How much harder would it be to teach the end of the Cold War after the release of Taylor Swift’s 1989? What look would appear in undergraduates’ eyes if I tried to teach them about the fall of the Berlin Wall right now? Could you put all of those 1989s together?
Those questions passed through my mind as I listened to Ryan Adams’ new cover of the pop singer’s bestseller today. I looked at the album artwork on my computer screen—1989 simply stated in a bold font—and it initially seemed far removed from the historic events of the last century. This is a very different 1989 than what I had spent so many years learning about and teaching.
Then I stopped myself. Are they really that far removed?
The sounds of 40-year old Adams and 25-year old Swift converge at a fascinating historical crossroads. Adams told Zane Lowe that his recreation of 1989 was born out a dark moment in his life and continued to grow because of his appreciation for Swift as a songwriter. He wanted to it be like Bruce Springsteen on Nebraska, that artist’s first acoustic album.
So Adams and Swift meet in the 1980s—Adams as someone who came of age during the decade, and emerged singing first punk rock, and then country and rock-and-roll. Swift was born at the decade’s end, imagining it rather than remembering it. Out of that imagination she created an album that recalls ‘80s pop flair—a flash of bright color amid thoughtful lyrics.
There’s a kind of historical poetry in their meeting. You could delve into the forms of style and their various influences to explore these facets further.
Modern country music gives birth to two very different artists, who both leave the genre only to cross paths again in another arena. And in that later meeting you get elements of rock, grunge, and dance. You could spend the better part of a semester in a pop culture class exploring those many elements.
Now, for the real question: what does all of this have to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall? At first glance, nothing at all. Except that it makes clear how an inescapable event for anyone born before 1989 doesn’t resonate in the same way for those actually born that year. Memory for Gen X and the Millenials is born out of decidedly different contexts, especially in terms of social and political recollections.
I used to ask my students what was the first major historical event they could remember. (Almost all of them were born in 1990 or later.) Most of them said 9/11. A few would stretch their memories back far enough to recall Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. I don’t know what Taylor Swift would say, but I imagine she might recall something within that range.
For these young people, the 1980s could not possibly have held the kind of insecurity they learned in 2001 and its aftermath. The fall of the Berlin Wall seems inevitable rather than profound to them. Yet, could you get that mixture of grit and pop that emerges in the 1990s without it? Those sounds that mark the growth of Adams’ career—how much do they resonate with the 1990s' much anticipated “end of history” and subsequent disenchantment?
Music tracks a fascinating continuity through so much change. The instrumental and lyrical references to the past intermix simultaneously with new technology, form, and other elements prodding the art form towards something new and different. It makes for an uneven and all the more fascinating narrative. How incredibly opportune for the student of history, then, that two talented artists have focused their talents on a year already laden with historical significance.
It also shows me how I had it all wrong. Thanks to Taylor Swift, there’s probably no better time to teach 1989.
The next challenge: incorporating Tiananmen Square into the mix.