Is Taylor Swift an Effective Gateway Drug for Country?

May 29, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  59 Comments

Last week it was revealed that in the June issue of the upcoming W Magaine, Miranda Lambert lets loose one mother of a backhanded compliment toward Taylor Swift, saying:

Taylor Swift is a pop singer. But she really helped country music. When she hit, I was thinking, Thank God Taylor’s out there to show people we’re not cheesy. Some people still think that country music is twangy and cheesy, and they pigeonhole us. But I thought if they’re looking for Taylor’s videos or songs, they might see or hear other people they like. If her fans are watching for her, they might like me too.

There’s really many things to unravel from this Miranda statement, including that she calls out Taylor for not being country, but then praises her for showing people country is not “twangy.” Isn’t the presence of twang what makes country country? And the lack of it is what makes country pop? Isn’t Miranda herself offered up many times as an example of country twang? It hearkens back to statements Jason Aldean made before the ACM Awards, about how he didn’t want people thinking country was hayseeds sitting on hay bales.

But more important is this question of how effective Taylor Swift is as a country music apostle, going out there in the world, turning crossover fans into country converts with her music. This certainly must be one of the theories behind the move announced today by the Country Music Hall of Fame to open a “Taylor Swift Speak Now: Treasures of the World Tour” exhibit on June 6th, running through November. Taylor just made a massive $4 million donation to the Hall of Fame for a children’s education center. The two couldn’t be related, could they?

But the Hall of Fame has already had a small Swift display up for a while, across from some of the biggest memorabilia the Hall boasts at the west end of the top floor. The idea is to engage the kiddos with someone they can relate to, and then maybe, just maybe, they may give some attention to all this old people, backwoods hillbilly stuff.

Is this theory effective? I don’t know. And the question embodies the underlying dichotomy of Taylor Swift. In one respect, she’s the country music savior we’ve all been waiting for. She writes her own songs, plays her own music, produces her own albums, respects herself, is a positive role model, and gives back to the community. As a product, she’s brought tremendous revenue to a struggling industry and genre.  Bless her heart, she has inspired millions. And as pop, her music holds tremendous levity. But the problem still remains: Taylor Swift is not country.

Do we really think legions of her fans are going to gateway from her music to Waylon Jennings, or even Alan Jackson, or even Justin Townes Earle? And for as many people she may convert to the pop version of country, may she scare just as many away from the traditional side? What are the ratios here? For all the good she may do enticing young fans to the genre, is she chasing away the older ones?

I don’t have any answers here. Taylor could be doing tremendous amounts of good, or she could be doing irreplaceable damage to country. Or her toll could be a complete wash. I think Taylor Swift has done tremendous good for society, culture, and music in general. But I think it’s important for all of us to question the effectiveness of Taylor Swift as a country music gateway drug, and what the lingering, long-term side effects of that drug could be.

59 Comments to “Is Taylor Swift an Effective Gateway Drug for Country?”

  • If she is still around in twenty years then we will see the damage or good she’s done. I could name names from now to doomsday that were once big names and big prospects and now they aren’t even household names in their own household and you could hire them to play in your back yard. Remember Neal McCoy ? She won’t even give him a wink anymore..

    • Leann Rimes (the next Patsy Cline) comes to mind…

    • I would say Taylor has gone way beyond being a good prospect. It may be hard to swallow that a 22-year-old is an 8-year veteran of the music business, but those are the facts when talking about Taylor. She’s had three hit albums now and is winning Grammy’s. But your point is a good one. It’s also easier for young women to disappear. At some point making a family becomes a priority.

  • I think Kenny Chesney is just as pop as Taylor Swift. Let’s spread the “blame” around for making country radio into something that I do not waste my time listening.

    • Plenty of blame has been foisted onto Kenny here over the years. Just happens to be lately he’s kept his nose out of the spotlight.

  • she did bring me back into country music indirectly, i googled the “mean” rumours and found youre awesome blog. i dont see many of her young fans drawn to her country/pop switching over waylon or haggard but i can see how she does help peple like lambert and underwood sell more downloads. she definately brings a lot of money and attention to country music and its really up to the people receiving that money to invest back into the genre and help new acts grow. country/pop is just a subgenre of country music the same as hellbilly or conjunto and i wish people would spend less energy on hating and more on supporting the subgenre they do like.

    i hope naming a permanent part of the museum after a performer whos only been around for 5 years doesnt come back to bite them in the ass.

    • I agree, pop country is a sub genre that has been around for almost as long as country has, and it’s unrealistic to think it will be or should be eradicated. But I don’t think it is wrong to ask for balance, where all or most of the sub genres are given at least representation instead of the absolute dominance pop country commands over the genre today.

      The question can also be asked just how much pop, and just how much country Taylor Swift. Back in the 70′s, John Denver was considered pop country. Compared to Taylor Swift, Denver would be a traditionalist.

      • even if pop can be measured and she turns out to be 99.9% pop she does identify herself as country. i grew up in los angeles so maybe im just brainwashed by lefty npr hippies but i feel country music should embrace anyone who wants to be a part of it.
        not fair to blame swift for the way country radio decides which acts will break and succeed since thats what theyve always done if it wasnt pop-country it would be rock-country,rap-country or enya-country. ive only been listening to country radio since 1977-78 but its always sucked at least here in los angeles. country radio in the 70′s and 80′s was more twangy but that didnt really make the music any better than comfortable muzak to my ears.

        • This is the analogy I used when reviewing “Speak Now”: If you’re an Italian food critic, and you go to a restaurant that advertises itself as Italian, with an Italian menu, and you order and Italian dish and get served sweet & sour pork, you’re going to give the restaurant a failing grade, regardless if it’s the best sweet and sour pork you’ve ever had.

          In Taylor’s defense, she grew up listening to Leann Rimes and Shania Twain, so what she does is probably pretty close to country in her mind. Then again, she’s distantly related to Porter Wagoner and toured with Charlie Daniels coming up, so she’s seen the other side as well. I just wish someone would have been honest with Taylor about what to call her music, and that Taylor would be honest with us about what her music is. Then I, and maybe others could enjoy it for what it is, singer/songwriter pop music.

          I’ve turned a page with Taylor. I want to like her and give her credit. But I can’t help but call a spade a spade.

          • ” I just wish someone would have been honest with Taylor about what to call her music, and that Taylor would be honest with us about what her music is. Then I, and maybe others could enjoy it for what it is, singer/songwriter pop music….I want to like her and give her credit. But I can’t help but call a spade a spade.”

            I don’t know that garden tools are really an appropriate analogy for musical genres and styles. Country’s always – always – had room in it for a lot of different styles and sounds, so the notion that there’s anything dishonest about calling Swift’s music country – when it is written, produced, distributed, marketed and consumed as country by millions of people – is kind of problematic. But more importantly, if you like the music, why would you want to let what others call it spoil your enjoyment?

          • “I don’t know that garden tools are really an appropriate analogy for musical genres and styles.”

            “But more importantly, if you like the music, why would you want to let what others call it spoil your enjoyment?”

            Good points.

      • “Compared to Taylor Swift, Denver would be a traditionalist.” Agreed. As are the Eagles and CCR and many others, in my humble opinion.

        American Idol probably was the “gateway” for Miss Swift and reality shows have perfected the art of brainwashing the public into worshiping and fighting over the mediocre.

        Where does that leave country music? Still trying to find a definition I guess.

        • Hey Karen are you Karen K ? this is Nancy here.

          • No, not Karen K., but glad to meet you Nancy. :-)

        • Nice to meet you too

  • I think we all start out by listening to music we later find awful. There’s some terrible pop music in almost everyone’s closet. I shall not mention mine, but by the time I was twelve, I was listening to Rory Gallagher, who I still listen to today and consider the best player to come out of the British blues boom (we shall for now ignore the fact that Mr. Gallagher is actually Irish, and thus by default superior to any English guitarist). If I had to go to that legendary desert island where all us musical sorts seem to wind up, one of the ten records I would take would be “On the Boards.” Might be the first one I would pull.

    Would I have found Mr. Gallagher had I not started out by liking some long ago pap? I’m not so sure. Now heck if I know if T. Swift will lead my young niece, who listens to and likes Ms. Swift, on a journey of musical discovery. Perhaps in a few years my niece will be listening to the current equivalents of Stiff Little Fingers and 357 String Band. Heck if I know, that’s her journey. But someone will go down a similar path and expand their ears. It’s not really Taylor Swift’s fault, but the ears of whoever is listening. May they grow and be healthy.

    On the downside, I suspect many folks will lack the curiosity and just keep listening to Ms. Swift. Of course, she could also somehow surprise me and produce an absolute classic. I shall not commence to hold my breath.

    • great post!
      somewhere in my closet is a small collection of Air Supply cassettes from when i was very young and discovered you could just keep joining the columbia house club under different names for 12 free cassettes.

  • It wouldn’t surprise me if someday TS releases a tribute album covering country traditionalists. That album would be a “gateway” : )

  • It’s unlikely that a starstruck preteen fan shows up to see Taylor’s exhibit at the HOF and leaves with a Tammy Wynette CD from the gift shop. Most country music was never intended for teens anyway. It is possible that that preteen will be a little more open to the “country” brand later in life.

    I became aware of music through radio and then MTV. I learned to trace back the history by reading articles in guitar magazines. That’s where I at least learned the names of those that were influencial to my favorite musicians. Today’s equivalent may be the “related” features on a YouTube homepage or something like that.

    Was Beyonce a gateway drug for Blues? After the film “Cadillac Records”, did Beyonce’s fans load their iPods with Etta James and Muddy Waters? Could we tell? I’m sure the seeds were planted. I’m sure it did happen to some extent. Taylor Swift could release a tribute to the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers but it probably wouldn’t save country music.

    • i thought the triggerman was saving country music. though 20 years from now if ms swift has done a decent solo tribute LP to hank sr. then maybe she just might save country music. then again maybe not. i’m sure trig will still be fighting the good fight.

  • You are certainly not giving much credit to the legends with a blog like this or music fans. It is actaully pretty rediculous what you are getting at here and your obsession with Taylor and is she good or not good for country.

    It is actually shocking you bring this up and present it as you do.

    #1 you are basically asserting that those that follow SCM and underground artists never once did we mess with commerical/mainstream music. No, not commercial country, rock, metal, punk…. nope, we always from day one, looked to the deep music like Waylon Jennings and as some mentioned above Etta James or Muddy Waters (who’s as deep as William Blake).
    I think you and some others need to come off the high horse and realize that the fans that like Taylor are probably pretty young (13-25) and as they grow no doubt if they are deeply passionate about music, they will learn about it and find the legends you speak of.

    Of course we are talking about Taylor Swift. Majority of her fans are female. So is she a gate way, maybe, but she isn’t a gateway to Hank3 or to Waylon Jennings or to many of the bands supported here. She maybe a gateway to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, etc… I think she gateways to Sunny Sweeny or The Band Perry, who gateways to more true country.

    #2 I think some underground fans need to take it easy on calling Taylor a flash in the pan. She will be around in 20 years, probably making much more mature, and who knows, maybe more true country music as her musical tastes and knowledge grow.
    Lets not forget that a lot of underground bands are one hit/one album wonders because they are… one hit/one ablum wonders.

    #3 You seem to think that the country legends are somehow going to fade away? Shit we still, at least some of us still, talk and enjoy Jimmie Rodgers and then Ernest Tubb/Hank Sr. era stuff. Then move into Waylon and Willie. Then George Strait… these along with many other artists are not going to go away. They are timeless and even the pop-country icons know it and they don’t try to steal their thunder, they respect it. (the pop country icons, not the pop country lesser “stars”) Taylor respects all the females artsits that came before her. And as much as it might pain you, Chesney respects the country legends too.
    Are these two doing it the way they did it 30years ago, of course not, but they also won’t ever be compared to the legends of 30-50-60 years ago. They make more money and collect more awards, but they don’t compare and no one really tries to compare them.

    Country music is just cycles. We are coming to the end of 20-30 year cyle of post Garth. The transition is getting ugly, but you are starting to see, slowly, true musicians/artists coming back to the front of the line.

    • ^^^^^^TROLL^^^^^^

      Cmon man. This is an article filled with question marks. I’m asserting little of anything here, I am querying the public for opinions, and using those questions to update people about recent news and events. Quit trying to stir the pot and give us YOUR opinion. Is Taylor a viable gateway drug for country? What are the side effects, if any? If you think the questions are invalid, then go read the JP Harris & Tough Choices review. Contribute something positive.

  • Welp, you gotta credit her for turning this certified snob from Europe to a Country listener. And believe me, I know which one that is Country and which one is craptastic radio-ready songs.

  • I wonder if her music right now is a bit too far from traditional country for it to be an effective gateway. I think my first major gateway to country music was the first couple of Charlie Daniels Band albums, each of which rocked pretty hard but also had unmistakably traditional country sounds as well. I feel more confident in saying that her music can be a gateway to more mature singer/songwriter fare.

  • My sister-in-law started listening to Miranda Lambert through Taylor Swift. I wouldn’t call my sister-in-law a country fan but she likes some of it and has now purchased a Miranda Lambert album. I don’t think many TS fans are going to get into traditional country but plenty will get into fringe stuff and purchase albums/concert tickets (Miranda has lots of poppy stuff, especially if taken out of context from the entire album). I think Miranda’s statement was accurate. I share the same sentiment as Triggerman (I think) – even though I don’t like TS’s music, I respect her for writing her own lyrics and music.

    • I see Miranda Lambert as a stronger gateway drug to harder country music, but if Taylor Swift can lead a person to someone like Miranda Lambert by virtue of the fact that their music is played on the same radio stations, then perhaps Taylor Swift can be a gateway.

  • As sad as it is to admit, Jason Aldean was my gateway into country music. He was the first guy whose music I listened to (I was 17), which was followed by Eric Church and Zac Brown Band. If you don’t live in the South (maybe even if you do), the only country you’ll hear on the radio is modern pop-country. With Taylor, a lot of her fans aren’t country fans in the first place, and I don’t think most of them are going to jump ship over to the traditional side in a heartbeat. From my own experience, I would suggest playing some Turnpike Troubadours to your pop-country friends. No one that I’ve showed it to hasn’t loved their music.

  • pop country fans are either soccer moms or teen girls. They will never listen to real country.

    • You might be right on the soccer moms who still listen to pop country. I think there’s still hope for the teenage girls.

    • Those are also the two remaining demographics of music buyers the industry can depend on.

      • it more then just dependence they bend over backwards for teen girls. Look at all the shitty ass pop boy bands.

  • Teen girls have Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne, & Nickelback. Why would they want anything of substance?

    • Taylor is writing really good songs if you compare that to the crap that pop radio plays. I´d certainly call it music with substance.

  • This is interesting. She manages to backhand both Taylor Swift/pop country and traditional Country…I wonder what kind of music Miranda Lambert thinks she makes? Because it isn’t country either. I don’t understand the point that she’s trying to make. Not twangy? Does she want country to sound like country or country to sound like Coldplay or something? Maybe she doesn’t even know what she was trying to say.

  • You’re right, Trig, there is no clear answer.

    I think its interesting that the same place that just had an exhibit on the Hank Williams family legacy (which included Hanks Sr., Jr., III, and their relatives) is now opening an exhibit on Taylor Swift. I suppose this either means that The Hall of Fame really is bipartisan, or money talks. Either way, we can’t have it our way all of the time. We gotta take the good with the bad.

    Regarding whether or not Swift is a gateway drug…I think this is true in rare cases, but not the majority. When I was a kid, I’d play Garth Brooks all day long, whereas nowadays, I’ve dug much deeper into the roots of country. I’d say this is a common thing for most music lovers. I look at Taylor Swift and traditional country in the same way that I look at something like hair metal and 70′s glam. Both may have their merits, but one is more aesthetically based, whereas the other has the substance.

    Unfortunately, for the casual listener, they rarely dig that deep, ’cause their hands might get dirty. But to me, that dirt is what gives it texture…

    • your last sentence is very true. having grown up when rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning and country was still twangy my folks were listening to country and the usual standard pop music of the time. big bands in their swan song years along with sinatra, dino, peggy lee, mel torme et al. i was exposed to it all and enjoyed most of it. still do. the point being, rock ‘n’ roll and country was where the texture was. in jr high school i discovered straight ahead jazz and the blues thus adding more dirt to play with. finding good music to listen to is like taking the old john deere out to the back forty and plowing the weeds under.

  • Ahh yea,Taylor is indeed the gateway drug that leads kiddos to REAL country music like this indeed:

    • What the hell was that?

    • Then there’s this Gillian Welch cover from what appears to be the same album:

      From Gillian Welch to Ralph Stanley? Could happen, I suppose.

      • And don’t even get me started on the John Prine mutilation she did a couple years ago!

  • Honestly, I think the only thing Taylor Swift is a gateway to is the song that comes on after hers on the radio.

    • Burn!

    • BOOM! Roasted!

    • Too bad there is no gateway for you stupidity….forever bald, fat and bitter.

      • OK folks, let’s try to keep it respectful! Nobody wants to see the back and forths.

  • Not sure if many or any of Taylor’s younger fans will check out Willie etc probably they would be more drawn to the other pop country music. I doubt if they could grow to respect or like the more stripped down sound. The only gateway I want to see is Taylor making a quick exit through one.

    • Well, they don’ have to go from Taylor directly to Willie. Think Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

    • The ignorance in this post. Whatever-you-believe-in, bless you.

  • I would liken to an extent some of these Nashville executives to Vince McMahon.

    You see, McMahon thinks that the term wrestling is bad. So he constantly uses sports entertainment and superstars etc for his product . The Nashville executives think that the term country is bad so they wanna end in with everyone else. The funny thing is the fact that whatever way Hollywood or the world views these thingsz, it is still pro wrestling and country music no matter how much you wanna spin it in some other direction.

    While I do believe Taylor swift and for that matter rascal Flatts for the most part the only crossover fans they have will listen to them on the country radio and then change it back to the other station.

    At the same time there are Artists and fans alike in the rock, pop, and hip hop world than when they wanna hear a country song…they wanna hear a country song! They wan steel guitars and fiddles. They wanna lil bit of Waylon and Cash… To a certain extent they want the haybales, cowboy boots etc …most importantly those same people want the people of their respective genre and of country music to be exactly who they say they are.

    Obviously you do need progression. So to a point and while it may not be every ones cup of tea…there is nothing wrong with pop leaning or rock leaning and even hip hop leaning sounds in country and other genres, but at the same time simple country music 101 still works and is neded/is wanted

    • *please forgive the typos ! lol

  • I suppose it’s possible that Taylor Swift may someday go in a more overtly country direction with her music. Then she might be like Moses and take all those teenage girls to the promised land, as it were.

  • What would George Jones say about this:

  • I think Taylor could be a gateway to country if she did a hard core traditional country cd. However her fans may not like it. Martina McBride comes to mind some of her fans didn’t like her cd Timeless. Though I consider it more classic country than traditional.

  • Anyone else think country is begging to get cheesy with all these redneck pride songs drink in my hand bait a hook etc

    Taylor does introduce people to other pop country artists the youtube video she did with tim mcgraw has just under 20 million hits mostly because of swift

    the civil wars and taylor swifts song safe and sound under 10 mill so these viewers are being introduced to other artists and even give country radio a try

  • The ‘problem’ is A LOT more simple then the way people say. Country music CHANGES overtime! Even my dad says and he’s listened to country music for a long time! I love Taylor swift. If it weren’t for her, I would have NEVER loved country music as I do now if it weren’t for her. Yes I still listen to pop but listen to country as much. There is no such thing as ‘traditional’ country music because it changes. But it still is the same no matter what. But it still changes. And I just want to point out that pop music ISN’T crap, well a lot of it is nowadays, but as long as music is good and not innapropriate or sinful then it’s good. Taylor swift is amazing because she has drawn me and so many others to country music. Her music is still beautiful even though she’s changing. But I hope that she returns to the country pop music that she used to make in her fearless album, her first album, etc. main point= wait and see if her next album is country pop, and if it’s not, she’s not country! She has decide whether she will keep on making country pop music! Country pop should be labeled as country! By the way: I don’t think her speak now album should have been labeled as country cause most of it wasn’t really country. But I hope her new album will be country pop! Please Taylor, we love you!

  • I like Taylor for who she is and how she’s done what she’s done, and I even like a few of her songs. However, whether you want to put ‘country’ after the ‘pop’, its still pop and virtually bereft of any country. Country does change and evolve over time, but the core has always remained the same. It’s that inexplicable thing, whether it’s ‘twang’ or not, that immediately and unmistakenly identifies it as ‘country’. You can tell real country within having heard two bars of it. In bluegrass they call it the ‘high lonesome sound’. Call it what you will, but its the Soul of country music. 99.99% of Taylor’s music doesn’t have it. It’s still good music, she’s a talented artist, but it lacks something. Maybe a 20-something who started songwriting as a preteen just hasn’t experienced enough life to make ‘real’ country, I don’t know.
    I do know that one of my earliest memories was listening to Johnny Cash records with my old man, and even at that age of 4 or 5, I could FEEL the soul of the music. Whether its Johnny, the Possum, or Dale Watson or even someone like Horton Heat, you can feel it.

    I just don’t feel Taylor’s music.

    • Well said.

Leave a comment

Del Maguey
Old Soul Radio Show
Hillgrass Bluebilly
Best Of Lists