By Kyle Kramer
With the 2012 release of her fourth album, Red, Taylor Swift took over the world. She was already country music’s biggest star and most visible crossover artist. She had already cornered the market among young girls, and she’d been winning over critics with her impeccable songwriting for years. She had already won GRAMMYs, VMAs, CMAs, AMAs, BMAs and more. But with Red, Taylor became a fully fledged mainstream pop star—the kind that doesn’t get assigned a genre anymore, the kind that people refer to by one name only.
The music made the occasional nod to country, but, with super-producers Max Martin and Shellback on board, the biggest singles, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” were cross-genre pop blockbusters. The former landed Taylor her first No. 1 single ever. Red sold 1.2 million copies in its first week, the highest one-week total of any album since 2002. By January, it was certified quadruple platinum.
So, now that she’s conquered country, won over detractors and claimed pop as her domain, what’s left for Taylor Swift to accomplish? Recently, in an interview with the Associated Press, she announced that she’s starting work on her as-yet-untitled fifth album. While details remain scarce, we do know that Taylor will be aiming higher, and that she’s not content to put out a retread of anything she’s already done.
“I think the goal for the next album is to continue to change, and never change in the same way twice,” she told the AP. “How do I write these figurative diary entries in ways that I’ve never written them before and to a sonic backdrop that I’ve never explored before? It’s my fifth album, which is crazy to think about, but I think what I’m noticing about it so far is it’s definitely taking a different turn than anything I’ve done before.”
A new direction for Taylor Swift’s new album, then, is guaranteed. The only question is what that might entail. Here are five directions she could go:
1) Go 100% Pop
Taylor Swift rules the music world when it comes to album sales. Her tours are the hottest tickets around. Her relationships may be the subject of ongoing gossip, and her lyrics may be perfect Facebook status and meme material alike. But Taylor has never galvanized the national conversation in the same way that Miley Cyrus has. She hasn’t secured her place in the pop star canon like Beyoncé. And she has a long way to go before she matches Katy Perry’s run of five No. 1 singles from the same album. Right now, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is Taylor’s only song to top the Billboard Hot 100. Does anyone really think the relentlessly competitive Taylor Swift, the girl whose trophy case looks like Smaug the dragon’s lair, is content with that?
Taylor’s ready to go full Madonna, full Michael Jackson. She’ll be bringing in the big guns to make sure this album sounds so massive that Katy Perry’s brand of bubblegum will taste like stale chiclets from the 25-cent machine at a highway truck stop. She’s going to make sure people from Jakarta to Johannesburg think of Nashville instead of New York City and Hollywood when they picture the U.S. She’s going to be so big the Super Bowl will be the halftime show at her concert. Expect nothing less than five classic singles and a year 2014 in which the top song on the radio for all 52 weeks is Taylor. You want pop? You knew Taylor was trouble when she walked in.
2) Go Yeezus Experimental
Taylor told the AP that she doesn’t yet know who her main collaborators for the upcoming album will be, but she did give a hint as to what she looks for in a producer or songwriting partner, explaining, “I love people who have endless strange and exciting ideas about where music can go.” She also noted that Max Martin and Shellback, her most sought-after collaborators on Red, were the types to ask “What if we made it weirder? What if we took it darker?” If Taylor liked the weird directions people like Max Martin and Shellback — wildly brilliant producers, yes, but pretty much the image of conventionally effective pop — pushed her, she can definitely go weirder and darker.
Even within the same realm of mega-producers, there’s room for a collaboration with electronic troublemakers like Diplo or Skrillex, either of whom could add some serious low-end and raucous energy to her sound. She could follow Miley Cyrus’ lead and work with hip-hop’s champion of slowed-down hits, Mike Will Made It, or she could enlist hip-hop’s maestro of the Taylor Swiftian wounded relationship song, Drake’s right-hand man Noah “40” Shebib. But if she really wants to go weird and dark, she might as well go all the way, tapping the heavy, lurching sounds of people like Kanye West collaborators Hudson Mohawke, Evian Christ and Arca, or flirting with the beat nerd underground of artists like Kingdom and Flying Lotus. You think “I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In” seemed edgy with its almost-dubstep interlude? You haven’t heard Taylor deconstruct drum n’ bass, post-dubstep and electro house yet. Just wait.
3) Go Hip-hop Fusion
One of Taylor’s favorite things about Nashville, according to her AP interview, is that it’s “a music hub that accepts and allows all genres to be present.” She also expressed excitement over a recent trend of a “kind of fusing of genres.” This. Is. Code. This is like a mafia don saying that he thinks his cousin might be “taking a trip out-of-state soon.” Florida Georgia Line, Taylor is coming for you.
There’s no way she’s spent the last year sitting around content with the fact that two dudes who wear leather bracelets crushed country radio in a way it had heretofore been uncrushed by making a song with Nelly (“Cruise (Remix)”). Taylor will not stand for this. She will not accept being bested at anything, especially country radio. She has the biggest songs. She is the biggest artist. Period. If Florida Georgia Line is going to have the temerity to make a country crossover moment that big, you can bet Taylor has been taking notes. She’s already made a song with B.o.B., and she’s brought Nicki Minaj onstage at a concert to perform “Super Bass” together. Taylor is already hip-hop. She will own it. At the very least, expect a pairing with somebody pop-friendly and familiar, like Nicki.
But if she’s serious about musical cross-pollination in Nashville, she could really go out on a limb and put a local rapper like Young Buck or Starlito on a track. Cruise? More like shorty wanna ride…to Taylor’s next No. 1 hit.
4) Go Twee
Taylor Swift’s idea of a guilty pleasure is dressing up like a hipster (a.k.a. putting on librarian glasses) to go out on the town, and her taste for the whimsical is well-documented. In 2010, she put a pond and a giant birdcage in her apartment, which she dubbed the “Imaginarium,” and these days you might catch her on social media baking up a storm or drinking tea. Taylor may be an international superstar, but her taste for the quirky, dorky and cute could probably fund a few major Etsy enterprises—she’s totally twee. Now that she’s done the country thing and the pop thing, she might as well indulge her real interests, pick up a ukulele, and make an indie pop album. The whole urbane pop star thing might work on Taylor, but, by all appearances, she’d rather be wearing old sweaters and cranking up the tunes on her vintage radio while bustling around her perfectly shabby kitchen. Fortunately, there’s an entire genre of music devoted to this aesthetic.
All Taylor needs is to throw in a little whistling, recruit an absurdly nerdy backing choir and make a song that uses a kazoo. Out with the Andrew Bird, in with the Taylor Swift.
5) Go Stripped-Down
“I see myself as kind of this girl who writes songs in her bedroom,” Taylor told the AP, explaining that high production values and theatrical performances aren’t core to her persona. Now that she’s had a chance to tour with a massive show and put on elaborate performances on some of the world’s biggest stages, it wouldn’t be odd for Taylor to return to her roots and shy away from the spotlight a little bit. A singer-songwriter album of just her singing and playing the guitar could be the perfect thing to cut through the noise and the spectacle of contemporary pop and continue to carve out her own lane.
If Miley’s going to go over the top, Taylor should go the other way. Her breakup songs may feel real and may be cutting now, but imagine what they might sound like stripped down to their core, after a Bon Iver-style trip to the woods. Better yet, imagine her reducing the songs down to just her voice, maybe looping her vocals in a weird sonic experiment, “Fearless” becoming an unhinged meditative dirge on the nature of fear itself. Even better, what if those “diary entries” were reduced to their purest essence: just straight spoken word? A spoken word album from Taylor Swift would be the most badass thing imaginable. It would be pure art, a sign that she had entered her Jim-Morrison-as-Lizard-King phase. It would drive the world crazy.