The 1989 Era
It is important to contextualize just how big “1989” was at the time it was released. It sold 1.28 million copies in the US during the first week of release and debuted atop the Billboard 200. This made Taylor the first act to have three albums sell more than one million copies in their opening release week, for which she earned a Guinness World Record. A week before “1989” was released there was a glitch on iTunes Canada where a Taylor track labeled “Track 3” with just eight seconds of static was accidentally made available. It shot to the top of the chart within minutes. “Shake It Off”, “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” are all No. 1 hits. When “Blank Space” replaced “Shake It Off” at No. 1 on the Hot 100, Taylor became the first woman in music history to ever replace herself at the top spot. In 2014, she was named Billboard’s “Woman of the Year”, becoming the first artist to win the award twice. Also that year, she received the “Dick Clark Award for Excellence” at the American Music Awards.
Evidently, the “1989” era was a phenomenon. As Taylor was moving to New York on her own and hanging out with all her girlfriends, her music reflected those changes. Very few albums have been as unifying from generation to generation, as this one was. It was even compared to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” simply because there was something in there for everyone.
BECOMING A TRUE POP STAR
Taylor was devastated when “RED” (2012) did not win the Grammy for “Album of the Year” a few months prior in January 2014. However, it really made her listen to the criticisms of that record, those being first and foremost that it wasn’t a comprehensive body of work. So Taylor’s stated objective for “1989” was to create a sonically cohesive album and to fully commit to a pop sound. The night of the 2014 Grammys, Taylor went home, cried and went to bed. She recalled:
“I woke up at 4 in the morning, and I was like: ‘It’s called 1989. I’ve been making ’80s synth pop, I’m just gonna do that. I’m calling it a pop record. I’m not listening to anyone at my label. I’m starting tomorrow.'” — Taylor Swift
1989 is Taylor’s birth year. In all of her interviews leading up to the release of “1989” she talked about rebirth. She was essentially telling people, “I am being reborn as a pop star”. On the album, she sets the scene with “Welcome to New York.” That song works like an intro to a play: Here she was, in New York, in a new apartment. She was immersing herself in the culture of the Great American City that she was always afraid of and said she’d never move to.
When announcing the album, Taylor mentioned she had been listening to a lot of music from the 80s decade. Wanting to place “1989” within a context, the general public largely assumed that the album was going to be heavily 80s influenced. In reality, it is not. Rather, Taylor was going for something completely contextless. The New York Times wrote in a piece called “Fairwell to Twang”: “By making pop with almost no contemporary references, Miss Swift is aiming somewhere even higher, emotive timelessness that few true pop stars even bother aspiring to.”
TAKING BACK THE NARRATIVE FOR THE FIRST TIME
“Blank Space” is the biggest song on “1989” and arguably the biggest one Taylor has ever had. It spent seven weeks at No. 1 (“Shake It Off” did four). Upon release it put the internet into a frenzy because in the song Taylor takes every sexist caricature that she’d ever been made into and she spins it into her own delight. Instead of continuing to fight against the media caricature of her as a “serial dater”, she grabbed it, made a parody out of it and came out the other end by showing how silly it was if you actually believed everything you read in the tabloids. The music video that showed her as her “crazy” self the media painted her out to be is also one of the most important in her career. She took something that was hurtful to her and turned it into a really fun experience for herself. She filmed the video at a giant mansion in the Hamptons, she wears 21 different outfits, there are horses and a deer, and she gets to take a golf club to a vintage car among many other highlights. In 2021, the video has nearly 3 billion views on YouTube and has won a bunch of awards, including “Best Female Video” at the 2015 VMAs.
1989 SECRET SESSIONS
Taylor started having secret listening parties ahead of an album’s release with “1989”. The “1989 Secret Sessions” were held at her different homes in Los Angeles, New York, Rhode Island, Nashville as well as a hotel suite in London. They played a huge role in the virality of the record: all of a sudden, there were YouTube videos of fans getting on a bus, not knowing where they were going. Taylor had hand picked them from the corners of the internet (mostly Tumblr) and brought them into her actual homes. Posting videos of 89 people dancing to “Shake It Off” showed all of the marketing and business genius that Taylor has as well as the close 1:1 connection she has with her fans. Bringing them into her living room was an unbelievable sign of faith and trust that felt like a special moment because she was the biggest star in the world but still able to create a perception of her being small enough to bring you into her home. It also showed that she understood exactly what her fans wanted and how they would react to something like that. That’s why she would continue to host the secret sessions for “reputation” (2017) and “Lover” (2019).
1989 WORLD TOUR
So many of Taylor’s previous albums you can put on and get into your feelings. “1989” is different. It is supposed to be played at a party. That’s why the “1989 World Tour” was such a big deal. Taylor was taking over the world. Everyone was coming up on stage with her; Mick Jagger, Mary J Blige, Selena Gomez, The Weeknd, Avril Lavigne and so on and so on. The group was – at is best moments – wide open. The demographic of Taylor’s fan base also expanded in ways it simply hadn’t before. During the “RED Tour”, there were scores and scores of moms who were waiting with parked cars for their daughters inside the arena or stadium. On the “1989 World Tour”, the moms went to the concert too. By the time Taylor wrapped the tour in December 2015, it had grossed over $250 million and became one of the highest grossing tours of all time.
“Blank Space” did have some competition in “Bad Blood” when it came to internet discourse. The video for that song spawned a lot of the “squad” commentary. During the “1989” era, Taylor began to associtate herself with some of the highest profile models in the world. “The squad” had the effect of elevating her stardom, putting her in the elite world of celebrity, even beyond where she’d been with “RED”. But by the end of the era it also started to have an impact in creating a backlash. The reason being that Taylor had always been known for telling her fans that she was just like them and that she was their friend. For example, on the “1989 World Tour”, she would talk about all her friends and say that her requirements for friendship were 1) to like and her and 2) to want to spend time with her, which everyone in that audience qualified for. But at the same time Taylor was presenting standards of friendship in her own life that were unattainable to those people because pretty much all of her friends were famous and many of them were unbelievably beautiful models. In 2019, she acknowledged that she has some regrets in that regard. In a piece she wrote for Elle she listed 30 things she learned before turning 30. One thing she said was that she needed to learn to rectify scars from her past. The example she gave was:
“Never being popular as a kid was always an insecurity for me. Even as an adult, I still have recurring flashbacks sitting at lunch tables alone, or hiding in a bathroom stall or trying to make a new friend and being laughed at. In my 20s, I found myself surrounded by girls who wanted to be my friend. So I shouted it from the rooftops, posted pictures and celebrated my new found acceptance into a sisterhood without realizing that other peole might still feel the way I did when I felt so alone. It’s important to address our long-standing issues before we turn into the living embodiment of them.” — Taylor Swift
CHANGING THE MUSIC INDUSTRY — THE APPLE MUSIC LETTER
In spring of 2014, Taylor wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where she said: “Music is art. And art should be payed for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free and my preditction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.” She was planting her flag in fighting for her rights as an artist and artist rights in general. In November 2014, she removed her entire catalog from Spotify, arguing that the streaming company’s ad-supported, free service undermined the premium service, which provides higher royalties for songwriters. “1989” was the moment that propelled her into such a position of leverage that the largest companies in the world like Apple were changing their policies so as not to get in trouble with Taylor Swift. In June 2015, Taylor criticized Apple Music in an open letter for not offering royalties to artists during the streaming service’s free three-month trial period and stated that she would pull “1989” from the catalog. The following day, Apple announced that it would pay artists during the free trial period, and Taylor agreed to stream “1989” on the streaming service. That decision benefitted the entire music industry.
A SILENT BATTLE
Understanding the darkness of what was going on beneath the surface while Taylor was at the peak of stardom is something that wasn’t understood at the time. One big issue came from being asked to meet impossible, unattainable beauty standards. Taylor has described having some really big struggles with body image and disordered eating, most notably in the 2020 documentary “Miss Americana”. In the film, Taylor talks about how she used to starve herself whenever she saw a paparazzi photo of herself where she thought she looked puffy. She has since overcome those actions.
DISAGREEMENTS WITH BIG MACHINE RECORDS
Another big battle for Taylor was fighting for the rights to put out the music she wanted. In interviews she mentioned multiple times that she was mad at her former label Big Machine Records because they didn’t believe in her. Regarding betting that “1989” could sell 1 million in its first week, she said:
“When I knew the album had hit its stride, I went to Scott Borchetta and said, ‘I have to be honest with you. I did not make a country album. I did not make any semblance of a country album.’ And of course he went into a state of semi panic and went through all the stages of grief, pleading in denial, ‘Can you give me three country songs? Can we put a fiddle on ‘Shake It Off’?’ And all of my answers were a very firm, ‘No’ because it felt disingenuous to try to exploit two genres when your album falls into one. Everyone, in and out of the music business, kept telling me that my opinion and my viewpoint was naïve and overly optimistic. Even my own label. But when we got those first-day numbers in, all of a sudden I didn’t look so naïve anymore.” — Taylor Swift
At the same moment in time, an investment banking booklet shopping Big Machine (which would have included the rights to Taylor’s masters) was circulating all over the place. It was being looked at by Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, among many others. That was the signal to the business world that all was not right. Music insiders saw that Taylor had one more album to deliver and that she had not re-signed. That was a red flag. All across the board, from her pre-album comments, to the way that the label and Scott Borchetta were working, you could see it: there was a rift there. She was moving away from the music that her label was familiar with. The seeds of why she’s doing all her re-recording start in the separation between her and her label, which was coming out into view during the “1989” era.
MAKING MUSIC HISTORY
In 2016, Taylor won three Grammy Awards for “1989”: “Album of the Year”, “Best Pop Vocal Album”, and “Best Music Video” for “Bad Blood”. She became the first woman, and fifth act overall, to ever win “Album of the Year” twice (she would win again for “folklore” in 2021). That night, “1989” became the most awarded pop album in history.
Rolling Stone wrote in 2019: “‘1989’ was a blockbuster — hit singles after hit singles after hit videos after tabloid headlines after, ‘Damn, is it really 2016 already and this album is still going?’ Sure was, and Taylor used her second ‘Album of the Year’ win that February to trumpet her own historic accomplishments while also shading Kanye West for saying some not-nice things about her on wax — wow, what a pop star.”