Never in my twenty-seven years on this earth have I witnessed an album create such a rift in the musical continuum that Taylor Swift’s 1989 did. Her loud and proud “Adios!” to the country music world and immediate 180 into pop left peers, critics, and fans scratching their heads. Fans and music columnists vilified Taylor, with some stating her departure was the best thing to happen to country music in the last decade and that she was never really “country” in the first place. Longtime Swift fans were confused as to whether they should follow her into the fray or take cover behind the country bros and their jacked up trucks. Even pop queen Katy Perry was rumored to have made comments directed towards Swift’s sudden switch.
Nevertheless 1989 debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, sold over 1 million copies in its first week, and became the best selling album of 2014. Five of the six singles she released went to #1 on Billboard’s Adult Top 40 chart, and three of the six hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
So, how did she make the transition so flawlessly?
The six singles released off of 1989 were Shake It Off, Blank Space, Bad Blood, Style, Wildest Dreams, and Out of The Woods. I have analyzed these songs to try and determine a pattern that may have contributed to the success of the album as a whole. Forgoing the popular consensus that Swift has been writing pop songs since the beginning of her career, giving her ample experience in crafting hit songs, we can assume there were outside factors involved.
Swift’s writing team consisted of Max Martin and Shellback, with Ali Payami appearing on Style and Fun guitarist Jack Antonoff co-writing Out of The Woods with Swift. Ali Payami has written some successful songs for Ellie Goulding, Ariana Grande, and The Weeknd and Jack Antonoff has done well writing for his band and other artists, but Taylor brought out the big guns when she recruited Max Martin and Shellback to write and produce the album. Max Martin has written or produced most U.S. pop songs since 1996, beginning with The Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games With My Heart.” Shellback has also had an impressive career as a songwriter and producer for artists like Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and Maroon 5. Between them, Martin and Shellback have over 80 top ten songs.
Examining the construction of each song shows that Martin and Shellback have devised a musical formula for songwriting and production that results in commercially viable music. Every aspect of the song is carefully calculated to give a finished product that is concise and audibly appealing. The play time averages at 3:45 per song, ranging from the shortest, Wildest Dreams at 3:18, to the longest, Blank Space at 3:52. Length may not seem like a big deal, but its the first step in creating continuity between songs. If all the songs feel the same in terms of length it makes them seem familiar to the listener, similar to the packaging used by popular brand names.
Following the branding pattern for length, the songs are also internally structured to give listeners the same sense of familiarity. Each single begins with a short musical intro that lasts less than 20 seconds with an average of 9.5 seconds, excluding Bad Blood which has no intro. The chorus is introduced around the 45 second mark and comprises about half of the song’s total playing time, with Bad Blood again being the anomaly by beginning with a chorus.
The most obvious trademark of the Martin/Shellback duo is their use of tempo. The average tempo was split between 90 beats per min (bpm) and 153 bpm. The slower 90 bpm is closely associated with Hip Hop, while the faster 153 bpm is where most popular dance genre’s reside. Having the singles fall within this realm of tempos ensures they have a beat that listeners recognize and can easily dance to.
I found the lyrical content to be the most interesting aspect of the singles. Not because of the subject, but because the lyrics, when broken down into individual words and scanned for repeating words and phrases, were mainly comprised of lyrics used in the chorus, averaging around 70% of the total word count. This is marketing in its most simple and efficient form. By having the chorus appear throughout 70% of the song, Martin and Shellback are statistically increasing the chances of hearing the “hook” or the meat of the song, which exponentially increases the chances of the listener remembering what they heard. Taylor Swift and her music is literally being branded into the minds of listeners like a hot iron into cow hide.
A quick glance would give the illusion that Taylor Swift’s 1989 and its singles were just cleverly written pop songs, but it goes much deeper than that. Martin and Shellback have taken songwriting to a completely different universe by incorporating basic marketing into the creation and production of the music they write and produce. The continuity of the songs gives us a product that is easy to use (catchy and listenable) and places it in packaging that is familiar and welcoming (consistency in branding). They also drive home their brand and ensure people remember their product by having the catchy part, the chorus, make up 70% of the total song. If you’re a songwriter, take note. Catchy is good, but incorporating marketing strategies into your songwriting can give your music, and potentially your career, the boost you’ve been looking for.