During the fall of 2014 the leaves in New York City were changing, and so was Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift released “Welcome to New York” five days before my 20th birthday and almost two months after I had moved to New York City. I had a physical copy of the Target Deluxe Version of “1989” on preorder and eagerly awaited the release of her new album on October 27th. As soon as “Welcome to New York” hit the Internet I was listening to it at my internship – partly for research, partly for enjoyment. Not even halfway through the song, I realized I hated it. It was not the Taylor Swift I had grown up listening to while riding the bus home from school in sixth grade, despite being about a city that she and I had both moved to and fell head over heels in love with.
Then the album dropped. I had to wait over a week to get it in the mail and strongly contemplated walking to the Target in Harlem to buy it…again…just so I could finally have my hands on it. I decided against doing so and waited like a true fan does. I lived with three equally as obsessed fans and we were all waiting to discuss the album together. Then I finally received the package with the Polaroid picture on the front and the numbers “1989” written across it in thick, black sharpie.
Taylor Swift had changed and she embraced it in this album. I had changed too and it wasn’t until I left the city that I realized that. My initial reservations about the synth-pop approach and style of the album washed away as soon as I realized the cohesive production of the album stood for something more than music. It was about accepting and living through the complexities of life rather than attempting to simplify or nullify them.
You’re not a true New Yorker until you wear headphones on your morning commute to work while simultaneously avoiding eye contact and rereading the same boring advertisements located next to the blinking subway map. “1989” became more than just my commute music: it became my soundtrack to the following two months of my life. Songs like “Style” and “Wildest Dreams” transformed from meticulously constructed chords and synthetics to earworms that stood for a moment in time. Welcome to New York: for the time I visited the Statue of Liberty, Clean: what my friend listened to on repeat after the day she and her boyfriend broke up, and Out of the Woods: for the days I would walk in step to the beat of the song on my way to work while pretending I wasn’t dying in my heels.
Each song on the album captures a specific feeling or event as many well-written songs do. The beauty of “1989” though, is its ability to discuss themes that span further than and are more relatable than just love and relationships. Of course that type of material appears on the record in the form of songs like “I Know Places” and “I Wish You Would.” Despite the fact that love is supposed to be one of the most relatable themes in music, for the first time Taylor Swift pushes back at this theme rather than embracing it. When gauging the age range of Taylor Swift fans, is it fair to conclude that all of them have known and felt love? No. Is it fair to say that they’ve all known and experienced change? Certainly. Rather than employing love to one specific person, she applies it to a moment, a feeling, an instance. Love moves from being this unspoken bond between two people to being something felt for friends, a city, and a point in life. While this isn’t a new concept by any means, it’s the first time listeners can see and hear this shift in her music. Instead of romanticizing the themes her music once revolved around, she begins to define the people and feelings in her life in new terms.
Lyrics like “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane” or “10 months older, I won’t give in, now that I’m clean I’m never gonna risk it” from “Blank Space” and “Clean,” respectively, exemplify how she is in charge of her own narrative. In previous albums her words were strung along in a necessary connection to the people around her, as if she needed them to make her music connect to the public. With “1989” though, Taylor Swift acknowledges that as the people she surrounds herself with changes, so does she. The album acts as a profession of this change between her fans, friends, and her home.
Taylor Swift may not be the curly-haired teenager in cowboy boots strumming an acoustic guitar that I once heard through my headphones in middle school, but she’s something much greater. She’s different and she’s evolved with the years and embraced it rather than fought it. In doing so, she’s showing herself and others that while she may not have everything figured out, it’s almost better that way.
All Photography by Emily Houston