Artwork by Alllp via Deviantart (Under License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))
1989 was the album that pushed Taylor Swift from pop star to superstar, she wrote it to prove she could make a pop album. As a fan, I’ve always loved the messier, more sprawling sections of her discography—like the 22-track Deluxe Package version of Speak Now or the 19-track Red—because there was a generosity to it that felt precious. Swift’s music has often been likened to a diary. She told you everything, without pause or hesitation.
1989 stepped away from that, and I remember listening to it in 2014 feeling like there was nothing to grasp onto. But even then, her music was unavoidable. I still left the year knowing every word to ‘Blank Space’ and ‘Style’, her dress in the ‘Wildest Dreams’ music video, and every celebrity friend that showed up for ‘Bad Blood’. ‘Shake It Off’ was playing on every radio station. Taylor Swift herself was everywhere, in her fresh bob, in her Polaroids, and alongside her cats. Photos from her 1989 Secret Sessions popped up all over Tumblr and Twitter. She pulled her music from Spotify, moved to New York—cue ‘Welcome To New York’, although I still haven’t worked out what native New Yorkers think of the song—, and appeared in an Apple Music ad in which she ran on a treadmill and then tripped, face-down, onto the floor. She was loved as the ‘it’ girl and hated because she was one. Tabloids tracked her every move, so everyone else inadvertently did, too. 1989 was 2014. On 1989 (Taylor’s Version), she brings it to 2023.
There’s a lot on the original 1989 that I now think of as pop perfection. There’s a video by Vox on the anatomy of ‘Style’ that explains how expertly it hooks the listener. Even though 1989’s songs often sacrifice Swiftian storytelling for simpler lyrics—think of the repetition of “all you had to do was stay” in the song of the same name—that’s what makes them such good, earworm-inducing songs.
Swift is much older than me, so I’ve found that I’ve had to grow into her songs rather than alongside them. Adulthood has found me appreciating ‘I Wish You Would’ more, and loving ‘Clean’, although I’d liked them before. 1989 gives the impression that it would have stood the test of time had it been released years earlier than it was, or even today. It does what it sets out to do, and it does it well. So well, in fact, that when she announced her plan to re-record all her albums back in 2019 after her masters were sold off without her consent, I found myself thinking that I certainly didn’t envy Swift— obviously because of the stolen masters, but also because of how intimidating re-recording 1989 would probably be. Every moment on the original 1989 feels so distilled, calculated, and clean cut. It was difficult to imagine her having another ‘Blank Space’ or ‘Shake It Off’ hidden away in the same way that Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’s ‘Mr. Perfectly Fine’ felt like a potential 2008 hit, sister to ‘You Belong With Me’. For a lot of casual listeners, it’s the album they recall first.
1989 (Taylor’s Version) seeks to replicate the source material more closely than other re-recordings, but it doesn’t always succeed. A few things on the album are notably different. The beloved pen click on ‘Blank Space’ sounds less like a satisfied ballpoint and more like an instrument in a studio that remembered it had that space to fill. The guitar has changed on ‘Style’. A synth has appeared on ‘New Romantics’ that doesn’t quite fit the track. On ‘Out Of The Woods’, the shout of “Good!” at 2:22 is barely decipherable. ‘Bad Blood’’s intro vocals feel faded into the background, and although it makes up for it with more forceful percussion and Swift’s matured voice, she hits (or doesn’t hit?) a flat note at 0:50. On ‘Shake It Off’, it’s hard to figure out what’s absent; she sounds like she’s no longer truly invested in the act of shaking it off, as if in the time between 2014 and 2023 she’s finally succeeded in doing so for good— although maybe she has. This album release does, after all, come right after her mind-bogglingly successful Eras tour.
I’m struck by how far away Swift’s voice is on some of these tracks. It’s almost like she’s singing to you in an empty bathroom, but also through a blanket. An empty bathroom isn’t always bad, and I myself have enjoyed an ‘All Too Well in an empty bathroom’ video on YouTube, but there’s a crispness and closeness that’s been lost in this re-recording.
There are, however, songs that are better and clearer, like ‘How You Get The Girl’ and ‘This Love’. I love the expansiveness of ‘Wildest Dreams’ and Swift’s gorgeous, fuller lower register, while ‘All You Had To Do Was Stay’ and ‘Wonderland’ remain as catchy as ever. There’s also nothing that will ever take away the brilliance of the bridge from ‘Out Of The Woods’. And even though the “I-I-I-I”s on ‘I Know Places’ sound overproduced, I love how she’s preserved the yearning and desperation throughout the song.
Swift’s always been best at expressing exactly how she feels, the exact colour of a moment, the timbre of heartbreak. I’ve found myself saying so many times that “she just gets it.” On ‘Slut!’, the colours flamingo pink, aquamarine, and tangerine frame the first verse. And later, I love the very Swiftian ”Everyone wants him, that was my crime/The wrong place at the right time”; ordinary lines that might’ve become as catchy as ‘All you had to do was stay’ back in 2014. Yet I do wonder whether she could have taken it further than beginning and ending with the line “drunk in love”; Swift’s best songs have always had a story arc to them, a follow-through from brakes to stitches in a hospital room, a journey from dancing round the refrigerator light to keeping a red scarf in a drawer.
‘Say Don’t Go’ sounds like a fuller version of the CD-exclusive ‘You’re Losing Me’. The chorus itself seems like something that might’ve made it onto the original record, but it’s difficult to imagine the empty silence in between the words of the pre-chorus (“Say/ don’t / go”) would have made it to the final drafting board— although maybe that’s why it’s ‘From The Vault’ and why Swift has chosen to release it now. I think that what makes the Vault feel unconvincing is the production, which takes after her tenth studio album Midnights, especially ‘Now That We Don’t Talk’ or ‘Suburban Legends’. The choice is too obvious not to be intentional, and perhaps Swift chose to do this to make 1989 (Taylor’s Version) match her current sound, as if she’s saying that she’s still the same Taylor Swift, regardless of the era she’s in.
The Vault shines most in its last song, ‘Is It Over Now?’ which is as scathing and detailed as the Swift from the eras preceding the original 1989, complete with a signature Taylor Swift bridge à la ‘Out Of The Woods’ or ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’, while still sealed with a Midnights-esque synth and production that calls back (or forwards?) to ‘Labyrinth’. Through the Vault, she’s let us into her diary again; she’s let go of the cold perfection that she demanded of herself while making 1989.
Only time will tell us if the Vault songs will stay as timeless as their original counterparts, but maybe that doesn’t matter. I know I’ll love 1989 for the rest of my life, because it’s some of the best pop I’ve ever heard, and because there’s something perennial about Swift herself. She tells, and we listen. Her name is Taylor, and she was born in 1989. You know that, and so do I.
Edited by Lucy Blackmur and Akane Hayashi, Music Editors