For those of us who lived through and remember the 1980s, one small irony about Taylor Swift’s smash album 1989 is that it doesn’t actually sound much like 1989—a transitional pop year dominated by the sounds of New Jack Swing, hair metal, George Michael–style pop-soul, and second-wave Madonna. Swift’s fifth album is named after the year of her birth, so it’s understandable that she wouldn’t have direct recall of ’80s musical minutiae. But with its shimmering synthesizers and early-MTV moodiness, Taylor’s album might more aptly have been titled 1984 or 1985. Critics have cited its songs’ resemblance to everything from peak Don Henley to Toni Basil to the Miami Vice soundtrack.
“Blank Space,” Swift’s current electropop smash and the new No. 1 single on Billboard’s authoritative Hot 100 chart, is a case in point. Built atop airy, chilly synths and a heart-pulse beat, it would have sounded right at home on the radio of mid-to-late ’85, sandwiched between hits from Tears for Fears and Icehouse. Swift’s chirping vocal slots into this same frosty pocket, her staccato syllables percolating like a metronome. If lyrics websites were truly faithful to her delivery, they would print the song’s words at just one or two per line: “Nice to/ Meet you/ Where you/ Been? ... Magic/ Madness/ Heaven/ Sin … New/ Money/ Suit and/ Tie … Ain’t it/ Funny/ Rumors/ Fly … ”
Swift is well served by her co-writer–producers, the Swedish pop masterminds Max Martin and Karl Johan “Shellback” Schuster. Those guys know a thing or two about the value of open space punctuating sharp hooks and lockstep vocals driving the rhythm. So expertly do Martin and Shellback employ that bag of tricks on “Blank Space” that the song is almost avant-garde in its parceling of morsels of pop pleasure. It’s rare that a chart-topping hit’s title actually alludes to what the song itself sounds like—imagine if “When Doves Cry” were titled “Bass-less Confessional” or “Faith” called “Stuttering Rockabilly.” But “Blank Space” is in fact all about its blank spaces, a glorious echo chamber of romantic deconstruction.
Speaking of romance, have I mentioned? The song is funny. The lyrics to “Blank Space” chronicle the boom-and-bust cycle of an obsessive love affair, churning through the dizzy-infatuation, jealous-recrimination, and rapid-devolution phases in under four minutes: “So it's gonna be forever/ Or it’s gonna go down in flames/ You can tell me when it’s over/ If the high was worth the pain.” However lovelorn these words sound when sung, the song is clearly sardonic, poking fun at starry-eyed romanticism with the wryness of a Tinder veteran. The titular “blank space” in the song is where the man-eating singer will “write your name.” It’s satire for the age of Conscious Uncoupling—baking in the end of a relationship before it’s even begun.
Beyond its merits as a wry and unconventional pop hit, by reaching No. 1, “Blank Space” is also something of a chart milestone for Swift, Martin, and Shellback—as if they haven’t set enough records lately. As I did a couple of weeks ago when Swift’s album dropped and obliterated everything in its path, I’ll run down these achievements in increasing order of remarkableness. First, “Blank” is this trio’s third No. 1 hit together. Swift’s numerous Country No. 1s were mostly coproduced by Tennesseean Nathan Chapman and written by her alone, but since she’s crossed over to the big pop chart Swift has only reached the top with her Martin/Shellback collaborations, starting with 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” For Max Martin, “Blank” is his 19th U.S. No. 1 hit as a writer, solidifying his third-place rank behind Paul McCartney and John Lennon. For Swift, who’s coming off the early-fall smash “Shake It Off,” “Blank” is her second straight No. 1 hit from 1989—the first time she’s scored back-to-back pop chart-toppers.
But the last feat is the most impressive: Swift didn’t just score two straight No. 1s, she actually replaced herself in the top slot. “Blank Space” ejects “Shake It Off” from No. 1 after the latter spent four total weeks on top. This is some serious diva shit. Knocking yourself out of the penthouse is the perfect game of Billboard pop chart achievements. Only a handful of acts have done it, starting with the two biggest of the Rock Era: Elvis Presley (1956’s “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender”) and the Beatles (the still-unequaled 1964 trifecta of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You”and “Can’t Buy Me Love”). In the SoundScan Era, when songs began to linger at No. 1 longer, the feat has gotten somewhat easier, but it’s still rare enough to be special. In the last two decades, a small circle of hip-hop and R&B acts have pulled it off at their peak moments of pop crossover: Boyz II Men in 1994, Nelly in 2002, Usher in 2004, T.I. in 2008 and the Black Eyed Peas in 2009; if you include featured credits, two more rappers did it—Sean Combs (then Puff Daddy) in 1997 and Ja Rule in 2002. Notice anything about all these acts? No solo women (only Fergie in the Peas). Swift is the first woman to replace herself at No. 1 in the history of the pop charts.
One other, subtler achievement for “Blank Space” is that it’s the second straight Swift chart-topper to poke fun at her own persona. As I noted back in August when it went to No. 1, the lyrics to “Shake It Off” read as broadly populist, but were at least half about Swift herself: chewing out her “haters” who were “gonna hate” the way she goes “on too many dates.” “Blank,” too, is very much about the public profile of Taylor. She’s said so herself: Even before the song was chosen as 1989’s second radio single, Swift offered that the whole point of the song was to write a parody of her serial-monogamist, obsessive-crush, boyfriends-as-expendable-songwriting-fodder persona.
She spells that out in flashing neon in the music video, which was instrumental to the song’s rise to No. 1. (Billboard reports that in its first week on YouTube/Vevo, the “Blank Space” video racked up 19.2 million U.S. streams, the second-highest one-week total of 2014 after Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” That blast of streaming points vaulted “Blank” from No. 13 on the Hot 100 to No. 1 in one fell swoop.) The clip is directed by video veteran Joseph Kahn, but the real auteur here is Swift. A cross between The Great Gatsby and The Shining with a soupçon of Misery, the video finds coltish, gamine Taylor in a palatial mansion–cum–tiger trap where she welcomes, then proceeds to freak the hell out on, a new beau. It’s easily her best story-video since “You Belong with Me” and probably her best bit of acting to date, bringing her own lyric “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” to vivid life. Tay-Tay puts on the Full Sybil as she flips from doe-eyed crush to golf-club-wielding woman scorned.
In short, everything about “Blank Space” is beautifully executed. Concept, lyric, melody, production, video: All of these elements combined to lift the song to No. 1 in three short weeks. You might find all of this a little too perfect, as so many things involving Taylor Swift these days are. What’s more, all this perfection is in service of one of Swift’s most solipsistic songs, which is saying something: Her self-deprecation and self-satire also inevitably mean self-absorption. I don’t want to knock Swift overmuch for this; five years after the Kanye Incident, there’s a part of me that loves that she has started to become him. Why shouldn’t she behave like a star? But it bears watching.
In writing about “Shake It Off,” I briefly alluded to “this imperial point in Swift’s career.” I probably could have capitalized that four-syllable word: To music critics and pop-watchers, the Imperial moment is the juncture in an act’s career where she can do no wrong, where concepts that seem farfetched or head-firmly-up-one’s-own-posterior are warmly embraced by the public. In a definitive 2010 Pitchfork piece by Tom Ewing, the brilliant British pop critic and chart analyst, the Imperial phase is defined as “a mix of world-conquering swagger and inevitable obsolescence. What do we know about emperors? That they end up naked: The phase always ends.” According to Ewing, the phrase was codified by Pet Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant (himself a former pop critic), who referred to the Boys’ late ’80s commercial peak as “our imperial phase.” It’s that moment where everything seems like a good idea. A Eurodisco cover of an Elvis-by-way-of–Willie Nelson song, dropped as a single between albums? Sure, that’ll top the charts! Or if you’re Lady Gaga in 2010: a 10-minute-long music video featuring an underutilized Beyoncé and shameless, giddy product placement? Why the hell not!
Or, in 2014: a song reveling in your tabloid image, complete with a video set in a mansion that, whatever its satirical intent, you could probably afford in real life? Go for it, Taylor! It could be argued that Swift has had several Imperial moments in the last five years, so unbroken has been her string of successes, regardless of what she’s tried. But to Ewing’s point, the core elements of the Imperial phase are not just the improbable successes, but also the whiff of an impending pedestal-fall. Mind you, nobody’s getting rich right now betting against Taylor Swift; many music-industry folk made the mistake of thinking she was primed for a fall with 1989, and oh, how wrong they were. But that doesn’t make “Blank Space”—both the song and, especially, the video—any less emperor-like.
To go back to 1989 for a minute—the year, not the album—think about who was Imperial that year. George Michael and Michael Jackson were between albums; with Like a Prayer, Madonna was arguably the hungriest she’d been in a couple of years (“Vogue” and “Justify My Love” were still in her future). No, probably the most Imperial stars of 1989 were a boy band, New Kids on the Block: three multiplatinum albums in that single year, with, at certain points, three or four singles riding the Hot 100 at once. Some of these proved enduring: “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” was the template for Backstreet and N Sync a decade later, and “Cover Girl” is an underrated gem. But you know the moment, with 20/20 hindsight, these kings looked primed for a fall? Their summer 1989 No. 1 smash, “Hangin’ Tough,” a bit of self-referential twaddle that encouraged screaming girls to “get on the floor and do the New Kids dance.” Recorded before they were megastars, the later choice of the song as a single felt utterly Imperial. Sure enough, after a 1990 blockbuster album that spawned fewer hits, New Kids were out of the Top 10 by 1991 and recording behind a humiliating acronym by 1993.
Did “Hangin’ Tough” sow the seeds of New Kids’ destruction? Probably not; NKOTB fans’ blooming adolescence probably had more to do with it. But the narcissistic track ensured some segment of the public was actively rooting against them. As for our dear Taylor, her decline as a pop star is probably still many years into the future, “Blank Space” is one of her best singles to date, and her self-replacement atop the charts confirms that she can’t get much bigger. But when your career’s subtext overtakes your art’s text, you should maybe start to worry, at least a little.