer version of "Our Song" on a sparkly acoustic guitar, and in the interview portion she dissed her famous ex-boyfriend. On international TV! I was all, "Oh, burn! You go, girl!" And I think that's when I officially fell in love.

And suddenly, to my great surprise, I became a loud, obnoxious champion for this little country star. I'd tell anybody who would listen about how great her songs were and how much I was shocked by it myself. (This phenomenon later became so commonplace that it was referenced just a few days ago in a Saturday Night Live skit.) Most of my friends who liked modern country thought that she was a flash-in-the-pan obnoxious Nashville consumer product, but I had arguments against all that too.

I'd dug into her history and found out many impressive facts about her life, like how she was hired by Sony/ATV at age fourteen as a staff songwriter. And then she took her teenage self and managed to market the shit out of her product until she became one of the most successful, top-selling Grammy-winning performers in recent memory. (And so far, she's done it all without taking off her clothes.) So I decided that Taylor Swift was punk-fucking-rock and a badass feminist, actually, and I felt bad for any of my too-cool-for-school fellow music journalists who wouldn't give her a chance.

Soon after, she released her sophomore album, Fearless. I loved it. It showcased her amazing songwriting ability and stealthy lyrical trickery. It still sounded kind of country, but it embraced her exceptional ability to write a flat-out anthem. The best single off of that album, "You Belong With Me" zoomed up every music chart, and rightfully so. It was a modern day hat tip to characters like Duckie Dale from Pretty In Pink -- Swift cast herself as the geeky (yet secretly cool) outcast who had a crush on an unattainable. She embraced other styles and attitudes, too. For example, "White Horse" was a "More Than Words"-esque sing-along ballad, and while she still dabbled in dependable fairy-tale set-ups for her lyrical romances, none of it was too over the top or annoying. "You're Not Sorry" and "Forever and Always" showcased her often-criticized forever-jilted side, but the growth exposed in those songs was necessary to those following along with her story. Almost everything about the songs on that album was endearing, and none if it required any specialized musical tastes. It was pop. It was for everybody.

By the time Speak Now was released in 2010, I was a bona fide Swifty. I believed in this woman and was eager to hear whatever came next. At this point, any disparaging reviews that I read about her no longer focused on her being a former "country" act; they were all about her being young and female and how she wrote about her failed relationships. Even major outlets focused on these points more than necessary, and I read some of the most sexist mainstream coverage that I'd seen in a long while. (Which is saying something, really, since this type of thing is so common that it's considered the norm.)

Again, the songs contained enough skills to hush any naysayers. Yes, she was still dressed like a pretty, pretty princess on the album cover, but the tunes inside were phenomenal. Some of tracks took a few listens to grow on me, but I'd learned to expect that from Swift's ace-up-her-sleeve songwriting style. Songs like "Back to December" and "Dear John" struck me as overly sappy, and at first I thought "Mean" was juvenile, but now I love them all. On this album, Swift took the personal and made it universal. Yeah, she continued to slam her ex-boyfriends, but it was in a more broad, relatable way. The lyrics were storytelling, very visual. The title track begged for a cutesy slow-motion-hopping-into-a-convertible-and-speeding-away accompanying video. That never materialized, but the songs stood strong on their own. "The Story of Us" was fast and powerful, and I thought that "Better Than Revenge" was the best "fuck you" pop song I'd heard since Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around." (And that sly little "You deserve it" at 2:47 still gets me every time -- it adds so much extra dimension to that story with just those three words.)

And then came Red in 2012. It was her first truly grownup album, and for the most part it just slayed. It contained just a hint of country and instead embraced a very modern pop sound. It was fresh as hell, really, and prompted critics (including me) to declare Taylor Swift Just Took Her Pop Queen Throne. All Hail! Red felt like she'd finally narrowed everything down and found her own signature thing. It displayed her songwriting in the perfect way while still experimenting with different musical styles. Swift famously flirted with her dark side in the delicious "I Knew You Were Trouble," and she elegantly exploited the plight of privileged twentysomethings with "22." But it was "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and its "piston-powered cheerleader chant" chorus that took it to the next level. On the whole, these songs painted Swift as fully evolved, even if slightly personally confused. She had finally found her own, strong adult voice. (And she gave us pizza.)

So as you could guess, I was majorly pumped for the release of her latest album, 1989. I loved the first single, "Shake It Off," but thought it sounded bad when played from my crappy old iPhone. (These kids liked it, too.) And for the past month or so, I've been eagerly devouring all things Swift in the press. I've enjoyed reading tons of articles about how she was set to be the first platinum-selling artist of the year, how she removed her music from Spotify, and my favorite: Taylor Swift Sells White Noise In Canada. I'd also read that 1989 was advertised as being "Mastered for iTunes," but I had no problem with this because I love iTunes and use it daily without issue.

In anticipation of the release, I cleared away part of my schedule so that I'd have more time to dig into the new album. For real. I was ready for this album to be so amazingly great that I could give a copy to a non-fan and win them over. I was ready to tell the whole of the Swift-hating world to S my D all day.

So imagine my surprise when I first listened to Swift's 1989 and I freakin' hated it.

Continue to page two.

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