Taylor Swift’s 1989 reminds me of 2014, the year of its release, which is to say that it reminds me of Tinder. That’s when the dating app, founded two years earlier, settled into ultra-popularity: It was logging 1 billion “swipes” a day as singles smudged their thumbs over pictures of strangers, judging and being judged. Tinder turned the classic, nervous thrill of the dating experience into a game, one that millions of people could play at once. Then, with uncanny timing, Swift released an album all about fun and flaky romance, helping listeners bounce along to their next potential rejection.
The enduring success of Swift’s fifth album—now out as a rerecorded Taylor’s Version—makes it easy to forget how perfectly it fit a particular cultural moment. Marketed as her full turn from country to “official pop,” it incorporated the synthetic sounds of her titular birth year and the tried-and-true melodic tricks of the producers Max Martin and Shellback. With 12.3 million units sold and three Hot 100 No. 1 hits (“Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and “Bad Blood”), it remains her most popular release, and its rerecorded version just gave Swift the biggest streaming day for any artist in Spotify history. But the album’s incredible reach has also undercut its reputation as art: Many critics think of 1989 as lovable but generic.
The truth is that the album is underrated in its specificity. Swift’s earlier albums approached romance from an adolescent vantage, telling of storybook heights and crushing lows; a lot of her songs were about realizing that Prince Charming had exploited her. Then came 1989, with a fresh sound and point of view, aligned with a broader generational adventure. She sang about flirtations of equals, about being a fine fish in a teeming sea—and, in doing so, helped push pop forward as a storytelling medium.
The two opening songs captured the giddiness of moving to a new city, walking into a hot party, or downloading Tinder around the same time as every other single. The idealism of “Welcome to New York,” grating as its monotonous melody was, set up the song’s complex, saucy foil, “Blank Space,” which cast a satirical eye over a pool of potential mates. That song’s tough backbeat and warm chorus—“So it’s gonna be forever / Or it’s gonna go down in flames”—conveyed determination to explore in spite of inevitable disappointment and, for Swift in particular, disapproval. According to the liner notes of the 1989 rerelease, Swift wanted to defy people who judged her for “dating like a normal young woman.”
Of course, most normal young women don’t kiss Kennedys and boy-banders. But Swift always knew how to connect her own weird life to the zeitgeist. Dating is intrinsically a maddening exercise—but in 2014, it really was evolving, mainstreaming all sorts of sociological lingo. Everyone was ghosting (breaking up by going quiet) and trying to DTR (define the relationship). Boundaries were becoming porous; the desire for commitment competed with the limitless first dates at one’s fingertips. Swift’s track “New Romantics” was like a manifesto for embracing the chaos: “We need love, but all we want is danger / We team up, then switch sides like a record changer.”
Switching, swiping, surfing uncertainty—these are complex maneuvers for hooky dance-pop to capture, but Swift had the songwriting chops to pull it off. The heart of 1989 lay in adrenaline-shot anthems such as “All You Had to Do Was Stay” and “How You Get the Girl,” both of which addressed an indecisive ex with a sigh of Your loss. On “I Wish You Would,” Swift herself was the side-switcher, singing in an uneven cadence over fidgety guitars. The album’s biggest emotional wallop came on “Out of the Woods,” whose spiraling chorus rendered he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not nervousness as being as powerful and serious as heartbreak itself.
Vulnerable as they were, these songs also radiated invincibility, or what Swift’s new liner notes describe as the “right kind of naïveté.” This chipper feeling made the album pop as much as the synth beats and explosive choruses did. The country, folk, and rock traditions that Swift previously drew upon aspired to a sense of timelessness, but she was now channeling influences that were synonymous with the term disposable. A better term might have been resilient: Touchstones such as Debbie Gibson’s “Only in My Dreams” and Madonna’s “Borderline” skip along the surface of heartbreak, telling the listener that love—including the love of life itself—is stronger than loss.
Pop titans of the early 2010s such as Katy Perry and Lady Gaga were also selling shots of motivation, though stridently and abstractly. In joining them, Swift didn’t abandon detail, narrative, or irony. Listen to how, even on the slick single “Style,” she was able to nestle in a scene of dialogue that was heavy with implied backstory (“He says, ‘What you heard is true, but I / Can’t stop thinking ’bout you and I’ / I said, ‘I’ve been there too a few times’”), whether drawn from real life or wholly fictional. The album fused the singer-songwriter archetype with that of the domineering diva, popularizing a model that today’s young stars take for granted.
1989 (Taylor’s Version) slightly breaks the youthful spell. The original album’s production had the bright artificiality of Candy Crush, but Swift and her current studio partner Christopher Rowe opt for a roomier, live-band sound in the rerecording. The snares on “Blank Space” sound like actual instruments, not beats arranged on a screen, which sort of undermines the song’s appeal as a cheeky homage to contemporary hip-hop. On the original “Shake It Off,” Swift came off like some funny cartoon version of herself, but on the new version, the illusion is pierced: Swift is just some mortal singing knowingly dippy lyrics from an echoing stage.
Then again, 1989 always conveyed a fantasy that had to end. Five bonus tracks, pulled “from the vault,” indicate the emotions Swift left off of the original document: sadness, burnout, a desperate hunger for stability. All are solid songs on their own, but they’re also samey, mid-tempo, and defeated in a way that most of 1989 wasn’t. On “Say Don’t Go,” getting ghosted hurts, badly: “Your silence has me screamin’, screamin’.” The provocative title of “‘Slut!’” belies a quiet, moving subversion of the original 1989’s restlessness: The lyrics describe just another fling, but the sound conveys an ache for comfy, lasting devotion.
Was Swift thinking about Tinder when writing this music, or am I bringing my own baggage to the relisten? Clues suggest that she was borrowing her normie friends’ phones: On the bonus track “Is It Over Now?” she glimpses an ex’s “profile” on a stranger’s face (a potential double entendre?) and exasperatedly references “300 awkward blind dates” (has Taylor Swift ever been on a blind date?). In any case, 1989 charmingly nailed a shared experience of dating as a marketplace. Even the malaise that lurks in the new version of the album is relatable: Being desired is fun, but eventually, one ceases to want to be a commodity.