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The Taylor Swift Guide to 1989: Breakers Gonna Break, Fakers Gonna Fake

From the Bangles to Billy Joel, the boldest, weirdest genre-crossing jams from Taylor’s inspirational year

Neneh Cherry and Taylor Swift

Neneh Cherry and Taylor Swift

David Redfern/Redferns; Jeff Kravitz/MTV1415/FilmMagic

Taylor Swift shocked the world when she explained the inspiration behind her new album, 1989. "I was listening to a lot of late-Eighties pop," Tay said. "I really love the chances they were taking. I love how bold it was. I love how ahead of its time it was." Girl, you know it's true. 1989 remains one of the weirdest years in pop history, as hip-hop and house music bumrushed the radio. It was the year Billy Joel wanted to rap, while rappers wanted to sample Billy Joel. The New Kids happened. So did Milli Vanilli.

Taylor knows her Eighties stuff — the brilliance of "Shake It Off" is how she pretends to be a Swedish pop star pretending to be American, which is the most 1989 move imaginable. You can tell she's obviously been studying her Roxette cassingles. Like she says, "I started delving into the late Eighties. It was apparently a time of just limitless potential."

So here are 20 songs that sum up the glorious pop chaos of 1989 — the good, the bad, the "Funky Cold Medina." It was a year when there were no boundaries — artists wanted to invade each other's turf, plunder each other's style, violate each other's copyrights. Nobody could tell what was underground or pop. Lawyers hadn't ruined sampling yet. Plagiarism was hot. Gender segregation was out. These tunes define the electric-youth spirit of 1989 the way Taylor describes it: "Bright colors, bold chances, rebellion." In the words of the great philosopher Young MC: You want it? Baby, you got it.

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Madonna, “Like a Prayer”

Madonna was the center of the 1989 pop universe. She wore so many disguises on her blockbuster Like a Prayer — hippie patchouli mystic, sex priestess, bad Italian party girl, contrite Catholic penitent, Eurotrash poseur, Latina street gangster, gospel-disco soul searcher. Yet they all sounded like her, which is why so many of us could relate. The more ridiculous Madonna got, the realer she sounded.

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Neneh Cherry, “Buffalo Stance”

Anybody complaining about Taylor's rap skills needs to bow before Neneh Cherry, who had even flimsier flow yet was equally blasé about letting that get in her way. A longtime London punk scenester, Cherry scored a genius dance-floor hit about girls wearing padded bras and sucking beer through straws, because feminism. And her real English accent sounded even faker than her fake American accent. Bomb the Bass, rock this place!

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Fine Young Cannibals, “I’m Not The Man I Used to Be”

It's tough to explain why we were all obsessed with Fine Young Cannibals at the time, but we were. The racially ambiguous Roland Gift refused to clarify his heritage, dismissing race as a pseudoscience, and nobody knew if he was straight or gay or bi or what. Everyone had a crush on this London mystery man — his androgyny, his punk-as-disco flair, his pretty-vacant blankness. FYC named their album after a scholarly tome by Claude Levi-Strauss, yet sang lyrics apparently composed by fridge magnets; they covered a Buzzcocks song like it was a Motown ballad. "I'm Not the Man I Used to Be" takes the chopped-up Eric B. & Rakim "I Know You Got Soul" guitar lick and builds it into a confession that bruises your heart a little bit.

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Roxette, “The Look”

"What in the world can make a brown-eyed girl turn blue?" For the answer to this and other questions, let us turn to a Swedish New Wave boy-girl duo with gooey hair, dubious English fluency ("Her loving is a wild dog") and a burning desire to rap about a sex-robot girl who's a miracle man and a juvenile scam — but she's got the look.

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Milli Vanilli, “Girl You Know It’s True”

They were post-racial, post-gender, post-music — in an decade that really abused the "post" prefix, Milli Vanilli were the post-est. They turned underground hip-hop signifiers (that "Paid in Full" beat) into the trendy Euro-sleaze of "Girl You Know It's True." (Live, did they throw in the opening lines of Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise"? Of course they did!) Even their interviews were a riot, like when Rob Pilatus explained the group's name: "In Turkish it means something very positive; and we chose Vanilli because we liked Scritti Politti, and we wanted to have an ending like this. So you see, it's quite complicated." Pop critic John Leland (whose monthly "Singles" columns in Spin were as crucial as Madonna to 1989) compared "Girl You Know It's True" to the Sex Pistols and claimed, "Milli Vanilli are the future, your future." He wasn't lying.

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Samantha Fox, “I Wanna Have Some Fun”

"Hellooo — it's me again. Don't you know it's hard to keep a good woman down? But then again [naughty yet love-needing giggle] maybe that could be fun! Tee hee!" Oh, Samantha Fox — that irrepressible trash-disco sapphic sister with the cheeky London accent, returning from her hit "Naughty Girls Need Love Too" with a pro-fun-having anthem, with acid-house strings and a hired B-boy chanting "Sa-Sa-Sa-mantha Fox!" It's the girlie-disco answer to Kiss' "Rock & Roll All Nite," which makes sense since Paul Stanley was one of Samantha's conquests, back when she was still going through her brief dating-dudes phase.

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Bobby Brown, “Every Little Step”

Anybody who sees Taylor's video and thinks "Gap commercial," back to school. You must learn: Bobby Brown invented this with "Every Little Step," and his rapping sounded even klutzier than Tay's, which is only one of the millions of reasons we all loved Bobby Brown so madly. It's like that, like that.

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Paula Abdul, “Forever Your Girl”

Paula ruled the radio all year: "Cold Hearted" was the "Anaconda" of its time, despite its anti-snake stance, while "Opposites Attract" popularized the having-sex-with-cats fad. But "Forever Your Girl" was her most ubiquitous hit, showcasing Paula's unique approach to the art of vocal projection — the way she chirps "Why are you down?" was comedy gold.

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Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

Geez, you say "cultural appropriation" like it's a bad thing. Go get a late pass: Billy Joel had a Number One hit in 1989 rapping about the JFK assassination and the Suez crisis over a Prince synth riff. "We Didn't Start the Fire" was a brilliantly preposterous case of a rock star getting it so wrong he got it right. Everybody loved shouting along on cue: "Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo!" It was Number One the week Taylor was born, which explains a lot. If Billy ever updates it, God knows he'd have plenty of 2014 material to work with: "Bey and Jay, blown away, what else do I have to say?"

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Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, “Road to the Riches”

While Billy Joel wanted to rap, Kool G Rap wanted to sound like Billy Joel. That's 1989 in a nutshell. "Road to the Riches" rocks over one of the coolest piano loops ever, sampled from B.J.'s 52nd Street deep cut "Stiletto." Result: A Cold Chillin' 12-inch classic, immensely influential on East Coast hip-hop, yet completely unknown to Billy Joel fans.

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New Kids on the Block, “Hangin’ Tough”

Listen up everybody if you wanna take a chance. Just get on the floor and do the New Kids dance. Chuck D proclaimed himself a New Kids fan — "they sincerely love hip-hop" — and that tells you how awesomely strange things were at the time.

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Tone Loc, “Funky Cold Medina”

Back before lawyers declared war on sampling (that happened later in 1989, when De La Soul got sued by the Turtles) a song like this could fluke into the top of the charts. Those were the days when you had to figure out the samples yourself — I got "Hot Blooded" right away, but it took me months to place that "Christine Sixteen" break. The Delicious Vinyl guys (who also made the Beasties' Paul's Boutique that year) mix Kiss and Foreigner guitar riffs, a go-go cowbell solo and Tone Loc learning valuable lessons about the enigma of sexual identity. Spoiler: Sheena was a man!

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The Bangles, “Eternal Flame”

Goop heaven, just piling it on, keep repeating that first verse over and over, why not — shameless pop overkill, a Number One ballad from a band of Paisley Underground indie apostates who decided to parody 1989 with the same humor they'd used to parody 1967. And in response to Susanna Hoffs' questions: (1) yes, I feel your heart beating (2) totally understand (3) same (4) not dreaming (5) eternal. So eternal.

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The Jungle Brothers, “Tribe Vibes”

The utopian hip-hop anthem, announcing a D.A.I.S.Y. Age full of Native Tongue mystics with Afrocentric consciousness ("Work by day, ritual by night, the vibe holds the tribe and it keeps it real tight"), except it's not an exclusive, purist kind of tribe — it's the kind with room for guitar solos sampled from the Bee Gees. (And jokes about the Bangles.) "Tribe Vibes" wasn't a hit, but it defined the pop landscape. Everybody listening to the radio in 1989 wanted to be part of this tribe on some level.

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The Escape Club, “Wild Wild West”

For people who liked INXS but were scared off by Michael Hutchence's raw sensuality, the Escape Club offered this actually-kinda-dreadful novelty hit. It had the proto-"Shake It Off" beat and sour synth-horns and a rap about "headin' for the Nineties," though the song was long forgotten by New Year's Eve. The Escape Club looked like one-hit wonders, but their second hit "I'll Be There" was a genuinely moving ballad, so you never can tell.

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Kon Kan, “I Beg Your Pardon”

Canadian synth-pop, ripping New Order while sampling a Sixties country oldie ("I Never Promised You a Rose Garden") and a bunch of disco-freak party chants. Any other year, this would have been a hipster art project; in 1989 it was Top 40 radio.

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Enuff Z’Nuff, “New Thing”

Metal got really weird in 1989, after being already long-past-insane for the previous few years. It was the only radio-ready form of guitar music, yet it was going through constant personality crises, because every band kept trying to raise the glam ante. Enuff Z'Nuff got glammer than glam in their first hit, "New Thing" — hippie neon peace-sign acid-house power-pop metal. "Get high on a new thing," indeed.

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Soul II Soul, “Back II Life”

Like Ten City, Soul II Soul aimed for adult soul realness, at a time when the only imaginable style of realness was ridiculousness. So the U.K. groove theorists in Soul II Soul added a little ridiculousness to the formula, with Jazzie B's keytar and manifesto: "A happy face, a thumping bass, for a loving race." 25 years later, "Back II Life" still sounds like the future, especially if you're really high.

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Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, “What I Am”

Hippie-chick poetry with wiggly Deadhead bass. The weird part: KRS-One declared this his favorite album of 1989. Suddenly, we were living in a world where hip-hop's Afrocentric philosopher king was totally cool with Edie Brickell getting cosmic about smiling dogs. "I'm not aware of too many things/I know what I know, if you know what I mean/Uh, do ya?" She later married Paul Simon.

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Paul Simon, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, John Madden, Spud Webb & Mickey Mantle, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”

An utterly bananas video where Rhymin' Simon tricks out his 1972 pseudo-rican oldie with two Queens hip-hop heroes, showing off his street cred with true mathematics from Madden and lip-synching from Mickey Mantle. (Garfunkel wept.) Basically, you can't understand what the hell 1989 was about until you process the fact that this video actually happened.

In This Article: Taylor Swift

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