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The wide-reaching, massive ambitions of Taylor Swift’s latest album, Red, should come as no surprise. Swift’s career and her music have been headed towards full-fledged crossover success for some time, and to take issue with some of the more transparent pop concessions on Red is to have missed the point, to have been grasping onto a Nashville authenticity years after Swift’s tossed such strict conventions aside. Folkies threw a fit when Dylan went electric, but that doesn’t mean he hadn’t been warning them all along.
It would be easier to take issue with Red’s glaring crossover aspirations if Swift’s full-fledged pop experimentations didn’t fit so well, if they truly were concessions. On Red, the 22-year-old songwriter tries on many masks. She shocks with dubstep drops, flirts with U2 pastiche, and, with help from pop mastermind Max Martin, channels Ke$ha and takes on the dance floor.
Maybe that kind of bombast would feel cloying if Swift wasn’t so self-aware. Though Red is, yes, still primarily concerned with the failed glory of lost love — or more accurately, boys — it’s also an anxious record, full of uncertainty and conscious posturing. Money and success can be just as good a fable as Romeo and Juliet, and Swift is deft enough to make a point of and poke fun at her fairytale stardom. She’s quick to mention that she’s falling head over heels not in a Chevy truck but in a Maserati. In “Starlight,” she somehow innocently crashes a “yacht club party,” a telling moment for Swift, whose image rests on the myth that her success really is just one big “impossible dream,” as the song likes to call it.
Part of that impossible dream, Swift surely knows, is her unique critical acceptance and at times adoration amongst those typically unwilling to take any act on the radio seriously. Swift calls them hipsters, and it’s a joy to hear the country-pop star having a go at her own perceived authenticity, or lack thereof. She picks on the indies on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” where eschewing a Swift record, Swift’s record collection, or both, for something “much cooler” is grounds for breakup. It feels important that newfound love on “Begin Again,” one of the several songs that finds Swift swooning and genuinely happy, starts in a café, where the hipsters are gazing at the new girl in town. Part of the joy of Red is buying into this new Swift fairytale, where falling love with strangers in cafés can still happen, is watching Swift’s “big-eyed small-town girl takes on the big city” narrative unfold with equal parts humor and amazement.
But the great hook, the reason Swift’s new sounds and energies rarely if ever fall flat, is that the album’s biggest pop release may as also be its saddest song. “22” finds Swift celebrating the joys of youth as though hers had already passed, waxing nostalgic for the present moment right in front of her. If “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22” is really just a way of saying, “it’s great to be alive right now,” then looking back on the glory days doesn’t feel too far away. It’s a clever trick that Swift really does turn 23 in less than two months, that the carefree days of “22” really are fleeting. Time is vanishing from Swift, and clinging onto innocence seems less sweet every year. She’s much less full of venom than plagued by melancholy on her new love-gone-wrong tales, a sign of maturation if there was one.
Still, “22” is more than a sad song dressed up with a beat to make it danceable. “It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our exes,” is the first line of “22” and a fine summary of Red itself, at its heart an album of pretending and party crashing, of masquerading and self-parody. “Who’s Taylor Swift anyway? Who?” whispers one of the cool kids, but Swift’s already left the room. She’s drifting around town from party to party, unsure if she’s welcome anywhere, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still an impossible dreamer. “You don’t know about me/ but I bet you’ll want to,” is the take-home line to the rest of the world that Taylor Swift is so scared and so thrilled to be conquering, the line she drunkenly sings out of an open window and into the bright city night on her sad, magical cab ride home alone.
Essential Tracks: “All Too Well”, “22″