The Swiftening, Part 5: 1989 (2014)… “Fast Five” sounds like a handjob

Before December of 2020, Jordan Holmes (comedian, author, podcaster) had never, intentionally, listened to a Taylor Swift song. Then began The Swiftening, where Jordan decided to review every Swift album in order. So far, he has covered Swift’s 2006 debut, 2008’s Fearless, 2010’s Speak Now, and 2012‘s Red, which we encourage you to check out if you haven’t already.


Just to follow up with everyone on the events that occurred in the United States on January 6th – I told ya’ll, shoulda made me Supreme Leader.

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1989 is Taylor Swift’s 5th studio album and I have some great news for you, Nathan Chapman was finally fired! Glad to see his fakeass country bullshit is outta here! 

Unfortunately, Taylor Swift, despite my strenuous recommendations (what year is it?), is still with the company. But who is Taylor Swift (the pretentious music reviewer might say)? 1989 is a new direction for her. Chapman’s firing means brand new music. Chapman was essentially Taylor Swift’s entire band. Go back through her albums and you’ll see that he’s given a writing/performing credit for almost every instrument, which may explain why they sounded bad, boring, and/or like farts. 

I’ll do my best to explain how happy this makes me, because you may be reading thinking, “Why is Jordan so… I just hate Jordan so much” and hey, I’m with ya, if it’s awful to interact this much with me via the written word, imagine how tragic it is to live inside the head that writes this. I’m not asking you to feel sympathy for me, I’m just saying before you judge me too harshly, remember I do this all the time, no matter what or where I am. Imagine being in the checkout line at a grocery store and all of a sudden your brain whispers in your ear, “Write 3,000 words about Taylor Swift”. And then you do it!

Torture.

What was I talking about?

Right, ok, Chapman sucks as a musician and a producer. Comparing the production on 1989 to her previous albums (notwithstanding the M&M/Shelly B produced nonsense on Red) should make it beyond clear how much Chapman sucks at producing.

I’ll explain more when we get to the songs, for now just know that on a well mixed album the central theme of the song is augmented by the complimentary themes weaving around it, sometimes for-goddam-tissimo, most of the time in the background. Think of a symphony orchestra, think of the conductor, the wild gesticulations and pointing and such are to signal sections to respect where they belong in the dynamic range. Sometimes the goddam violas gotta step up for once (I am anti-viola, violoncello or twos up to you, mate)! Chapman mixed everything at damn near the same dBs and it drove me insane. 

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The name of track 1 is “Welcome to New York” because Swift doesn’t live with you Tennessee backcountry hicks, she’s moved away like the carpetbagger she always was. She abandoned country music the way she abandoned Joe Jonas or whatever.

I read many of the contemporary reviews of 1989 and the consensus was between 4 and 5 stars and yet it won multiple “Album of the Year” accolades and several top such and such’s of the 2010s. This is why I have a patented two-ranking system. What the fuck is the point of making a 4.5 star rating if you’re giving it “Album of the Year”? Give it a 5 or just call it the goddam album of the year. Numbers are stupid. So are awards.

What struck me about these reviews is how little the reviewers seem to know about music. Take for instance, a quote about 1989 from this dumb bastard:

“But by making pop with almost no contemporary references, Ms. Swift is aiming somewhere even higher, a mode of timelessness that few true pop stars — aside from, say, Adele, who has a vocal gift that demands such an approach — even bother aspiring to. Everyone else striving to sound like now will have to shift gears once the now sound changes.”

(I realize relying on the NYT for the cutting edge of music reviews is ridiculous, but I’ve been mean to Swift a lot and now I would like to be mean to people who were nice to her, thank you.)

This is a dumb thing for Caramanica to say (He also called Macklemore “the first contextually post-black pop-star rapper“ what a dumbfuck!), for a lot of reasons, but mostly because by the time 1989 came out, contemporary references had released plenty of albums that 1989 cribbed from. “Welcome to New York” is notable only due to the production on Swift’s vocals. They did an excellent job contrasting her past and present career by giving the vocals a stadium echo, reminding you that she’s a star as you adjust to the unfamiliar synth combo. 

At the same time, there is nothing at all remarkable about her voice on this song and it’s a little disconcerting. I genuinely appreciated her voice on her earlier albums and this garbage is interchangeable. I resent that. This song is fine, but forgettable. It’s not an interesting example of the particular genre of music it cribs from. However, because the song was made by Taylor Swift, NYT writers say she has no contemporaries!

Some contemporaries Swift and co. were influenced by/stole sonic landscapes from for 1989, all of whom released albums within 1 to 3 years prior: Ladytron, Tegan and Sara, Chvrches, Au Revoir Simone, Charlie XCX, Gang Gang Dance, Holy Ghost! James Blake, The xx, Janelle Monae, etc, etc. 

To be clear, I’m not at all bothered by Swift doing that. “cribbing” is another way of saying “In conversation with other artists”. I like it in fact, I like it when people show me they listen to music! I fucking LOVE music! I am making fun of that asshole, because fuck him.

Anyways, the song is a banger except it eschews the one thing that elevates this type of music from “unlistenable” to “listenable” and that is the bassline. Of all, the bass is the most indispensable instrument. I will explain as we go along. 

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“Blank Space” Taylor’s second single off of 1989 reached #1 on the Billboard charts, knocking the first single from 1989, “Shake It Off”, out of the #1 spot. The first time any female/non-binary artist has done this in Billboard’s history.

What I find interesting about that is I don’t care.

The song was certified 8x Platinum by the RIAA in 2018 and I’m sure it’s probably gone up higher still since then. It won awards, it was named to tops-of-the-decade/century-lists; the song is almost universally beloved.

Now. Let me tell you why millions of people are insane.

First, if you’re about to say, “Jordan,” (I don’t know why so many of you are talking to these – I can’t actually hear you!) “Jordan,” you’ll say, “how can so many people be wrong and you be right” to which I reply, Trump got 80 million votes or whatever, so yea, millions of people can be wrong about literally everything, easily. 

Second, let’s talk about basslines. Once again, there isn’t one on “Blank Space” which automatically disqualifies it from being considered a good song. There’s a synth that plays in the fuckin’ bass clef, but fuck me if that’s the same. That is not to say music cannot be made without a bassline, what it means is that the song is Not Danceable. A band like The White Stripes can exist without a bass player because they do not make Music To Dance. M&M and Shelly B should know better, they make dance music professionally.

Pop music’s tinny bullshit cannot be redeemed without dancing.

What “Blank Space” is, is a car song. This song is meant for people to sing along and bounce around in the driver’s seat because if you were standing and tried to use your hips, you would instantly discover Taylor Swift actually sucks.

Easy example: Kings of Convenience is a Norwegian Folk Duo. They are like Simon and Garfunkel but somehow skinnier and they don’t hate each other. Even they(!) know that if you are going to make a song to dance to, it must include a bassline. This is what 99% of their songs sound like. But Erlend Oye also happens to be a DJ and producer under The Whitest Boy Alive – so fucking accurate, check below – so when he wanted to make a Norwegian Folk Duo Dance Pop song, he added the most rudimentary of basslines and crushed it. 

(Woof! Whitest Boy Alive Indeed!)

I saw Kings of Convenience in Detroit in a pool hall in 2004 and when they closed with “I’d Rather Dance With You” they just asked someone from the crowd (of which there were like 20) if they knew how to play a little bass. Someone with at best a passing familiarity jumped up and played the four notes necessary. In moments, the entire crowd was onstage, dancing. It was joyous. 

It was also hideous to watch (guess what type of audience a goddam Norwegian Folk Duo draws), but, deep down, dancing is not about beauty or rhythm, but a perfect expression of what happens when a bassline hits your ass. A good bassline bypasses your brain, your inhibitions, your everything, and goes directly to your ass. Dancing is expressing the pure joy of music. 

Look at these assholes! Even goddam Apples in Stereo knows how to put the bass down! And iTunes describes them thusly:

What I’m saying, Taylor, is grow an ass or go back to Country.


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“Style”, track 3, is making me think every review I read saying that 1989 is some sort of reference to 80s music was written by people who believe the ‘80s exists only on the “I Love The ______” series on VH1 or the “Remember The ____” on the Nostalgia channel or the “What’s Up With That Decade We Used To Live In Or Not, The End Is Nigh” show from my nightmares.

Want to reference ‘80s music without shitting the bed? Try Fred Falke

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are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet kill kill kill kill kill blood blood blood blood blood blood kill kill kill kill blood blood blood blood

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From Genius:

“All You Had To Do Was Stay” discusses a crumbling relationship that falls apart due to a lover’s indecision. It’s part of Swift’s famous “track five” pattern — through the years, her fans have pointed out her tendency to make the most emotional song on the album the fifth track.”

I didn’t notice her Track 5 pattern! Let’s take a walk down Track five-ory lane. Track 5 song titles up to this point:

“Cold As You”

“White Horse”

“Dear John”

“All Too Well”

“All You Had To Do Was Stay”

Ok, now I’m remembering. “Cold As You” was about how she was wronged and has always been a perfect person. “White Horse” was about how she was wronged and has always been a perfect person. “Dear John” is about how John Mayer wronged her, even though she has always been a perfect person. “All Too Well” was about how someone left her, even though she has always been a perfect person. 

Let’s see what “All You Had To Do Was Stay” is about: OH HEY, IT’S ABOUT HOW SOMEONE WRONGED HER EVEN THOUGH… you get my point.

When people say Swift writes emotional songs, what they’re really saying is that Swift acts as a perfect conduit for denial. Everything is not always someone else’s fault, but Swift does a good job of subtly telling you it’s ok to assume that you’re blameless and that self-reflection should always be about other people. She is bad for you.

As I go back through my previous Swiftenings, I realized that I have universally disliked her Track 5s to the point of downright ignoring them. 

Wow! I guess I have a Track 5 pattern, too!

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Whoa, “Shake It Off” spent 4 weeks at #1 and stayed on the chart for 50 consecutive weeks.

I must admit, this is absolutely Swift’s “Hey Ya!” moment, that type of crossover hit that everyone likes. I get it. I do. 

I bring up “Hey Ya!” because Outkast should sue. The drum line is identical. Like, identical identical. The song is constructed identically. Sure the lyrics are different, but, uh… not really? “Shake It Off” is white lady “Hey Ya” and that it spent more time on the charts than “Hey Ya!” makes me furious at all of you. 

This song is good, yes, in the same way “Blurred Lines” is good – they stole a historically great song to make it.

Also, dismiss your haters all you want, that’s awesome, self-care and all that, but that doesn’t make your haters wrong.

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“I Wish You Would”… ugh. 

Taylor Swift herself, from Genius (bold my own):

“This is another way I’ve written songs recently. This is a song I did with Jack Antonoff, and Jack is one of my friends and so were hanging out and he pulled out his phone and goes ‘I made this amazing track the other day. It’s so cool, I love these guitar sounds.’ And he played it for me and immediately I could hear this finished song in my head, and I just said ‘Please, please let me have that. Let me play with it, send it to me.’ And so he sent it to me and I was on tour and this was me playing the track on my laptop recording me singing the vocal into my phone and it ended up being a song called “I Wish You Would”, because Jack wrote back and said ‘I love that’.”

Jack Antonoff, of “I Wish You Would” said, “I love these guitar sounds.” 

It turns out this song was co-written by Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff… who should both be fired for their work on this album.

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Awww shit, “Bad Blood” is a diss track!

For COWARDS!

I guess Swiftheads have decided the song is a not not so subtle declaration of war against Katy Perry. According to Swift, Katy Perry hired some of her backup dancers out from under her, and also apparently dated John Mayer, too? What the fuck is wrong with these people?

Swift wrote an entire song about how they’re not friends anymore. Fine! But at no point does she name Katy Perry, even going so far as to not say it was her directly in interviews. Coward!

I was a comedian for the past decade, so let me give you just a little bit of wisdom learned from the road – brevity is the soul of… people in a random bar in central Indiana in 2012 not throwing things at you. 

Long song without naming names? Bad. 

“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex

Why? I made that bitch famous (Goddamn)

I made that bitch famous”

One line mentioning your name and then dismissing you, followed by a hook from Rihanna? Good.

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Track 9, “Wildest Dreams” has Swift misunderstanding the word “wildest”. 

“Say you’ll remember me

Standing in a nice dress

Staring at the sunset, babe

Red lips and rosy cheeks

Say you’ll see me again

Even if it’s just in your

Wildest dreams, ah-aah, haa (Ah-aah, haa)

Wildest dreams, ah-aah, haa”

THOSE ARE NOT EVEN MILDLY WILD DREAMS!

I’m not even making this something sexual, that would be an easy route, I’m just saying, none of my wildest dreams look at all like a motherfucking engagement photo.

What I’m saying is that my wildest dreams include that hippogriff from Harry Potter (the one where Gary Oldman does some of the best overacting of his career. Look at him ravenously devour that scenery!). 

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Folks, I like words. I like words almost as much as music, which, I would assume roundabout 15,000 words about five Taylor Swift albums established, is a lot.

Words, when used properly, are music. I’m currently rereading Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey (a book about an isolated sensitive academic-type surrounded by a family of belligerent, conservative, toxically male douchewads, what would I find relatable about that?!) and the only way to understand what Kesey is even talking about half the time is to realize the entire book is an honest-to-god prose opera. His formatting and point of view and damn near everything is only readable when you realize everyone is singing their part to each other, including the narrator. 

His words are beautiful, rhythmic, and strong.

Now, if you expect me to be some type of grammar nazi, or word-police, please know, I also love when people fuck around with words. On Money In The Way, 2 Chainz created the word “alligate” – contextually meaning “to move in the manner of an alligator” and I fucking love it. Does that make him a genius? Yes! “Alligate” should exist!

But when you use a word sincerely, then the word better mean what it means.

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“How You Get The Girl” reminded me of a lot of Synth-pop bands fronted by incredibly talented women. With that in mind, I am happy to give Swift a compliment. Unlike say, Chvrches or The xx, Swift delivers an album of vocally driven Synth-pop without the greatest weakness of those bands, the song where the dude who’s not supposed to be on mic needs to get on mic because he’s a creative contributor to this band, too, goddammit, and it’s no fun to always stay in the background so how about we do this song that I wrote for me to sing vocals on, ok? How about we do my fucking song. I’M A BIG BOY!

For instance, Chvrches has “Under The Tide”, The xx has “Fantasy”, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s have every song that’s not “Home”. It’s a common failing of this type of band. Swift does not have to deal with that weakness. 

On the other hand, “How You Get The Girl” is aurally no different from that one time that one kid did that song, “Friday” and the internet shit all over her because a teenage girl is an easier target than the rich overlords that created her – but then inexplicably I’ve seen a few hot takes recently trying to reclaim it as… not terrible? Shouldn’t humanity go extinct? But, like… REALLY extinct. 

This song sucks.

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Fuck me, Nathan Chapman was involved with the best track on 1989! Track 11, “This Love” is very good. 

I mean, obviously the lyrics are fucking awful, but I am not a white woman who writes assless songs, so who am I to judge? Put another way, I’m an asshole that reads books like Sometimes A Great Notion, so I’m gonna go ahead and say my lyrical tastes are not those she had in mind while writing. 

But the tone quality on the ethereal collection of “This Love”’s is fantastic. The angle and direction of sound is fantastic. The way the song is layered in the mix is damn near perfect. 

I hate it! I want to bitch! Fuck you, Nathan Chapman!

He very easily could’ve mixed this with the patented Phil “I Murdered Her” Spector wall of sound – I don’t even know if I would’ve disagreed had he – but instead he chose to stagger the layers and in so doing created a wonderful echo effect, almost as if she were singing in a cave (in a good way). Or like there were four or five Swifts in a choir (in a good way). 

“This Love” is a listenable song.

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In regards to “I Know Places” I would like you to refer to the Fox Hunting Wikipedia page.

“Social rituals are important to hunts, although many have fallen into disuse. One of the most notable was the act of blooding. This is a very old ceremony in which the master or huntsman would smear the blood of the fox or coyote onto the cheeks or forehead of a newly initiated hunt follower, often a young child. Another practice of some hunts was to cut off the tail (‘brush’), the feet (‘pads’) and the head (‘mask’) as trophies, with the carcass then thrown to the hounds. Both of these practices were widely abandoned during the nineteenth century, although isolated cases may still have occurred to the modern day.”

If I catch you, Taylor and whichever fuckboi celeb you’re with, just know…

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“Clean” is the last track on 1989, and when I first listened to it, something grabbed at the back of my neck. Just like her big hit, “Shake the fact that you stole this song Off”, Clean had a sound that nagged at me. 

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I suppose eventually we would get to the “it” conversation. You know how Music People in the Music Biz will say musical stuff like, “This kid’s got ‘it’” and then share their knowing Music People smiles? Generally, the term “it” refers to A Sound, with a capital A AND a goddam capital S. 

This Sound is most often applied to vocals. Some voices are so distinct and interesting and then one more attribute – think of how Karen O’s vocals are distinct and interesting and scratchy or how Tom Waits’ vocals are distinct and interesting and one more attribute that can only be described as “he makes Tom Waits-y” sounds with his voice and that’s pretty much the whole fucking point I’m making, isn’t it?

But The Sound can apply to any number of “sounds”. Herbie Hancock sounds like Herbie Hancock. Daft Punk sounds like Daft Punk. The Roots sound like anything they want to – but they always sound like The Roots.

The Sound is also not always necessarily a “good” thing. You can absolutely have “it” but indeed, it is that “it” what makes you destined for relative obscurity; the only people who will remember are those for whom “it” is better than… I don’t know… whatever reason other people have for listening to music, I guess. For instance, Boredoms have “it” but you won’t like the “it” they have because it’s not the “it” you are lookin for, and even if you like it, “it” can put you off sometimes.

One of those particular souls, I’ve always thought, who had “it” and that “it” is what kept them back, was Imogen Heap. 

That, and being on the Garden State soundtrack. Do you know how many careers that one soundtrack ruined? Do you realize motherfucking Scrubs ruined James Mercer’s brain with his at-the-time-popular-but-in-retrospect-garbage-movie? Let that be a lesson to all of us; if Zach Braff tells you he likes your music, run.

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“Clean” sounds like Imogen Heap, I was going to yell at all of you in triumph. Look in my eyes, see my love of music, and despair for your own, I was going to say. Somewhere within me lurks an abiding hatred of injustice, a need, nay, a calling, let no petty fault go uncorrected, I would’ve leered. 

Anyways, Imogen Heap wrote “Clean” so it makes perfect sense. It sounds like an Imogen Heap song, with the Imogen Heap turned down about 30%. Taylor Swift gets the benefit of Imogen Heap’s “it” without having to deal with the crippling effect of actually having “it” and I think that explains the Music Biz.

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And so we have reached the end of another album. Time for the big question: is 1989 listenable? 

Yes.

And No!

1989 is a good album… of other artists’ music choices that you could go look for but instead she’s famous so there you go. I’m reminded of something the fantastic comedian Emo Phillips said comparing watching standup comedy on TV to seeing standup comedy live, “It’s like incest. You’re putting convenience over quality.”

1989 is unlistenable.


Jordan Holmes is a Chicago comedian, author, podcaster, and one of the twenty best humans of all time. We love him very much. Every Monday & Friday, you can hear him on a new episode of Knowledge Fight, a podcast devoted to exposing the lies of Alex Jones. You can read (or listen) to his debut novel, The Quiet Part Loud, by going here.

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