By Reed McLean, senior computer science major
I am a pop music enthusiast.
I love synthesizers and drum machines and unforgettable melodies and the way a song can make you want to run until you don’t have any legs left to run on.
I’ve been listening to pop music since before I can remember. I’ve been writing pop music since I learned how to play guitar. I’ve been studying and analyzing pop music since I started with my music education. I worked at a recording studio in town for a while. I’ve even produced a couple pop tracks for some much more talented friends. I know how pop music works. I’ve spent my entire time at college furthering my understanding of music as whole, and I’ve been applying this newfound knowledge to my first love diligently and thoroughly.
So, with these qualifications in mind, I feel entirely comfortable saying that Taylor Swift’s 1989 should not have won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The honor should have gone directly to the open arms of the current Queen of Pop and the Queen of My Heart, Carly Rae Jepsen and her masterful album, Emotion.
Before I get into the thick of it, I want to leave a quick disclaimer. I am in no way attempting to attack or belittle my beloved T-Swift. She is a powerful artist and a wonderful woman, and I will get into exactly what I love about 1989 further down the road. All that I’m saying with this article is that Emotion is a better album than 1989.
The Grammy for Album of the Year has some fairly nuanced connotations. It is not awarded to just the artist whose name is on the album. The Grammy is given to every single person who poured their creativity into the album. This includes producers, mixers, engineers and songwriters. When 1989 was given the Grammy, 18 people got Grammy credit. This understanding is integral to how we discuss whom the Grammy should go to. The award is not meant to honor a powerful songwriter or a virtuosic, technically skilled musician. The award is meant to honor the whole piece of art, created by a team. When we are comparing albums, we should compare not only the artists, but the people behind the artist. We need to compare albums as a whole. We need to see them both as holistic and monolithic pieces of art separate from the name in the artist credit.
1989 is undeniably a fun album. Taylor Swift picks up some great 80s vibes, following the musical shift she started hinting at when she released Red. “I Knew You Were Trouble” featured a pinch of some new dance and electronic influences that are usually a pretty far throw from country, Swift’s tonal hometown. The public devoured it. Even back in 2012, when the single first hit the stage, the music community knew that things were going to change. Music critic Jon Caramanica noted that the dubstep chorus, “chang[ed] the course not just of the song, but also of Ms. Swift’s career.” Taylor officially stepped into the pop game.
1989 is the fulfillment of that promise. The entire record is drenched in synths and pads and drum machines and samples and I love it. I really do love this album. I love seeing artists evolve throughout the course of their lives, and watching Swift has been one of the clearest examples of that kind of development. The ties she keeps back with her roots are clearly evident throughout the album, especially when she throws acoustic guitar into the synth-heavy chorus, as on “All You Had to Do Was Stay.”
Despite all of this, 1989 falls flat for me. When I’m looking at music critically, and especially so with pop music, I focus on the production, and that is Swift’s biggest downfall with this new album. The album’s production was spearheaded by the very well-known duo of Max Martin and Shellback, a couple of Swedes who’ve put their Swedish little fingers in almost every Top 40 track you’ve heard since 2008. The majority of my displeasure comes from their work.
Looking at the chorus, “Wildest Dreams” gives us the perfect example of what I’m talking about. The entirety of the instrumentation comes down to a poorly emulated string pad, some violin quarter notes, a bass drone, a kick drum, a snare and the vocal line. The kick drum never diverts from the beat that it starts with, leaving us with a static percussion line. The string pad similarly never changes. It gets laid down in the musical intro, and then it stays at the same volume and at the same pitch for the entire four minutes. This is indicative of the production of the majority of the album. There is not enough variance in the instrumentation or in the dynamics. The overall effect is a flat experience, with the only solace being Swift’s masterful melodies.
It isn’t enough for me. Leaving the song static shows a lack of heart. They laid down a string pad and looped it for four minutes. They put together a kick line and looped it for four minutes. In “Style,” they laid down a guitar lick and looped it for four minutes. That is not the behavior of an artist, but of an amateur chef working from a recipe.
This is a result of Martin and Shellback. As I said before, they have had their fingers in innumerable pop songs during the 21st century. They pump out singles at a rate that would not be possible if they breathed artistic life into every single one of their works. To be this successful, they must be machines, cranking out singles. Their job is to make songs that demand radio play, and they do that job with a finesse that I can’t help but envy. Crafting a single is a difficult process, and the efficiency with which they can achieve that is mind boggling.
Again, I am not saying that 1989 is a bad album, nor am I saying the craft of writing guaranteed hit singles is somehow inferior to the art of making an album. It is a necessary skill given the current music market, but it is not in any way a substitute for an artful album. 1989 is a collection of singles more than it is a holistic album.
It is in this arena that Emotion shines. It is the child of more than 90 artists’ efforts, according to allmusic.com’s credit section for the album, and it is a testament to the sheer amount of effort that went into the album. In interviews, Carly “Bae” Jepsen has said that she wrote more than 200 songs for the album before cutting it down to the current 12.
Everything about the album breathes life and love. The opening track, “Run Away with Me,” is the most energizing song I’ve heard in eons. At first listen, it seems like just a standard pump-up jam, but on repeated listens you can find an inspiring amount of production depth. On the second verse, for instance, you’ve got the galloping bass line, the kick drum and the snare, you’ve got a pad with a saw tooth volume oscillator, and you’ve got an arpeggiated percussive synth, not to mention Ms. Jepsen’s flawless performance as the icing on a masterpiece of a cake. There is a snare hit on the fourth beat of the measure before the next chorus, and every time I hear it, my heart stops. All of the building energy of the verse is culminated in that hit, and there’s one beat of silence. The chorus lands with its full brunt of raw energy and love and power. It breaks me every time.
On the other end of the emotive spectrum, you’ve got “Warm Blood,” the eleventh track on the album. The song is intimate, and Carly adapts her vocal style to more a breathy whisper. This is indicative of Carly’s vocal and stylistic range. She feels what the song needs, and she goes there. The track was produced by Rostam Batmanglij, a former member of Vampire Weekend, and you can detect traces of his experimental style. Vampire Weekend is primarily known in the music scene as “that band full of trust-fund hipsters who inexplicably play strictly afro-pop,” and that eccentricity is exactly what Rostam brings to this track. After each chorus, a bottom octave is added to Carly’s croon through a pitch shifter, giving a note of oddity that one doesn’t expect from pop albums. The song’s climax comes during the choruses, when the low-pass filter on the throbbing bass line during the first verse is finally lifted. The moment the chorus lands, the bass tone opens up and pulls the listener straight into a lush soundscape that sounds like Carly’s hazel eyes. Probably. Whatever.
The last song we’ll look at is “Boy Problems.” The song is a fun thematic divergence from the usual love-stricken lyrics that Carly writes. The song is entirely about how dumb boys are, which is one of my favorite conversational topics. It starts out with a Phil Collins inspired pad and some sage advice from a female friend. The song is immediately taken away by one of the first analog instruments we hear on the album: a powerful, titillating bass line that producer Greg Kurstin must have stolen from a 70s funk album. The most recent work of Greg’s that you would be familiar with is Adele’s “Hello,” which he produced and played most of the instruments on. “Boy Problems” was co-written by good ol’ Greg, the ever-entrancing Sia, and some man named Tavish Crowe, who I know nothing about. The chorus of this anthem is driven by the earlier mentioned slap bass line, the obligatory four on the floor, a jarringly funky electric guitar lick, and an organ synth that sounds like it’s being run through a high-pass of band-pass filter.
With four songs, Carly Rae Jepsen has achieved more musical diversity than Taylor Swift has with her entire five-album discography. Emotion is an album that is united in theme and production, while simultaneously having the depth and breadth to stand up to repeated and intensely critical listenings. While 1989 is just a package of singles that Taylor has neatly wrapped for us, Emotion is a gallery of art painstakingly created by a platoon of creatives. Even if my analysis isn’t convincing, the critics agree with me. Cosmopolitan listed Emotion as the top album of 2015. Entertainment Weekly said it was second only to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Stereogum listed Emotion as third best album. Even aside from the critics’ opinions, the people know that Emotion is a better album. Looking at metacritic.com (a site that compiles reviews from other parts of the internet to get the global perspective on a work of art), you can see that Emotion has not only a higher critic score, but also a higher user score. Among users, it scored an 8.7 out of 10, while 1989 only scored a 6.9 out of 10. Everything points to the fact that Emotion is the superior album, except the Grammys.
Emotion is one of my favorite albums of all time. It has depth and breadth in terms of lyrics, production, and musicality. Not only that, but the album is a total party. 1989 is catchy. Taylor did a great job with the songs she wrote, but the album was meant to sell singles. It was not made to be an artistic unit. It was meant to make money. I am not saying that such a goal is bad; it is a natural product of the current music industry. 1989 did a great job at making money, but it does a poor job as a work of art. Emotion is artful, complete and beautiful, and it should have won the Grammy for Best Album 2015.