Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

The winter of 2014 was painfully cold in New York City. The sidewalks were frozen with slicks of ice, an inhospitable grid of accidents waiting to happen. But stamped across bus stop shelters and plastered across subway billboards, one simple catchphrase kept cropping up: Welcome to New York. The person behind this message was Taylor Swift, the city’s newly-christened “global welcome ambassador.” “Welcome to New York” also happened to be the title of the opening song on Swift’s fifth studio album, 1989, which was released to instant fanfare and chart success on Oct. 27 of that year.

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It was a perfect marketing campaign: New York, capital of all things cool, meet Swift, America’s country-pop queen. By association, Swift made it clear she was entering a new phase of her career. Swift had recently relocated from Nashville to the bright lights and slushy streets of Manhattan, where she settled into a hip downtown neighborhood and was regularly photographed. A decade into her career, she seemed eager for the reinvention that the city that never sleeps could offer. It was a momentous life change, the kind that generations of young women had pursued in a search for a new, glamorous, and emancipated American dream of independence. But for Swift, 1989 represented more than just a change of personal pace. The album changed her career—and the music industry—forever.

Read More: The Staggering Economic Impact of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour

1989 cemented Swift’s place as not only an artist with longevity, but a star who would make music on her own terms. Nine years later, she is re-releasing this game-changing work once again, as part of her project of recording “Taylor’s Versions” of her discography. The reason? Ownership. After her first six albums were sold against her will four years ago, Swift decided to reclaim her masters by re-recording her albums. This trip down memory lane has proved fruitful, allowing her to revisit her hits, retool certain lyrics, share additional unreleased songs, and draw attention to the breadth of her oeuvre, and not just the most recent output. She’s continued to re-release albums during her record-breaking 2023 Eras stadium tour and the release of the blockbuster Eras movie in mid-October. This late-autumn delivery of 1989 (Taylor’s Version) isn’t so much a rehashing of the past as a return to the memory of why—and how—Swift established herself in the pop firmament nearly a decade ago. Even Swift recognizes it as a turning point, both artistically and personally: “I look at this album,” she said at the time to Billboard, “as me starting over.”

The music

Swift announced the album in an April 2014 livestream at the top of New York’s Empire State Building. She performed the album’s first single, “Shake It Off,” a pure pop confection, to a crowd of lucky superfans. The lead-up—a full-court promotional press tour that included buzzy magazine covers and private listening sessions for carefully selected fans—showcased Swift’s marketing savvy as well as her penchant for personal touches. This wasn’t just another album; it was a moment, a follow-up to the highly-lauded Red that promised to surpass even that album’s mainstream ambitions.

1989 wasn’t just the musical evolution of a country artist, though. It was a contemporary pop manifesto, a clapback against criticisms of both her personal life and artistic skill. It was also a powerful statement of identity, presented with a glittering, knowing wink. Swift turned to pop’s most well-known producers to help craft this crucial next phase: Swedish sensations Max Martin and Shellback, hitmakers Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, and Jack Antonoff of indie rock band fun., who would become Swift’s most prolific creative partner. “In the past, I’ve always tried to make sure that I was maintaining a stronghold on two different genres, and this time I just had to think about one, which was creatively a relief,” she told Billboard in 2014. “It was nice to be honest about what I was making.” 

The result was 16 tracks that spanned heartfelt love songs (“This Love”), empowerment anthems (“Shake It Off,” “Blank Space”), and lush, operatic earworms (“Wildest Dreams,” “Out of the Woods”). The music also suggested the staccato intensity she would later harness on 2017’s Reputation album (“I Know Places”) and the softness she would experiment with on Folklore (“Clean”). Young female artists historically struggle with being pigeonholed by genre or sound: on 1989, Swift made it clear that she was interested in expressing herself over a full, uninhibited range of musical moods and production styles.

The music videos were a similar pastiche of romantic narratives turned upside down and knowing nods to a generation’s obsession with celebrity. Swift wasn’t afraid to poke fun at herself, opening the door for a new kind of star, one who was in on the joke. It was silly; it was meta; it was, in a decade of FaceTuned perfection and sexualized empowerment, refreshing. 

Charting a new era

But it wasn’t just her music that was notable at the time of 1989’s release. It was also her vocal stance when it came to making money, and the threat of streaming services on the future of her career. The previous summer, Swift wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, decrying the devaluation of music through streaming’s limited payouts. Just before 1989 dropped, she removed her entire discography from Spotify, signaling her continued discontent. The result was an economic windfall—listeners had to buy 1989 the old-fashioned way, instead of via streaming’s fractional returns. But some critics raised their eyebrows. Did Swift really need to gatekeep her music? She held strong, only returning to Spotify in 2017. (Artists’ challenges with earning off of streaming remain today.) 

“I think there should be an inherent value placed on art,” she told TIME during an interview for a 2014 cover story. “Everybody’s complaining about how music sales are shrinking, but nobody’s changing the way they’re doing things.” Swift was one of the only artists with both the commercial appeal and critical attention to pull off this radical move; more often, artists who elected to keep their discographies off of streaming simply disappeared from the conversation. But Swift positioned herself as a leader, a self-appointed protector of her fellow musicians. As with the more recent rerecordings, her efforts seem to be aimed at redirecting the music industry away from taking advantage of creativity, and toward awarding creators financially.

None of this would be relevant if Swift’s album wasn’t successful. But it was, by every metric. With 10 Grammy nominations, 1989 won Album of the Year and two other statues. The album also hit number one on Billboard, stayed in the top 10 for a whole year, and sold 1.3 million copies in its first week alone, a high for Swift to this day and a record over the preceding decade. (Billboard also tracks it as, cumulatively, the highest-selling Swift album to date.)

Her world

No longer tied to the adolescent narratives of her earlier career, Swift also had a new task at hand: world-building. She had already proved herself adept at developing Swiftian IP, one defined by suburban Americana and the romance of adolescent angst. With 1989, she began to spin a wider and more complex web, one where colors and symbols called back to lyrics from previous works, even as she announced her evolved identity as an artist caught in the full glare of modern celebrity (see: “I Know Places”). 

Like a Marvel superhero in over-the-knee boots and glossy red lipstick, she collected a gang of powerful women and friends. They appeared in her “Bad Blood” music video, and then became mainstays in her social media posts—a real-life girl gang of successful women known across music, film, and fashion. Swift’s romantic relationship history had been regular tabloid fodder; now, her platonic social life became the talk of the town. Swift exemplified the era’s persistent definition of feminism, and often spoke up about being a female leader in an industry dominated by men. “Other women who are killing it should motivate you, thrill you, challenge you and inspire you rather than threaten you and make you feel like you’re immediately being compared to them,” she told TIME.

1989 set Swift up for success—but also painted a target on her back. There was a backlash, a breakup, and, finally, there was 2017’s Reputation, an album so sour, snarky, and self-confident that it proved divisive. (The album, which continues to be beloved by fans, is on the list of Swift’s remaining rerecordings.) But for some of us, walking in her high-heeled footsteps in the New York over which she presided, 1989 was the cusp of something exciting: a young woman rejecting the path she had been prescribed and freeing herself to make bolder, funnier, and more pungent art, even if that included some mistakes. “This time I’m kind of just doing whatever I feel like,” she said. 

It was a prescient statement. And this ethos has driven her album rereleases: her storytelling, on her terms, in the light of the lessons she’s learned. Each rerelease stays true to the colorful spirit of the past, but comes shaded with the wisdom of hindsight. Isn’t that how we should all approach our memories, and the stories of our lives? The new 1989 (Taylor’s Version) could never surprise me in the way that first, exciting thrum of “Welcome to New York” did. Yet it’s a reminder that in the quest for living your truth, reinvention is not only possible, but necessary. “The lights are so bright,” she sang on that seminal song. “But they never blind me.” The path to self-actualization, it turns out, needed her illumination.

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