The funny thing about Taylor Swift's fifth album, 1989, is how much it's not like what we were told it would be. Swift said in an interview with Rolling Stone that it'd be "not as boy-centric" as her previous records, but the majority of the songs are as obsessed with dudes and romance as anything else she's ever done. Despite the title and the advance hype, the record doesn't feel much like the '80s at all, and mostly sounds a lot like the music of 1999, right on down to half the tracks being co-written by Britney Spears/Backstreet Boys mastermind Max Martin.
Even the notion that this album is a major creative departure for her is overstated. Sure, this is her first record to have no trace of country in its sound, but her 2012 blockbuster Red was very, very light on country vibes. The full-blown candy-pop sound of 1989 isn't a sudden bold move so much as a logical progression from mega-hits like "I Knew You Were Trouble" and "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." This is where Swift has been headed since "You Belong With Me" blew up on pop radio in 2009. The metamorphosis is now complete.
The thing is, Swift hasn't actually changed that much over the course of five albums. Her melodic sensibility and lyrical obsessions have been consistent all along, while gradually improving with time. She has a distinct aesthetic, and it comes through whether her voice is framed by banjos and pedal steel on her early records, arena rock guitars and drums on Speak Now and Red, or synthesizers and drum programming on most of 1989. Country was a smart place for Swift's career to start out, but no matter where she began, genre would've been a prison for her. She's lucky to break free of it now.
Which brings us to "Blank Space." "Blank Space" is the second track on 1989, and an instant candidate for Swift's Best Song Ever, just narrowly edging out "State of Grace" and "You Belong With Me." (And whatever your favorite Taylor Swift song is, of course.) "Blank Space" sounds like a cross between Lorde and Wilson Phillips, which is another way of saying it could only have been dreamed up by Swift and her Swedish production team. The arrangement is minimalist, but the song is busting at the seams with melody and hooks. And while this sort of skeletal backing track is on trend right now, it's perfectly realized here. If she'd arranged it like something from Speak Now or Red, it'd feel a bit too busy or top-heavy.
"Blank Space" is also the best song Taylor Swift has written about the very specific experience of being Taylor Swift. She's been taking advantage of the public's interest in her love life for years by making her hits seem alternately like blind items in gossip columns or subtweets on Twitter, but always with an earnestness that bordered on humorlessness. But here, she's funny and self-aware. She knows she's a sucker for romance but has had enough failed relationships and short-term flings to manage her expectations. She's grown more cynical, but is still jumping at every opportunity to meet THE ONE. Swift is about to turn 25, and this is such an "about to turn 25" sort of sentiment. Her seemingly effortless ability to turn these sort of common epiphanies into immensely catchy songs is at least 70% of the reason she's so popular and beloved.
The line that really elevates "Blank Space" to the realm of pop greatness comes halfway through the chorus, and is sung along with the best melodic bit of the song. "Got a long list of ex-lovers," she sings wistfully, "they'll tell you I'm insane." This is the point at which she owns her reputation, but also nudges you to question how she got it. You can practically hear her rolling her eyes when she sings "I'm insane," making you think of every bro you've ever heard dismiss an ex as some variety of "crazy bitch." If this was a conversation, you can imagine her giving you a second of meaningful eye contact after this line, both to look for your reaction and to let you linger on that moment of doubt.
Some pop stars back away from their personal life becoming too public, but Swift understands that given the circumstances of her life, that's never really going to be an option, and she may as well benefit from the gossip by letting it add some spark and tension to her tunes. She knows it adds an extra layer of fun and engagement to her music and that there's a long history of soap-opera intrigue in singer-songwriter pop — going back to Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, and James Taylor in the '70s. Swift's brilliance is in how she always manages to make her glamorous love life sound so ordinary, and essentially the same as any other girl her age who hasn't settled down just yet. That's not because the words are banal, but because the best place to find the universal is in specificity.