Friday, November 14, 2014 by Hunter Johns
When I was about three or four, my favorite album was NSYNC’s No Strings Attached. My parents would put it on and I’d dance like a fool, not yet fully aware of my surroundings or how people perceived me. There was something in NSYNC’s music that meant a lot to three-year-old me, something I don’t understand now and certainly didn’t understand then. But even though I don’t think the same way about NSYNC now as I did when I was younger, the very fact that I enjoyed their music so much is a link to my childhood, a way I can understand who I was then and who I am now.
Likewise, when Justin Timberlake (a member of NSYNC, in fact) made an album like The 20/20 Experience, it was a little nostalgic for me. While 20/20 was a testament to how far Timberlake has come as an artist and musician, it’s a quick glance back in time for me to my dance sessions in front of the stereo. It brings me back to a time we often idealize, before the world starts to carve its pieces out of you, but after you start to know the basics of life.
That experience, of listening to an artist you grew up with grow and change, is by no means unique. In fact, I think it’s one that’s shared between every person who has ever listened to music more than once. People of my parents age, or maybe a little older, would have been around for the full span of the Beatles career, from Hard Day’s Night right through John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Paul McCartney’s foray with Wings, and whatever it is Ringo does. People grew and changed as the members of the Beatles grew and changed, creating simultaneous life stories and bridges to the past. It’s true of any artist who maintains the public’s graces for any stretch of time, such as Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West, or any other one of a multitude of artists.
So does Taylor Swift, and her new album 1989, fall into the same category as those artists? To me, 1989 doesn’t do for her what 20/20 did for Timberlake, i.e. mark her as a dynamic artist, one who is unrecognizable from her younger self and yet nostalgically familiar. I don’t get the sense that Swift is doing something at all different from what she’s done in the past, albeit with somewhat updated production.
My biggest problem with 1989 is just how forgettable a large majority of the nineteen songs are. The first two tracks are the biggest standouts: “Welcome to New York” features an Eighties dance beat that sometimes clashes with Swift’s modern-sounding voice but is catchy at least, and “Blank Space” starts out like a YG song and turns into what I would have guessed was a Katy Perry song. The hit so far on the record is “Shake It Off”, which, after the vaguely Pharrell Williams-esque intro, becomes as nondescript as the rest of 1989. Swift even says the phrases “sick beat” and “hella good hair”; every time I listen to the song, I feel embarrassed for the both of us, for her because the best way she can describe someone’s hair is “hella good”, and for me because her label, Big Machine, thinks people my age still use either phrase seriously. Instead of sounding like someone born in 1989, as the title of the album suggests she is trying to do, she sounds more like she was manufactured by the Universal Music Group in the year 1989 for the entertainment of late-millennials everywhere.
In all her bluster about the ills of streaming services like Spotify and her attempt at “saving the CD,” Swift forgot to make an album worth listening to. After more than a few listens, 1989 produces less than a handful of quality pop songs, none of which deserve any more than a cursory play on Spotify (which you actually can’t do; Swift has removed her entire catalog from the service).
“1989” is not an album I’m going to remember in ten years and say, “Wow, I can’t believe how far I’ve come as a human being.” Then again, I’m sure someone said the same thing about No Strings Attached; maybe 1989 is some kid’s first record, and they cannot get over how good it is as they dance themselves silly to “Shake It Off.” That said, let’s see how they feel about 1989 in 2024.