Taylor Swift and Country Music are Breaking Up, But Do They Need Each Other?
Taylor Swift say goodbye to country music yesterday. Or is it till we meet again?
If you haven't heard the earth-shattering news, Taylor Swift, after the debut of the video for her new single "Shake It Off," unceremoniously quit country music and announced that her new record was a pop album. Unfortunately for fans of Swift's particular brand of folksy and boring love ballads, they'll have to tune the dial over to KISS-FM to hear her new album, 1989, instead of expecting to hear it on their favorite country stations.
Moving into pop means exposing your music to a much broader audience, something that artists of all genres have done, even if it has meant losing credibility in their home genres. What is exceptionally rare, though, is Swift's proclamation that this record is pop when it, stylistically, is barely different than her last. So what does it really mean for country?
For its part, Swift's announcement elicited a milquetoast "goodbye and good luck" tweet from the Country Music Association, and a collective sigh from country fans who think that country is better off with artists that are unabashedly country, like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. There is no disputing that country artists have constantly had to fight the industry over the creeping influence of pop music (you can ask Willie and Merle about that) and Swift is just one more reminder of the fact that to be successful in the mainstream, you have to be a lot less country.
In fact, Swift has been riding the pop train for a long time. Critics have tirelessly discussed whether or not she was truly a country artist since at least 2011. In crossing over, Swift is doing something that plenty of her predecessors have already done. Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood have all topped both the country and pop charts.
Still, Swift had been one of the most successful artists in her now-former genre since at least 2008. As an artist, she won plenty of Country Music Association awards and Grammys, and sold millions of records to adoring fans. But as she continued to record, Swift began to sound less and less country. The years went on, and the banjos and fiddles started to disappear from her songs, and that country accent that elongated her vowels and made her sound oh-so-folksy started to slip away. Taylor Swift, her debut in 2006, certainly sounds much twangier than the multi-platinum Red that came out in 2012.
But when you listen to Swift's new single, you'll probably find that it sounds remarkably similar to "I Knew You Were Trouble," the smash-hit song that cemented Swift's place as an artist that was much bigger than country music. If "Shake It Off" is Swift's grand artistic departure from her past work, I'm not sure exactly where the differences lie. Is it because she's now dressing like a 1986 b-boy and talking about players and haters instead of tailgates and slamming screen doors? Is the new record somehow less country than Red because there are women twerking in the background of the video? I'm still not sure.
If she were making a more dramatic shift, Swift's announcement wouldn't sound like such a "fuck you" to country music. It's not as if she went out and released an experimental noise or death metal album.
Country music provided a comfortable home for Swift as she became one of the most successful musicians on the planet. What's not to love about a bubbly, banjo-playing teenage girl who writes all her own lyrics? Even I, a stodgy fart of the highest order when it comes to country music, couldn't resist singing along with her upbeat, poppy tunes at the beginning of her career. But as the music became less country, it became clear that she was using country fans as a launching pad for something much bigger.
And there isn't anything inherently wrong with that. No one is telling Swift or any other artist not to evolve, but evolution doesn't have to mean completely abandoning the background that made you famous. Genres aren't fixed labels, but they do come with a certain set of expectations. Swift manipulated those expectations to extreme success, and now gets to walk away to the next phase of her career, leaving the fans of "Our Song" and "Tim McGraw" scratching their heads. Even worse, she may also have fundamentally changed the genre.
It's easy to say good riddance if you don't like Swift as an artist, but one has to wonder if all those millions of fans who were buying her albums, concert tickets and tirelessly voting for her at awards shows will stick around. Swift attracted plenty of fans who would have never listened to country music before pop country, and surely some of them will stick around. The majority, though, will just follow her over to pop radio, where they can listen to the rest of the music they like.
Which also means that country music is still having trouble getting young people interested in music that actually sounds like country music. Even as country has seen a dramatic shift in popularity among people of all age demographics, the music that sits at the top of the charts looks much different today than it did before. George Strait has been replaced by the hip-hop influenced Florida Georgia Line. Country music is now America's favorite music genre, but only if it looks a lot more like pop than something Waylon or Willie recorded.
Maybe that is a good thing. I'm sure label heads in Nashville are thrilled with the popularity of pop country, but the alt-country, old school and red dirt acts who are scratching it out on the road probably have a much different perspective. As country music makes moves to become more mainstream, will it leave artists like Josh Abbott, William Clark Green, and Kacey Musgraves behind? More than that, will it even look like country music after artists like Swift are finished watering it down for a mainstream audience?
Maybe not. I have no doubt that country music will survive Swift's exit, no matter what form that takes. But I do wonder if she'll be able to survive on the pop charts, where there are dozens of bright-eyed wannabes who are lining up to take her place. If it doesn't work out, I wouldn't be surprised to see her running back to the usually welcoming arms of country music fans for her next album. Even Natalie Maines, who was vilified and practically kicked out of country music, has found her way back to the genre. Either way, when we say goodbye to Swift as she heads to pop music, is it too much to ask that she take Florida Georgia Line with her?
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