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Taylor Swift’s Pop Career Turns 10: How She Pulled Off the Perfect Genre Crossover With ‘1989’

Mr. Nimbus | 01/11/2024

Taylor Swift is currently the biggest pop star in the world. It goes beyond her record-breaking albums, the scale of her world economy-boosting Eras Tour, gossip about her love life or even her household name status — in 2023, familiarity with the 34-year-old singer-songwriter’s lyrics, whereabouts and condiment choices is almost required for carrying a knowledgeable conversation about pop culture.  



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That’s why, as the years go by, it gets harder to believe that Swift didn’t start her career in pop music. And while the Pennsylvania-born musician has always demonstrated mainstream sensibilities and mass appeal, country was an identity she eagerly embodied for several albums as she rose to stardom — from the cowboy boots she paired with every outfit to the now-faded southern accent she picked up after moving with her family to the genre’s Mecca, Nashville Tennessee, when she was barely a teenager.  

She started flirting with pop sonics in the early 2010s, when she was still in a committed relationship with country but had already been pulling pop star numbers with mainstream-level crossover hits. In the same year she won Entertainer of the Year at the 2012 Academy of Country Music Awards, she dropped the EDM-influenced “I Knew You Were Trouble” and sang about dressing up like “hipsters” on the sparkly earworm “22,” simultaneously accumulating radio and chart recognition in both country and pop. 

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But come 1989, her crush on pop had become a full-blown love affair, for which she chose to publicly and amicably break up with country music indefinitely. “For the record, this is my very first documented, official pop album,” she said while announcing the project atop the Empire State Building in a livestream hosted by Yahoo. Later, she explained to Billboard, “I followed my gut instinct and tried not to think about how hard it would be to break it to country radio… I didn’t want to break anyone’s heart.” 

From top to bottom, 1989 was unflinchingly pop, inspired heavily by the shimmering grandeur of ‘80s top 40 hits. Collaborators included some of the mainstream’s hugest producers — Max Martin, Shellback, Ryan Tedder — and gone was any trace of fiddle, twangy guitar or mention of the word “y’all.” 

Also gone were any of the commercial benchmarks Swift had previously set for herself – 1989 blew them out of the water. Following its release on Oct. 27, 2014, the album spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, became Swift’s first LP to produce multiple Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits – “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” with Kendrick Lamar – and debuted with 1.287 million copies sold in its first week, the highest of her career thus far (the album was not initially made available on streaming). Her departure from country would go down as one of the single greatest business moves in the modern music industry, one that only continues to pay off for the supernova; nearly a decade later, the origins of Swift’s current status as cultural overlord can still be traced back to the overwhelming success of 1989

But how exactly did Swift achieve a crossover that didn’t just meet expectations, but exceed them beyond belief? In speaking on that topic with pop and country radio experts and veteran Swifties, one word comes up a lot: authenticity.  

This story is part of Billboard’s Genre Now package, highlighting the artists pushing their musical genres forward — and even creating their own new ones.

“People sort of expected that this [would be] a natural transition for her,” remembers Audacy’s Erik Bradley, a Chicago pop radio brand manager and music director. “Her realness just helped make it that much easier. Her personality and her demeanor, it just all feels that it came together perfectly for a smooth transition. You have to be authentic [to cross over successfully]. And she is that.” 

“[Swift’s] approach felt like, ‘How can we do this? What do I need to improve? Do you like this?’” agrees SiriusXM + Pandora’s vp of music programming Alex Tear, noting the singer-songwriter’s humility as a newcomer to the format. “When you have that kind of dialogue and you’re open-minded and your ego allows it, you can start to shape exactly what you need to elevate to the levels she’s elevated to. She listened.” 

Essentially, Swift’s genre leap made fans out of naysayers who may have speculated that the star simply wanted to gain more money or fame by crossing over. She approached 1989 with a genuine love, appreciation and studiousness for the genre that you can hear in the album’s 13 songs – which were embraced by critics, industry heads and fans alike. 

“The music was just so superior,” says Bradley. “That resonated. People were playing multiple songs because all of them were so undeniable. ‘Style,’ ‘Blank Space’ and ‘Shake it Off’ were on the radio at the same time, which is not easy, for top 40 to be playing that many songs [from one album] at one time.” 

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Swift was also smart enough to know that, though her lyricism already made her special in any contemporary music space, she needed to bring something fresh to the pop landscape if she wanted to stand out. It wouldn’t have been enough to merely sing “Out of the Woods” over a beat borrowed from the EDM or R&B-infused tracks that were dominating the charts at the time. She also had to fill a space not yet occupied by fellow mid-2010s hitmakers like Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Drake or Pharrell.  

That’s where those star producers, as well as an on-the-rise Jack Antonoff, came in, assisting Swift in finding a specific blend of breezy, forward-moving sounds accented by synths and programmed drums that was entirely her own. Working with some of the biggest names in mainstream music on 1989 was another solid calculation on Swift’s part, as it gave her foray into pop “a lot of credibility,” says 25-year-old Swift expert and pop culture podcaster Brooke Uhlenhop.  

“She’s already established as such a great artist that people could trust that she knew what she was doing,” continued Uhlenhop, who’s been a fan since Swift’s debut era around 2006. “When she finally made that jump, people were like, ‘Oh, okay. This is really good.’ I think 1989 was more of a representation of her true self than she was letting people know before.” 

It likely helped that Swift was upfront about the change from the beginning of 1989’s album cycle. She didn’t necessarily have to vocalize that she was going pop, and could’ve just let the music speak for itself, but making a direct statement clarifying 1989’s influences made her switch-up a cultural moment in and of itself. It had admirers and casual observers paying attention before the record even came out, keen to see if Swift could pull it off. 

“I really liked that, the honesty of ‘Here’s what it’s going to be,’” recalls 25-year-old Pulitzer-winner and Swiftie Kristine White, who recalls sneaking into her elementary school’s computer lab to watch videos of the star. “There were so many people when I was in high school who first became Swifties because of 1989, because they weren’t country fans. If she’d kept easing into that transition, I don’t think she would’ve gained that huge following that she did.” 

Swift also went out of her way to distinguish her public image as being different from the Taylors of the past, from chopping off her famous blonde locks to moving out of Tennessee into a glamorous apartment in lower Manhattan. For the first time, she also incorporated specific items into the iconography of her album – seagulls, paper airplane necklaces, Polaroid photos – to further solidify and commodify her new identity in pop.  

“She completely reinvented herself,” adds White. “She went to New York. She cut off her hair. She was always with her big [#Squad] girlfriend group. She had a completely different style. Everything about herself was completely new, saying, ‘No, I’m really moving forward. You’re not going to see those country ringlet curls anymore.’” 

Bradley agrees – 1989 was the full package, as an album and era. “She and her team made all the right moves,” says the radio executive. “Everything was very well executed. Aesthetics, videos, press, television appearances. It just felt like everything connected, everything felt right.”  

That’s not to say she completely deserted her old self, though. She still went to great lengths to remind her OG Swifties that she was “still just a girl like I am,” says White, touching on Swift’s interactions with fans on Tumblr, her inaugural Secret Session listening parties and maintaining beloved traditions like the coded messages in her lyric booklets. “Keeping that authenticity really helped keep the older fans.”  

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Swift also wisely courted the people that counted in pop without “giving the finger to country music,” as put by country radio consultant and former Max Media operations manager John Shomby, who met Swift when she was 16. “She stayed true to herself and knew who her friends were in the business and stayed close to them, but also respected everybody else and did not push back when there was pushback on her.” 

“Here’s what’s really refreshing: Taylor Swift was available,” remembers Tear from the pop side. “She traveled, she did the miles, she met everyone, she had such in-depth relationships that people became cheerleaders. One of the key formulas was visiting the programmers that push the buttons. Then, they feel part of the movement.” 

This story is part of Billboard’s Genre Now package, highlighting the artists pushing their musical genres forward — and even creating their own new ones.

A decade later, Swift has only exponentially expanded what she started with 1989, which remains just as popular today. Just as she ended 2014 with 1989 at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, she recently sailed into 2024 with her re-recorded 1989 (Taylor’s Version) again at the top of the chart, logging even higher first-week sales numbers than she did the first time around (1.359 million in traditional sales, to be exact). And in between both iterations, she continued to do what worked for her in the first coming of 1989 — trying out different genres on projects like the folk-tinged Folklore and Evermore and staying curious, hungry, humble, savvy and yes, authentic.  

For instance, Shomby still maintains a relationship with Swift and her team, even though it’s been a decade since his industry coincided with hers. 

“Last time I saw her was three years ago when she was here at Nissan Stadium [in 2019], and I went back to see her. My wife and daughter were not there and the first thing she said was, ‘Where are my girls?’” he recalls with a smile you can hear over the phone. “I’m one of those people, anybody who criticizes Taylor, I’ll pull them aside and say, ‘Let me tell you about her.’ 

“You feel like you’re the only person in the room when she talks to you,” he adds. “That’s a rarity — especially in our business, especially on the pop side.” 

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus

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