Local Current Blog

Taylor Swift, 1989, and the timeless lure of the pop crush

At left, Taylor Swift's 1989. At right, the author (in suspenders) in 1989.

This morning I biked through my home town listening to pop idol Taylor Swift’s new album, and of course I was thinking of 1989.

1989 is the album’s title, and it’s the year Swift was born. As Jon Caramanica notes in the New York Times, the album also sonically harks back to an era before hip-hop and R&B dominated the sound of pop—an era already rapidly fading by the late 80s. (Would it have killed Swift to have included one New Jack Swing track?)

Taylor Swift may be this year’s biggest pop crush; in 1989 I was an awkward 14-year-old starting my freshman year of high school, and I had my own pop crushes. Wilson Phillips were about to release their first album, and I don’t know quite how it happened, but somehow I developed a huge crush on Chynna Phillips. In retrospect my Chynna crush made absolutely no sense—Winona Ryder, another of my celebrity crushes, was much more my type—but if infatuation made any sense at all, there would be nothing to write songs about except dancing and ore mines. (And grammar and plumbing, if you’re Weird Al.)

I bought the CDs of both Wilson Phillips’ self-titled debut and their 1992 follow-up Shadows and Light, and I’d listen to the discs over and over again, lying on my bed and poring through the liner notes. As an aspiring critic I was already deep enough into the music press to know that Wilson Phillips were a very guilty pleasure, and I’d read and re-read reviews of the albums, trying to justify my decision to listen to, say, “You Won’t See Me Cry” instead of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” (which I also bought around that time).

Of course it was silly to try to justify my love for Wilson Phillips: pop justifies itself. The point of a pop crush isn’t to write a record review—or to find a prospective soulmate or a virtual BFF. It’s to find someone whose face you can fixate on while you play that three-minute single over and over, hoping that when you finally stop the music and look up, you’ll be where you want to be in life. (For example, finished with high school.) Insofar as Taylor Swift shares some personality features with the overachieving spelling-bee champion who was the one girl to actually ask me out in high school, she’d be a more suitable pop crush for me than Chynna Phillips ever was—but if I wanted a pop crush I could actually hold an extended conversation with, I probably missed the boat with Annette Funicello.

We think of pop as the most time-sensitive musical genre, all about what’s hot right now. Like all great music, though, great pop music can speak across generations. The press about Wilson Phillips focused on the three vocalists’ famous parents: Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys; and John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. Plenty of teenagers in 1989 still loved their Dirty Dancing cassettes, and could recite the whole exchange between Mickey and Sylvia (“Come here, lover boy!”) from memory.

Objectively, 1989 is certainly a better album than Wilson Phillips (sorry for the betrayal, Gen X). Neither will replace Pet Sounds, but that doesn’t matter: if the right album comes along at the right moment, it becomes a timeless artifact of a generation. Thousands of people are downloading 1989 today because it’s THE THING you HAVE TO HEAR, just like Wilson Phillips was at the dawn of the 90s. It was poignant to listen to 1989 while thinking of 1989, when I dreamed of escaping St. Paul, Minnesota.

I did escape, and now I’m back—but I’m back to live the dream, working at a radio station and writing about music. Sometimes you need to shake it off, sure, but sometimes, if you just hold on for one more day, things will go your way.