Review Summary: Naivety, innocence, and romanticism turn into plain childishness.
Taylor Swift’s current status in pop-culture almost isn’t believable for someone her age. She is the all-time leader in digital music sales. She’s won numerous awards including six Grammys, ten American Music Awards, seven Country Music Association Awards, six Academy of Country Music Awards, and thirteen BMI Awards. She’s been in movies, on talk shows, on the cover of just about every
magazine, and she even has her own perfume. Swift is the cultural icon of a generation, and despite her astronomical accomplishments at the ridiculously young age of twenty-two, she has always remained very grounded. It’s been refreshing to watch someone so down-to-earth achieve such great success, and even more refreshing to watch her not change because of it.
From a public persona standpoint, Ms. Swift has basically played her cards perfectly. It stands to reason then that she would do everything in her power to protect her country-pop crossover kingdom, and as many musicians who have reached a similar level of prestige have discovered, that can be an extremely difficult (and at times, un-winnable) battle. Swift’s first two albums never really felt this kind of heat, because she was still establishing herself as a successful musician. Once she exploded into fame, however, the pressure to evolve increased sevenfold. Speak Now
did an excellent job of progressing her sound just enough
– making her even more
mainstream accessible without abandoning the country roots that initially fueled her success. But a fourth album of the exact same boy-crazy country pop likely would have left her career stagnant and spinning its wheels, which is something that doesn’t usually fly in a culture whose trends are constantly in motion. So, the dilemma facing Swift on Red
is that she must break ties with a formula that has yet to fail her...but would if she continued to utilize it. It’s a preemptive strike against stagnation, if you will. But as with any big change, Red
comes with more than its fair share of growing pains.
Although the moments of triumph are severely dwarfed by the far more numerous gaffes and blunders, Swift does manage to make a few meaningful strides. The more she moved away from country music in the past, the clearer it became that pop was actually her calling card. Red
does a splendid job of finalizing that transition, offering up sleek production tricks where forced country clichés once existed. The attempts at dubstep may have been taking it a little too far, but it’s also worth noting that her main push in that direction, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, is also one of the catchiest/most radio-ready tracks that she’s ever made. ‘Red’ succeeds to a similar but lesser extent, putting most of its stock in an electronic-underscored chorus that is good but doesn’t lodge itself in your memory. We’ve also all heard the jokes about her lead single, ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, but it provides tangible evidence of her evolution from the aw shucks girl who grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania to the pop superstar who churns out number one hits like they are, well....pine needles on a Christmas tree farm. Swift makes it easy to see all that she has to offer outside of her comfortable, country-ballad groove, and when she’s on, she’s red
The issues, while numerous, start with Taylor’s inability to fully embrace her new style. She seems to spend a lot of time trying to appease fans of her traditional sound, tossing in poignant but forgettable ballads like ‘Treacherous’, ‘I Almost Do’, and ‘Sad Beautiful Tragic’ with no regard to their placement within the track listing – or better yet, whether or not they even belong at all. This results in a bloated album that clocks in at sixty five minutes, when easily less than half of the songs on Red
would have qualified for one of her previous albums. The abundance of filler destroys any momentum created by strong, energy exuding tracks, and it makes listening to the album in one sitting more of a chore than any mainstream pop album should be. Hopefully it hasn’t gotten to the point where Taylor thinks that anything she writes is worth hearing, but one go-through of Red
would certainly make it appear that way.
Another problem comes with the guest appearances of Gary Lightbody and Ed Sheeran. Neither track is infectious enough to be a single, nor do they possess any indefinable qualities to make them truly likeable. ‘The Last Time’, while it is the better of the two outings, comes across lazy on Swift’s part. Gary Lightbody carries most of the vocal responsibilities, and even though the harmony between Swift and Lightbody can be gorgeous at times, it never feels like anything more than a watered down version of Snow Patrol’s ‘Set The Fire To The Third Bar.’ Therein also lies the dilemma with the song – it feels like a Snow Patrol song featuring Taylor Swift, not the other way around. Besides the obvious imbalance in that sense, the song doesn’t really manage to make a splash anyway. It’s nice
, but it isn’t nearly as moving or profound as it sets out to be. ‘Everything Has Changed’ is more well constructed, but unfortunately it is also flat-out boring. The tempo sways along in a kind of ho-hum, carefree way that only would have worked if it had a catchy hook or top-notch lyrics. Since it lacks both, the song can be logged in with all the other unmemorable ballads on Red
...and that’s a long list.
In other cases, Taylor Swift simply seems to have a maturity regression. Her words have never painted a portrait of adulthood, but for someone thrust into the spotlight at her age, she has always come off as cool handed and sophisticated. Here, there are a number of tracks with nearly infantile lyrical topics, most notably ‘Stay Stay Stay’, in which she ends her child-like analysis of fighting within a relationship like a giggle box toddler, laughing and saying “that was so fun.” It’s clear that her objective is to come off as breezy and whimsical, but instead she just sounds foolish. Then there’s a different kind of immaturity present in ‘22’, a promiscuity-anthem of sorts that we’d expect from Avril Lavigne more than Taylor Swift: “It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our exes...to fall in love with strangers...ah ah ah ah.” The joys and freedoms of youth have already been much more eloquently expressed, even by Swift herself (also, the opening progression is nearly identical to P!nk’s ‘Raise Your Glass’). Outside of obvious instances such as these, she also fails to depart from the boys, boys, and more boys theme that has defined her entire career, thus making a somewhat successful musical departure feel disjointed without a fresh lyrical approach to accompany it.
tries to be everywhere all at once. It puts its foot in every camp imaginable instead of committing to the pop/electronic-tinged style of ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.’ It’s no coincidence that the two most memorable songs on the album follow a similar approach, and if Swift wants to expand her empire even more, then she needs to actually take a risk by putting more than just a few of her eggs in one basket. If she continues to spread her ideas too thin, then all the recognizable aspects of her music – that she’s worked so hard to establish – will fade away. This also means letting go of the past and not peppering her future albums with dull ballads that drone on and on without a catchy verse or concise purpose. It also means writing lyrics about (gasp) something other than a boyfriend or ex-boyfriend. Swift is a grown woman now and it is time for her to embrace a wider variety of adult topics. As it stands for now though, Red
is a mixed bag, and it’s up to you to sort through the majority-holding bad in order to find the good. Swift is undoubtedly capable of better, and all we can hope for is that she’ll regain her footing in time for album number five.