So, for skeptics that remain among you, we've got 5 key bullet points for why this just might be your moment to give T-Swift her due. (When you come around, she'll act really surprised and appreciative!)
There is nothing on this album that you could really even call country
Some of the less dynamic ballads veer towards an uplifting sort of post-Coldplay folk-pop that vaguely resembles the sort of thing you'd hear in the Once musical on Broadway, but there's barely a twang to be found. While most of it is pure bubble-gum pop, there are nods to alt-rock, and even some very light dabbling in modern electronica. Opening track "State of Grace" has a U2 power ballad feel to it that overshadows the slick Shania Twain "oohs" embedded in its guitar sound (this actually goes surprisingly well, and is a better idea than Bono's had for the same sort of big, mainstream guitar songs in a while). Gratuitous pickup truck references from previous songs are even swapped out for Maseratis!
The next time she plays a Nashville arena, will some disillusioned country fan scream "Judas!" at her? Of course, no one would hear it above the general crowd roar of otherwise giddy girls, but we kind of hope it's in there somewhere.
Straight-up pop is having a hell of a year
Swift decision to drop her country affect just adds to a pile of undeniable, wide-appeal pop released this year. In addition to Carly Rae Jepsen's bubbly Kylie channeling, there's been Ellie Goulding's slightly more adventurous Brit electro, and Saint Etienne's cool elder statesman record Words and Music by Saint Etienne. "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" sits on a high pinnacle for this sort of thing, with hooks galore and a sharklike momentum that stands up to repeated grocery store exposure. It also has maybe the greatest incredulous "What?" in pop history. This may be blasphemy to some reader segments out there, but I personally like it better than any Whitney Houston song by a significant margin. Maybe the brief, dumb Ke$ha, Rihanna, Katy Perry window is closing? That might be wishful thnking, but well-crafted, non-embarrassing bubblegum is bringing it right now.
The Rory Gilmore Gambit
So, I've been watching alot of old Gilmore Girls episodes lately, for totally non-sinister reasons that I don't really need to get into here. But in listening to RED with that show in mind, it strikes me that there is some similarity to the handling of the show's teen growing pains and Taylor Swift's subtle nods towards more grown-up content in her new material. Once they've reached a certain age, ongoing characters based on a wholesome girl next door model have to move beyond nervous crushes into something resembling an adult romantic reality (more commonly known as a sex life). Recent teen sensations like Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears have mangled the transition, going from doe-eyed innocents to cage-dancing bad girls with whiplash speed. This can be very awkward.
On the Gilmore Girls, they spent many seasons letting young Rory make slow, heartfelt romantic decisions, w/o any of the lasciviousness of a trashier, worse show like Gossip Girl. But rather than totally ignore reality and keep her hopelessly pure, they let college-aged Rory grow up a bit, drink occasionally, end up in bed with suitably charming scions of East Coast publishing families. There's an increased acknowledgment of desire on RED that goes past puppy love on the bleachers and into open-eneded nightclub flirtation, but stays respectful, tasteful, and appropriate. This is the way to do this.
She doesn't actually "go dubstep" (but maybe she should!)
There was a little advance chatter that Swift would be tapping into the massive, massive popularity of EDM producers on this album, by indulging in a little bass droppery on her quite good, bad-idea anthem "I Knew You Were Trouble". And while the song's chorus does suddenly get bass-heavy and super dramatic, but the music soft-pedals the interesting juxtaposition it might have had. With the emotional character of the song, the feeling of your world suddenly shifting under you that it's trying to evoke, it would have made artistic sense for the sounds to get even bigger and more disorienting in that moment. She underplays a decision that would have been more mind-blowing in the extreme. Which is understandable, she doesn't want to change her successful brand too much. But there is a bit of missed potential to incorporate a seemingly alien trend in an organic way that could have been really daring, instead of mildly interesting.
The question Swift should be asking herself here and going forward: What would Beyonce do? Go for the more interesting production choice, probably.
Her cool-kid anxiety is palpable
It's clear that Swift is at least a little tentative about taking huge stylistic leaps, though she seems to want to. It seems like she feels like going too far out into esoteric choices would be seen as phony be some imagined class of judgmental elitists that she repeatedly takes preemptive strikes against. Some of the clunkiest moments in otherwise enjoyably frothy songs are the references to people Taylor Swift is paranoid are too cool to be Taylor Swift fans. "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" has it's "indie records that are much cooler than mine" eye-roll, "22" has some clunky "hipster" references, and inserts imagined naysayers "ew"-ing over Swift in ear shot of a crowded club. But what might have seemed like a defiant, damn the haters posture, actually comes across as sort of nakedly insecure, a front that fails to convince. But Swift's appeal form the start has been becoming something of a direct, relatable conduit to the messy feelings of young women. So, really her authenticity is only increased by entering her 20s worrying about what other people think, attempting boldly, and totally futilely to show us all that she couldn't care less.