Taylor Swift has always straddled the line between country and pop music, dealing with criticism from diehard fans on either side of the genre divide for most of her young career. If there were ever any doubts about her true loyalties, they are resolved by the newly released Red the fourth album from America’s beloved starlet. Perhaps becoming an Arlen Specter of the music world, she’s completed the transformation to pop stardom. She uses Red to embrace this unofficial new label emphatically and fearlessly, producing an album that is predominantly loud, angry and bold – if not slightly lacking in substance.
The country twang of plucking guitars and dueling banjos are largely replaced by driving pop beats in Red. Swift even dabbles briefly in dubstep in the bitter breakup anthem “I Knew You Were Trouble,” an experiment in electronic vocals and aggressive beats. There’s also a gentler brand of sugary pop, surfacing in songs like “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and the title track, “Red.” Though often sounding like a mix of Carrie Underwood and Katy Perry, she has also created something that is iconically Taylor.
While most songs are more suited to the dance floor than a pickup truck’s radio, there’s musical diversity within Red that’s not readily apparent at first listen. To write the album off as singularly “pop” is to under appreciate the unheralded, softer moments that quietly make the album shine. The pop music may be the gloss of Red, but it shouldn’t obscure the more nuanced, if infrequent, glimmers of complexity.
The first respite from heavier sounds comes in “All Too Well.” Temporarily adopting a slightly more acoustic approach, Swift laments lost love by recalling memories of autumn leaves and long road trips with a former beau. “The Last Time,” a soulful duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, is also a softer, more melodic winner.
Another successful collaboration occurs in “Everything Has Changed,” featuring newly popular English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. Bringing in Sheeran was not just a tactful marketing move, but also an effective musical match. Swift’s voice pairs nicely with Sheeran’s John Mayer-like falsetto to produce a softer ballad about falling in love. Buried among the noisier tracks of the album, the tune is a refreshingly optimistic break.
Swift sings like someone who has learned something in her short, but successful career. She has something to say, and she doesn’t hesitate to proclaim it loudly and forcefully. With more ex-boyfriends than albums, Swift has plenty of material, and her most emphatic statement is about love that is “treacherous, sad, beautiful and tragic.” Her barbs could have numerous aims: former beau Jake Gyllenhall, or more recent victim Conor Kennedy.
Doubtless, she draws from her own experience with heartache, lost love and bitter breakups to provide the thematic oomph of the album. But amid the passion and anger of heartbreak, she also sings an occasionally redemptive tune, ultimately claiming that love is worth it despite her many dealings with “red” love.
While Red relies mostly on formulaic pop music, it’s hard to criticize Swift for taking this approach. The album was carefully engineered to appeal to her fiercely loyal fan base – mostly composed of tween groupies who’ve likely been biting their French-manicured nails in eager anticipation of the release.
Though catering to her fans, Swift hasn’t produced something completely lackluster and familiar, like she so easily could, but demonstrates the audacity to experiment with new genres. That the album has achieved so much early success, landing the No. 1 spot on iTunes in a mere 36 minutes and selling 1.2 million copies in its first week, is admirable and a testament to her devoted fan base and wide appeal.
Red has its flaws, and it certainly won’t be hitting the airwaves of Minneapolis indie station The Current anytime soon. But from the boldness of the new album, it would appear that Swift doesn’t care. Singing of her too-cool boyfriend in “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” she rants about him hiding away in “indie records much cooler than mine.” Maybe she won’t win over the indie crowd, but that was never her intention.
In Red, America’s favorite starlet has created an album that will resonate with her pop-loving fans and continue her meteoric success. Though I’d stop short of hailing her as the next Joni Mitchell, her deepest critics should be silenced by Swift’s unabashed and fearless testament to her reimagined, popstar self. It doesn’t carry the intellectual depth or musical complexity of other artists, but it satisfies with catchy beats and an overriding message. And that’s something to appreciate.