by Jaime Lees
Taylor Swift and I go way back. She doesn't know this, but we've had a relationship since the beginning of 2007 when I caught the second half of "Teardrops on My Guitar" while flipping through radio stations one day in my car. The song sounded so good so immediately that I stopped the scan button to listen to the whole thing. I hummed the chorus for the next few hours, and when it wouldn't get out of my head, I gave in and looked up the artist. Taylor Swift, said the Internet. Never heard of her.
Because I'm a curious type, I called up my friend Kelly who is into country music and was like, "Who is this singer, Taylor Swift?" and she told me that Swift was some new teenage singer/songwriter who had been blowing up the country charts. I had no idea. Modern country isn't usually my thing, but the song kind of floated around in my head for the next few weeks. Then I poked around online and found some streams of other songs on that album including "Our Song" and "Should've Said No." Holy crap, they were good. Then I bought the album and was like, "Jesus Christ, all of these songs are so damn perfect. How is this person only sixteen years old? It must be some kind of trick."
Some time later I was home sick on a weekday and I happened to catch a Taylor Swift appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It was our first proper (stalker/stalkee) introduction. Before I saw this appearance, I assumed that she was just a generic blond country singer; I had no idea that she was so adorable and funny. She played a killer version of "Our Song" on a sparkly acoustic guitar, and in the interview portion she dissed her famous ex-boyfriend. On international TV! I was all, "Oh, burn! You go, girl!" And I think that's when I officially fell in love.
And suddenly, to my great surprise, I became a loud, obnoxious champion for this little country star. I'd tell anybody who would listen about how great her songs were and how much I was shocked by it myself. (This phenomenon later became so commonplace that it was referenced just a few days ago in a Saturday Night Live skit.) Most of my friends who liked modern country thought that she was a flash-in-the-pan obnoxious Nashville consumer product, but I had arguments against all that too.
I'd dug into her history and found out many impressive facts about her life, like how she was hired by Sony/ATV at age fourteen as a staff songwriter. And then she took her teenage self and managed to market the shit out of her product until she became one of the most successful, top-selling Grammy-winning performers in recent memory. (And so far, she's done it all without taking off her clothes.) So I decided that Taylor Swift was punk-fucking-rock and a badass feminist, actually, and I felt bad for any of my too-cool-for-school fellow music journalists who wouldn't give her a chance.
Soon after, she released her sophomore album, Fearless. I loved it. It showcased her amazing songwriting ability and stealthy lyrical trickery. It still sounded kind of country, but it embraced her exceptional ability to write a flat-out anthem. The best single off of that album, "You Belong With Me" zoomed up every music chart, and rightfully so. It was a modern day hat tip to characters like Duckie Dale from Pretty In Pink -- Swift cast herself as the geeky (yet secretly cool) outcast who had a crush on an unattainable. She embraced other styles and attitudes, too. For example, "White Horse" was a "More Than Words"-esque sing-along ballad, and while she still dabbled in dependable fairy-tale set-ups for her lyrical romances, none of it was too over the top or annoying. "You're Not Sorry" and "Forever and Always" showcased her often-criticized forever-jilted side, but the growth exposed in those songs was necessary to those following along with her story. Almost everything about the songs on that album was endearing, and none if it required any specialized musical tastes. It was pop. It was for everybody.
By the time Speak Now was released in 2010, I was a bona fide Swifty. I believed in this woman and was eager to hear whatever came next. At this point, any disparaging reviews that I read about her no longer focused on her being a former "country" act; they were all about her being young and female and how she wrote about her failed relationships. Even major outlets focused on these points more than necessary, and I read some of the most sexist mainstream coverage that I'd seen in a long while. (Which is saying something, really, since this type of thing is so common that it's considered the norm.)
Again, the songs contained enough skills to hush any naysayers. Yes, she was still dressed like a pretty, pretty princess on the album cover, but the tunes inside were phenomenal. Some of tracks took a few listens to grow on me, but I'd learned to expect that from Swift's ace-up-her-sleeve songwriting style. Songs like "Back to December" and "Dear John" struck me as overly sappy, and at first I thought "Mean" was juvenile, but now I love them all. On this album, Swift took the personal and made it universal. Yeah, she continued to slam her ex-boyfriends, but it was in a more broad, relatable way. The lyrics were storytelling, very visual. The title track begged for a cutesy slow-motion-hopping-into-a-convertible-and-speeding-away accompanying video. That never materialized, but the songs stood strong on their own. "The Story of Us" was fast and powerful, and I thought that "Better Than Revenge" was the best "fuck you" pop song I'd heard since Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around." (And that sly little "You deserve it" at 2:47 still gets me every time -- it adds so much extra dimension to that story with just those three words.)
And then came Red in 2012. It was her first truly grownup album, and for the most part it just slayed. It contained just a hint of country and instead embraced a very modern pop sound. It was fresh as hell, really, and prompted critics (including me) to declare Taylor Swift Just Took Her Pop Queen Throne. All Hail! Red felt like she'd finally narrowed everything down and found her own signature thing. It displayed her songwriting in the perfect way while still experimenting with different musical styles. Swift famously flirted with her dark side in the delicious "I Knew You Were Trouble," and she elegantly exploited the plight of privileged twentysomethings with "22." But it was "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and its "piston-powered cheerleader chant" chorus that took it to the next level. On the whole, these songs painted Swift as fully evolved, even if slightly personally confused. She had finally found her own, strong adult voice. (And she gave us pizza.)
So as you could guess, I was majorly pumped for the release of her latest album, 1989. I loved the first single, "Shake It Off," but thought it sounded bad when played from my crappy old iPhone. (These kids liked it, too.) And for the past month or so, I've been eagerly devouring all things Swift in the press. I've enjoyed reading tons of articles about how she was set to be the first platinum-selling artist of the year, how she removed her music from Spotify, and my favorite: Taylor Swift Sells White Noise In Canada. I'd also read that 1989 was advertised as being "Mastered for iTunes," but I had no problem with this because I love iTunes and use it daily without issue.
In anticipation of the release, I cleared away part of my schedule so that I'd have more time to dig into the new album. For real. I was ready for this album to be so amazingly great that I could give a copy to a non-fan and win them over. I was ready to tell the whole of the Swift-hating world to S my D all day.
So imagine my surprise when I first listened to Swift's 1989 and I freakin' hated it.
Continue to page two.
Here's the deal: I can hardly even get to the songwriting or the lyrics because my ears are rejecting the actual sound of the album. If I try to play it at normal volume, my ears -- I swear -- literally hurt and feel like they are physically clamping shut. It just sounds way too...high? Shrill? Screechy? I tried it on my home stereo. I tried it in my car. I tried it on my phone. I tried it with earbuds. I tried it with my amazing-sounding fancy vintage headphones. Nope. Every single time I tried to play it, I caught myself wincing and reaching for the volume button to make it go away.
How in the heck is this possible? At first, I reasoned that this album was mixed for ears quite a few years younger (and less rock & roll-damaged) than mine, but upon deeper reflection that didn't make any sense. Aren't kids supposed to hear higher sounds better than adults? That's how they use those secret ringtones and whatnot, right? So by that logic, this album should hurt their ears even more than mine. And I'm not cruel enough to play 1989 around a dog or other animal with exceptional hearing, but I'd be interested in knowing their reaction.
As one does, I took my whining to Facebook, hoping that someone could explain to me what my problem was with this damn album. My many musician friends had their theories, and a friend linked me a to an article where another writer had the same problem. Other Googling led to many blog posts and complaints that were similar to mine. And still others were unsure about her new pop sound. Thank you! You're never alone when you have the Internet, friends.
My searching led me to something called the "acoustic reflex." I think that's my problem. It's "an involuntary muscle contraction that occurs in the middle ear of mammals in response to high-intensity sound stimuli." Yep. Exactly.
As it turns out, there are a bunch of possible scientific explanations for what feels like my ears screaming, clamping down and then going dull. Further research brought me to topics like listener fatigue ("thought to be an extension of the quantifiable psychological perception of sound") and I even have some high-tech theories related to something called "Fletcher-Munson curves."
I decided to bring in an audio expert. (And obvious full disclosure here: a friend.) I'd been engaged in a years-long conversation with Mario Viele (of St. Louis band Sex Robots) about Taylor Swift. He's a highly skilled engineer, mix engineer and producer currently based in New York, but he's also a Swift fan, too, and therefore uniquely qualified to speak on the subject. We'd been texting each other for days about the new album and I asked him to go on the record to explain the problem with my ears.
For the most part, these songs sound weirdly like '90s club hits to me. Reminiscent of, like, Danity Kane or those boys bands or something. It's an unexpected observation that was backed up by Viele's musical knowledge. His smart (and fun) answers to my confused questions are below.
Jaime Lees: Why does the new Taylor Swift album hurt my ears? And what does "Mastered for iTunes" mean, exactly? Explain it to me like I don't know anything about audio production-- because I don't.
Mario Viele: You don't need to know anything about production to get the vibe here; the neon all over the artwork says it all. It's mixed bright and hyped like a Hollywood nightclub, with full intent to pop and buzz and shine.
Mastered for iTunes -- which is a process -- is different than mixing and mastering for the iTunes age, which is more of a concept. Now, a separate master is often made from the source mixes direct to iTunes quality, skipping the CD master stage and resulting in a "better" inferior format. It's not exactly ideal, nor is it a terrible thing. It's kinda like sonic sex ed -- don't tell the kids not to when they're just gonna anyway.
The "Mastered for iTunes" that you will see tagged on this album in the iTunes store means that instead of having a middle man in the mastering stage -- the CD master -- a master was encoded direct to the iTunes AAC format from the source mixes, retaining higher bit rates and sampling rates than CDs contain, yet AAC is a less desirable and more compressed format than CD audio. It's controversial for these basic reasons.
What is bugging you is probably more the production technique -- what I'd call mixing and mastering for the iTunes age -- which is an aesthetic choice by the team that you as a listener are being objective about. There are moments on the record (notably: the hooks) where compression is used as a tool to excite the track.
Think of a pipe: There is only so much water pressure that can go through it. Imagine that pipe pushed to it's fullest limit, shaking and spurting water from its valves. That's kind of the sentiment, but done in a deliberate way with a high grade pipe that can handle the pressure. So it's more implied than it is literally ready to explode. It's a lot coming at you, which may be why your ears are going, "AHH!!" a little bit.
Is there any way to fix this problem on my own when listening to the album? Like, what if I crank the bass or wear my headphones over decibel-canceling ear plugs?
The record isn't just named 1989 for Taylor's year of birth; it's also filled with '80s style production... drum machine samples, keyboards, etc. Sure, you can crank the bass, but you might be better off busting out your Pizza Hut Back To The Future II sunglasses and strapping on some Air Mags for the dance floor.
As an engineer, your ears are already stressed all day, but how did the album sound to you? What would you have done differently?
I think she achieved what she set out to. It's full of synth and vocal-heavy tracks influenced by both '80s/'90s arena-pop and current mainstream pop alike. There is a big difference between error and intent, if I could change anything I'd invent a time machine and try and get "This Love" on the Heathers soundtrack.
Who do I blame for this? One of the dozen producers on 1989? All of the producers on 1989? The engineer? The mixer-person? "The current state of pop music"? John Mayer?
The "executive producer," Max Martin, is responsible for big '90s hits by the likes of Britney, N*SYNC, and the Backstreet Boys. if you're gonna blame anyone, BLAME THAT GUY. Seriously though, he was around for Red and is no doubt a big part of the path to 1989, right behind Debbie Gibson, Paula Abdul and that cartoon rap cat, Mc Skat Kat. If there's truly anything to blame here it's most definitely the lack of cat raps!
As far as I can gather from attempting to listen to the songs, they sound like the future, but it might not be a future that I am ready for just yet. As with some of her other tunes, maybe repeated listenings will somehow force it all into order in my brain, and also make my ears calm down. Generally, the more you listen the better she gets. This has always been true of all of her other albums. It's been a week since 1989 dropped and I already like the album (what I've heard of it) way more than I did last week.
As a good student of history, I'm already interested in what I'll think of it six weeks or six months from now. I suspect that I will have adjusted and that it will somehow become my new favorite thing ever. She has some kind of creepy and creeping magic, I think, and I'm still a believer. Bring it on, Swift.
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