Can you remember what you were doing when Taylor Swift’s “1989” leaked?
I was about to run a half marathon. I’d beaten the hotel window’s sunrise to waking, and tying tattered Nikes on for dear life, in came a very important text from a friend. “1989,” the to-be latest in the T-Swift oeuvre I’d been so long anticipating, had found its way online three days prior its October 27th grand premiere. In ten minutes time I’d illegally downloaded the entire album to my iPhone, and not long thereafter, as the starting line’s gunshot reached for the heavens, I timidly pressed play and hit the ground running.
In that obscure moment, there was nothing that could have possibly benefited me more than having the sage words of Taylor Swift blasted into my temple. Not performance-enhancing drugs, a physician-prescribed leg band, or a special someone cheering me on from beyond the sidelines. That free-fall instant when my heels first left the pavement, I was inextricably caught in Taylor’s grasp. She’d gotten a hold of me, and whether it was gonna be forever or it was gonna go down in flames, it wouldn’t let up for an entire year.
But I wasn’t alone. The autumn-leaved fortnight to follow, “1989” achieved the highest US debut digits for an album since 2002. It went on to rank ubiquitously among the top of every laudable critic’s year-end list, and swiftly surpassed the sales count of any other musical effort of 2014. Most recently, “1989” spawned two soft rock cover albums: a full-length triumph from Ryan Adams, and a few jestful Velvet Underground-style Soundcloud renditions which Father John Misty, after being visited by Lou Reed in a dream, has since deleted.
Throughout the twelve Swift-dominated months leading here today, I committed more soul-searching than I’d imagined my 20-year-old self would ever need to. Probing the caverns of my navel-gazed depths, I resurfaced to find resolution in the music that was literally everywhere. The onslaught of “1989” would, had I the foresight to see it or not, form a nexus of revelation to carry me from Point A to Z and all around the course and back again. And all this healing from the latest bubblegum fare!
“Shake It Off” introduced itself to me on its date of release, during a stint while I was living in Stockholm, Sweden. A solid chunk of the record was bred in the overseas haven of Scandinavia: at Stockholm’s MXM Studios and Gothenburg’s Hideaway Studio, due to Swift’s having joined the ranks of Brit Spears and Katy Perry before her, as a carefully-constructed pop prefect in Swedish savant Max Martin’s school of Athens. Although she’d successfully dipped more than her baby toe in chart-topping waters with Martin and his cohort Shellback back in 2012 on “Red,” “1989” emerged as the 24-year-old’s breakthrough head-underwater tsunami onto pure radio-ready work; relinquished was the Nashville tween, and in her place had arrived a presence as potent as some “Like a Prayer” Madonna of the post-aughts.
In the scripture of Wikipedia, “1989” is classified as Swift’s “first documented official pop album.” There’s no way this could have been better put, for the album is an artifact extraterrestrials could unearth ages from now to listen to what ’2014’ once sounded like. It’s the first documented, but its earliest inklings may trace backward to prehistory. There’s a reason I couldn’t help but once declare to friends, storming through traffic lights on a wave of bliss with her new single’s serenade from my headphones, that I’d ‘heard “Shake It Off” on MDMA in another life.’
This uncertain era saw me inhabiting my mother’s basement, an arrangement I’d sought all possible avenues to avoid. But there I’d landed, and “1989” was working its way up the rollercoaster incline, its omnipresence one of the sole things preserving my sanity. I worked two jobs that winter, spending too much time staring wistfully out bus windows at falling snow, washing midnight dishes to the forlorn croon of FM radio, and looking for any semblance of love while grappling with demons weighing down my wings from taking flight. But band-aids don’t fix bullet holes, so as a means to ward off the hometown interim anxiety that can plague a mind so, I went for a lot of runs.
“All You Had to Do Was Stay”; “I Wish You Would”; “Bad Blood”; “I Know Places” — these empowering laments of spoiled relationships were the most cathartic soundtrack I could pray for. I’ll never forget leaving a colleague’s apartment, hungover out of sight and mind, wandering my way through a downpour to work the dreaded morning shift, and hearing “Clean,” like really hearing it, for the virgin time: Rain came pouring down / When I was drowning, that’s when I could finally breathe. Then there was “Out of the Woods,” of which fun. co-writer Jack Antonoff said: “Part of it reads like a diary, and parts of it read like something 100,000 people should be screaming all together.” There were a surplus of points I’d listen to the mechanical chorus’ confronting question, “Are we out of the woods yet? Are we in the clear yet?”, spin through my Rolodex of reverie and desire, and say to myself in response: Not yet, Taylor, but I’m getting there.
I was confiding in alcohol pretty frequently, aggressively desperate to connect with anyone on the same crumpled page as Tay and I. Another thing I did innumerably was get really drunk and attempt to court anyone in earshot towards my sect of fandom. “It is the best pop album that is going to be released during our lifetimes,” I can hear myself repeating in tipsy hyperbole. When I’ve tripped head over heels for an artwork, be it the underlooked five-hour arthouse flick or the latest iTunes #1, I childishly go out of my way to inflict a feeling of wrongness onto those who fail to feel the exact same. But even the most fortified of the players and the haters, after sufficient hours stuck with public radio, or with me, would exhale and admit that the self-professed rural Juliet of younger days had forced some crack upon their icy hearts.
“It’s just so relatable,” a mainstream-fearing chum of mine said in self-defence after owning up to occasionally taking to YouTube to relieve herself of earworm. Another companion, this one European, remarked that her music simply encapsulates the hormonal sentiments awoken by the ringing of the American high school bell. I wouldn’t disagree that Taylor Swift ostensibly equals American adolescence, but not because its resonance falls short. Haven’t all the lonely Starbucks lovers in the world, in one way or another, attended the romantic war zone that is American high school: either making out beneath its football bleachers, peering trapped behind the slits of hallway lockers, on TV screen sitcoms fetishizing the nuclear family, or in their wildest dreams?
Talking idols and icons this summer, as one always does, some dude asked me what T-Swift diehards — and by default myself — identify as. Lady Gaga has her Little Monsters, Justin his Beliebers. I was unaware of the faction who call themselves Swifties, but I still wasn’t precisely sure I belonged alongside them. I don’t fawn over everything the young luminary does, and I cannot say my stance on the dutiful popstar spectrum is, for all sakes, unabashedly pro-T. I’m less of an abiding admirer and, alternatively, more a spiritual disciple of Ms. Swift’s.
Like half a year after “Red” was released, the final nail constructing the coffin to bury Swift’s now-fossilized country image, the New York Times posited the U.S. of A.’s golden gal was experiencing a quarter-life crisis. In Wim Wenders’ 1984 film “Paris, Texas,” the protagonist disappears tracking down the plot of land where he believes his parents conceived him. “1989” might be a similarly-worn origin story: by tapping into the reigning aesthetics of her nativity, the sonic mosaic of baby Tay’s year zero, then perhaps she would be able to uncover the deep-down roots of her musical fate in the first place.
Taylor reflected on the late 80s as an age rife with “endless opportunities, endless possibilities, endless ways you could live your life.” But she understood all too well, as I soon came to too, that one must stare doe-eyed into the busted headlights to make sense of their current entrapment, make sense of their shattered fucking selves, if they ever truly want to break free. Littered with the devastation of heartbreak but also the vitality of rebirth, “1989” built Taylor into the skyscraper she’s become: topping off sales records, befriending the Kanye who once vaguely decrowned her at a teen awards show, shying from dating gossip whilst inviting virtually every celeb under the sun to join her sultry squad, and rising to become the highest-earning musician of the year — Taylor has collected a meagre $318 mil since the album dropped, reports Billboard.
It feels like every weekend a HOT NEW SINGLE transpires from the ether, narcotizes our ADD brains, and competes for the most-played chorus at the clubs that season before dropping dead: live fast, expire young. “1989” this is not. It could easily pass as a Best-Of record, because it’s made of the kind of hits that keep a disenchanted populace under spell, marathoning along their powerless pilgrimages. I should know from my year on its loop, from winter freeze to spring reawakening, when I climbed out from mom’s basement and got back to the big wide city where I belonged. If it’s an album that revels in the zeitgeist, it is just as readily endless. So here’s wishing you a happy first birthday “1989,” from one self-realized Swiftie to his sovereign, anticipating all the places you’ll shepherd me next.