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When Billboard implemented sweeping changes to their chart configurations in October of 2012, it was predicted at the time by many that these changes would fundamentally modify the industry in historic ways, ushering in an era where popular American music would rapidly succumb to the monogenre, and distinctions of separate genres would slowly become irrelevant. Artists who did not occupy the “crossover” realm would see diminished significance, and music would all begin to sound the same.
Subsequently that is exactly what we have seen, and the fingerprints of Billboard 2012′s rules changes can be found all over malevolent trends in country music, including the rise of “Bro-Country,” the institution of rap and EDM elements in country in a widespread manner, and the continued struggles of the genre to support and develop female artists. And country music is not alone. The Billboard rap charts have seen similar homogenization, at least in part because of the new rules. Virtually every individual genre’s charts, and thus the music itself and how it’s manufactured and marketed, have been affected in fundamental ways by these changes. And it may about to get much worse.
Many of the changes Billboard made to their charts in October of 2012 were not only necessary, they were much past due. Rating consumer interactions such as streams on Spotify and plays on YouTube were important to give both consumers and industry professionals a better illustration of the importance and performance of a given track. The problematic change was a rule governing “crossover” material. It allowed artists such as Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line to receive credit for radio play and other consumer activity in the pop world on the genre specific country charts. This restricted the ability for artists with no crossover appeal to be successful in their genre specific rankings, while artists that released rap remixes, or songs that appealed to pop radio as well as country to fare much greater.
But the October 2012 changes Billboard implemented didn’t fundamentally change the structure of the charts themselves. You still had an album chart, based off of how many cohesive albums—physical or digital—a given artist sold in a week period. You still had the airplay charts, which ranked songs specifically by how many spins DJ’s gave them across the country. And you had the Hot Songs chart, which now took into consideration crossover data, and a new suite of streaming and other consumer interaction data, but it was still the same fundamental chart meant to give a more broad picture of a song’s impact.
Now that all might change. Or at least, these traditional charts may be so significantly diminished in importance, they are rendered virtually insignificant, especially the album charts. And once again, with these chart changes could come fundamental musical changes from the industry to try and take advantage of these new metrics.
This new, sweeping system is currently being called the “Consumption Chart,” and it is presently being constructed by Billboard in conjunction with Nielsen SoundScan—the company that aggregates consumer data, including sales, streams, YouTube views, and other data that goes into building Billboard’s charts. Billboard and SoundScan are currently tweaking on the specifics of the new chart—one of which is how to aggregate streaming data, which is currently being tabulated by hand. Though there is no hard and fast date of when the Consumption Chart may be rolled out, the word from HITS Daily Double is that Billboard hopes to have it in place by the very beginning of next year so that when the new music ranking system starts, it can have an entire year to give a more cohesive picture to both consumers and industry.
One of the strange aspects about Billboard’s 2012 changes is since they happened in not just the middle of a year, but in the middle of a business quarter, it created a dirty data situation where the rules governing songs changed in the middle of the game. There was also little to no warning ahead of the changes being made. Billboard’s new rules came somewhat unexpectedly and were implemented immediately. Though indications are the roll out of the Consumption Chart will wait until the end of the year, especially since Billboard and SoundScan want to give themselves proper lead time to make sure their system is road tested and debugged before being debuted to the public, there’s no guarantee we may not wake up one morning and find that the way music is measured has been massively overhauled yet again.
What Is The Billboard Consumption Chart?
To put it simply, The Billboard Consumption Chart would be a combination of an album and a song chart. Instead of just considering physical album sales to gauge an album’s performance, the new chart would take song plays from streaming data and turn them into equivalent album sales. The idea is to bridge the gap between artists who receive a lot of streaming interaction but have marginal physical sales, and artists who have strong physical sales but don’t experience a lot of streaming activity. All indications are that Billboard hopes that this new Consumption Chart will become the industry standard for rating music.
According to HITS Daily Double:
The weekly chart will combine album and track sales with audio and video streams, assigning an equivalent-album value to each, as in the TEA metric, theoretically providing a more accurate and comprehensive representation of modern-day music consumption … Billboard’s album sales chart will remain in place, but most observers believe it will take on decreasing importance over time as the business acclimates itself to the new system … In some respects, the consumption chart will mirror the present sales charts in that sales and streaming tend to correlate, with certain exceptions … Overall, the most dramatic effect of the consumption chart will be to lengthen the tails of bona fide hits by measuring their aftermarket impact, potentially providing the labels with additional time in which to market these hits.
A mock up of the new chart was made last week, and the biggest takeaway was that albums for artists whose consumers mostly listen to songs on Spotify and YouTube instead of actually purchasing the album received a significant boost in the new metric by making “album equivalent” gains from the amount of streams and plays songs received. For example, the album Settle by the EDM duo Disclosure went from #213 on the album chart based purely off of sales, all the way up to #64 based off of these “album equivalent” streams and plays. That is a 149-spot difference just from the new Consumption Chart reporting method. Another example is Katy Perry’s album Prism, which moved from #61 to #16.
How The Consumption Chart Could Hurt Older and Independent Artists
What this all means is that artists who do well with physical album sales and digital downloads could be significantly diminished in this new system, while artists who primarily have their music heard through streaming methods will see a significant boost. This could immediately put older artists, and independent artists at a significant disadvantage.
Recently we have seen older country artists such as Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Billy Joe Shaver set career chart records with their album releases because these artist’s older fan bases are one of the few demographics left that actually buy albums. But since these artist’s streaming footprint is significantly less, this new Consumption Chart would see them fare significantly worse compared to the current system.
Same could be said for many independent artists like Old Crow Medicine Show, Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell, whose fan bases are more likely to buy physical albums to help support the artist. These artists have seen significant boosts from chart performances recently, and this could go away under the new system. Artists who rely heavily on vinyl sales like Jack White could also see diminishing returns from the new charting system.
Since these charts are used to gauge the importance and impact an artist has in the marketplace, a diminishing of them on the charts could affect their overall sales, or their acknowledgement by the industry. Once again, just like Billboard’s 2012 chart rules, the new system very well may create even a greater discrepancy between the have’s and have not’s of music, and see more attention paid to the biggest artists, the biggest songs, and the biggest albums.
One big question for the Consumption Chart is if it takes into consideration the greater commitment a consumer shows by purchasing a physical album or downloading an entire copy instead of streaming an individual song or consuming it in a free environment such as YouTube. Does it also take into consideration that these physical and digital sales generally result in more revenue for the artist, the labels, and the industry as a whole? Where streaming is currently gutting the industry, physical sales are one of the the last bastions of revenue, including vinyl sales which are on the rapid increase.
Once again, certain changes are probably necessary to Billboard’s charts to take into consideration the new realities of consumer’s consumption habits when it comes to music. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of artists who are already struggling under the current system.
The good news is that this Consumption Chart has yet to be implemented, and so there is still time to understand what its impact might be and game plan for it, or even to influence the direction it might take before it is rolled out. This opportunity did not pose itself in 2012.
And as Billboard will probably point out, there’s no plans to put away the purely sales-based album chart. But many industry experts believe it will be significantly diminished under the new system. Some believe this new system could be dead on arrival, while others think it is necessary to keep Billboard’s relevance in the marketplace alive.
As HITS Daily Double asks, “In what ways will attempts be made to manipulate the new chart, and what new games will labels play in order to get a leg up on the competition? Will the consumption chart mean the end of the SoundScan-era emphasis on the first week of release, or will the majors figure out new ways to max out that total?”
Either way, if the changes made by Billboard in 2012 were any indication, the Consumption Chart could have a significant impact on music much beyond simply how it is measured.
Despite their “new kid on the block” status, Maddie & Tae and their timely tune “Girl In A Country Song” are leading the pack when it comes to the anti “bro-country” movement in the mainstream. Though the song has maybe not done as sensational as label owner Scott Borchetta was hoping for from the singing duo, it’s performance so far has been quite solid on the charts for an non-established female act. On Friday the duo stopped by The Late Show with David Letterman for a performance of “Girl In A Country Song,” and Letterman announced on the show that their debut EP will be released through Big Machine’s Dot imprint on November 4th. Unfortunately though, their performance did not live up to the hype this song has been receiving.
From the start, it was clear Maddie & Tae were playing to a pre-recorded backing track. Immediately you were hearing instruments (or non-instruments) that were not present on stage. “Girl In A Country Song,” like so many of today’s “country” hits, starts with an electronic beat. So did their Letterman performance, but there was nothing on stage responsible for it. There’s also other electronic drops like a whistle that have no origination point on stage. And for the record, drummers can be supplied with trigger pads to re-create electronic drum beat sounds in the live context, and this would have been completely appropriate for this setting. Even though it wouldn’t have been very “country,” it would have been better to even have a DJ on the stage adding some of the electronic accoutrements if necessary. Or here’s a novel idea: not have them at all. A side shot of the drummer early in the performance shows an open laptop, so perhaps this is where some of the unmanned sounds were emanating from, but the more likely scenario was most everything was played and mixed at an earlier time.
The other dead giveaway that little to no of the instrumentation was live was an acoustic strum at the 1:27 mark that in no way sync’s up with what we see on the screen. Playing to a backing track is not highly unusual on a show such as this, but it plays right into the hands of Maddie & Tae critics who say they’re not a bro-country alternative, they’re just an alternative version of the same marketing, especially when it was executed so poorly and obviously as it was done in this case. The girl playing the fiddle was also way too over-the-top, flashing her $700 teeth whitening procedure, and generally diverting attention from where it’s supposed to be: Maddie & Tae. This may have not been Ms. Fiddle’s fault and may have been the call of a stage choreographer. Either way it seemed inappropriate to the performance.
For Maddie & Tae’s part, they were perfect when it came to their singing parts, and there’s no indication that they didn’t perform their vocal parts live. Both of these girls are great singers, and this was the one redeeming element of the performance. And ironically, I thought the pre-recorded performance they mimed to was not a bad mix of the song. However I still wish there wasn’t such an effort to doll these girls up so much. I can’t tell you what either of these girls look like in real life beyond the peroxide and poof poof. Their authenticity is being drowned in glitz.
Though I cautiously root for Maddie & Tae and “Girl In A Country Song,” if they’re going to make it big in country, and in the space vacated by an artist like Taylor Swift who won over America by being the “girl next door” songwriter who wasn’t afraid to bare her flaws, they’re going to have to work less on being perfect, and more on being real.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Down.
Taylor Swift, who just made her big switch from country to pop, is the focus of Rolling Stone‘s cover story in the latest issue, and the in-depth feature finds Miss Swift dunking in the ocean fully clothed and dropping some very interesting tidbits that could help country music perform its postmortem about why Taylor Swift left and what it really means.
The first interesting nugget from the article is how the Country Music Antichrist and head of Big Machine Records Scott Borchetta attempted to keep Taylor Swift in the genre, or at least tried to convince Swift to give him some country singles that he could use to keep her in the country fold.
A casual fan won’t notice much difference, but to Swift and her brand, it’s a big step. She says she won’t be going to country-awards shows or promoting the album on country radio. When she first turned in the record, she says the head of her label, Scott Borchetta, told her, “This is extraordinary – it’s the best album you’ve ever done. Can you just give me three country songs?”
“Love you, mean it,” is how Swift characterizes her response. “But this is how it’s going to be.”
But even more interesting is the wisdom, either purposeful or accidental, that Taylor Swift dropped about trying to pursue a dual musical life, and what the result could be…
One of the quizzical things about Taylor Swift’s country departure is how unnecessary it seemed. The genre has moved so far in the pop direction, she wouldn’t need to deliver Scott Borchetta three country songs to stay country. Swift could simply release any song she wanted to country radio, and they probably would play it. In fact, some country stations are playing Swift’s new single anyway. But this course would have continued the incessant conflict that has dogged Swift’s career since its inception about how she’s not country. By officially making the switch to pop, she puts most of those criticisms to bed.
Also, since Borchetta is being portrayed in the article as trying to keep Swift within the country fold at least to some extent, it shows that Swift’s decision was not based on business. Something else that was strange about Taylor’s move to pop was it seems to be going against the grain of the current trends in popular music. Most pop music is moving towards country not away from it, because country is seen as the greenest pasture at the moment, continuing to gain market share and solidify its place as the most popular genre of music. But Swift’s move appears to be more philosophical, and perhaps, a little more long-sighted; more long-sighted than the view country music is currently taking of itself.
In the Rolling Stone article, Swift acknowledges that her last album, 2012′s Red, straddled the boundary between country and pop. “But at a certain point, if you chase two rabbits, you lose them both,” Swift says.
While most people will likely gloss over this point in the article as they try to spy a wet Taylor Swift nipple through her white shirt or obsess on if it’s really Katy Perry she’s apparently calling out with one of her new songs, there is wisdom here that country music would be smart to heed. When you try to appeal to everyone, which country music is trying to do right now by being so open to pop, rap, and EDM sounds, you end up not capturing anyone. All of the “rabbits” (to use Swift’s analogy) go hopping away, and you’re left in the popular music lurch, just like rock music is at the moment.
The fashionable claim to make right now is that genres don’t matter, and you don’t just hear this from country music’s biggest pop stars, but from independent and Americana artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. But what Taylor Swift did by declaring herself pop is she proved why they still do. Taylor Swift is the most popular artist of the current generation, and she felt the need to more clearly define herself and her music, not because it was necessary or even commercially lucrative, but because it was smarter in the long-term and extricated her from confusion and conflict. She defined herself as pop against the wishes of her label, and against popular trends. And now her career is on more sure footing, and she can be more confident in herself and in her music moving forward, and ironically, gain the respect of many of her country detractors over the years for finally being honest.
Again, most will allow for this wisdom to zoom right over their heads. But Miss Swift just proved she’s one step ahead, and one measure wiser than the industry she just left.
On Wednesday morning (9-3), the nominees for the 48th Annual CMA Awards were announced on ABC’s Good Morning America and through a CMA Live stream. The 2014 CMA Awards will happen on Wednesday November 5th on ABC, and will be hosted by Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood.
Leading all nominees with nine is Miranda Lambert. Dierks Bentely also turns in a strong showing with five considerations. And amongst the critic’s favorites, Brandy Clark comes in with two nominations, including for New Artist of the Year, and steel guitarist Paul Franklin also receives two nominations.
Though Taylor Swift has officially declared herself pop, she still rounds out the Female Vocalist category with a nomination. And despite officially retiring from touring this year, reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year George Strait shows up once again for the distinction.
The other curious takeaway from the nominations is Jason Aldean isn’t nominated for anything. After the year he’s had, this is nothing short of astounding. There is a story here somewhere, maybe doing with his infidelity, or with his label Broken Bow. The exclusion of Jason Aldean could set up as a big night for Luke Bryan.
Entertainer of the Year
Whether Taylor Swift would be included in this category was one of the biggest questions heading into these nominations. She’s been a perennial Entertainer nominee for the last half decade. There also seemed to be a slight chance we could see Florida Georgia Line here with the huge year they have had. In the end, Big Machine Records gets shut out, Miranda Lambert is the female representative, and King George shows up yet again, challenging the notion that last year’s win was a parting gift.
This is a two horse race. Luke Bryan has put together an incredible year, and has to be considered the front runner, but George Strait with his touring success can’t be ruled out. Remember at the ACM Awards earlier in 2014 when George got picked over Luke, members of the Luke camp erupted. This duel will be the big drama of the night.
Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert have no chance. Blake Shelton would be the dark horse.
- Luke Bryan – Winner
- Miranda Lambert
- Blake Shelton
- George Strait – Another Potential Winner
- Keith Urban
Male Vocalist of the Year
Blake Shelton has been a shoe-in for this distinction the last few years, just as his wife Miranda Lambert has been the shoe-in for the females. But Luke Bryan has to be considered the strongest in the field. If Luke gets locked out of the Entertainer of the Year, the pressure may be to give Luke Bryan Male Vocalist as a consolation prize. Eric Church and Keith Urban are not contenders. Keith is simply the name the CMA’s are using to fill out the lists this year. Dierks has put together a great run with Riser, and would be both the dark horse, and the critical favorite.
- Dierks Bentley
- Luke Bryan – Winner
- Eric Church
- Blake Shelton – Other Potential Winner
- Keith Urban
Female Vocalist of the Year
Of course the CMA nominates Taylor Swift in this category despite her not considering herself country anymore, though hypothetically this is for the year that just passed—before Taylor made her pop declaration. And lacking any real candidates because of the exclusiveness of mainstream country music, the CMA taps Martina McBride again to fill the 5th spot. Country music is not developing female talent, and perusing this category annually proves this.
Miranda runs away with it.
- Miranda Lambert – Winner
- Martina McBride
- Kacey Musgraves
- Taylor Swift
- Carrie Underwood
Album of the Year
Since Eric Church’s last album Chief swept this category at the award shows two years ago, he has to be considered a contender. But you just don’t feel the same momentum for The Outsiders. If label politics win out however, he may walk away with it. This is the award the Eric Church camp will be lobbying heaviest for.
But this all feels like it is setting up to be a big night for Luke Bryan, and Crash My Party is a front runner. Keep an eye out for Dierks Bentley too. This would be considered the critical favorite of the bunch. Sorry Keith, you’ve got no chance.
- Crash My Party, Luke Bryan – Winner
- Fuse, Keith Urban
- Platinum, Miranda Lambert
- Riser, Dierks Bentley – Other Potential Winner
- The Outsiders, Eric Church – Other Potential Winner
Song of the Year
“Follow Your Arrow” would be the winner that would have the media agog over its liberal message in what’s considered a conservative environment, but that subplot may never have a chance to materialize. Fairly wide open field here, but let’s all hope Dallas Davidson doesn’t walk away with any hardware. “Automatic” and “I Hold On” would be the two songs that balance the critical and commercial success a Song of the Year usually needs to win, but if the CMA wants to make a statement, “Follow Your Arrow” may just prevail. There weren’t five better songs out there in country music?
- “Automatic,” Nicolle Galyon, Natalie Hemby, and Miranda Lambert
- “Follow Your Arrow,” Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
- “Give Me Back My Hometown,” Eric Church & Luke Laird
- “I Don’t Dance,” Lee Brice, Dallas Davidson, & Rob Hatch
- “I Hold On,” Dierks Bentley & Brett James
Single of the Year
Boy, the CMA’s and mainstream country music are really showing just how bereft they are by these song nominations.
- “Automatic,” Miranda Lambert
- “Drunk On A Plane,” Dierks Bentley
- “Give Me Back My Hometown,” Eric Church
- “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill
- “Mine Would Be You,” Blake Shelton
New Artist of the Year
Very cool to see Brandy Clark’s name here, and simply her nomination has to be considered a victory. But she has no chance. Thomas Rhett has been pegged as one of the next country superstars for a few years now, and his pedigree may be enough to best Kip Moore and Cole Swindell, who are the other strong contenders.
- Brandy Clark
- Brett Eldredge
- Kip Moore
- Thomas Rhett – Winner
- Cole Swindell – Other Potential Winner
Vocal Duo of the Year
Who, who, and who? Once again mainstream country proves how top heavy their talent is, and how terrible they are at developing new acts when it comes to trying to round out these categories with artists that are deserving of such a distinction. The world will end before anyone but Florida Georgia Line walks away with this.
- Florida Georgia Line – Winner
- Love & Theft
- Swon Brothers
- Thompson Square
Vocal Group of the Year
Good to see the Texas scene represented here (at least to some degree) with Eli Young Band. Zac Brown should win it, Lady Antebellum doesn’t have a chance since it’s an off-year for them. Little Big Town is the reigning champion, and there seems to be a lot of energy behind them lately.
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Little Big Town – Winner
- The Band Perry – Other Potential Winner
- Zac Brown Band – Other Potential Winner
Event of the Year
Cool to see names like Vince Gill, Paul Franklin, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers show up, but in the end there’s probably only two strong contenders. “We Were Us” would be a dark horse, but its rise and fall on the singles charts was pretty fast. “Somethin’ Bad” shouldn’t be nominated for anything and would be an embarrassment if it won, which it very well might.
- “Bakersfield,” Vince Gill & Paul Franklin
- “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill – Winner
- “Somethin’ Bad,” Miranda Lambert duet with Carrie Underwood – Other Potential Winner
- “We Were Us,” Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert
- “Can’t Make Old Friends,” Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers
Music Video of the Year
So, so blah. So many great videos out there, and we’re nominating “Somethin’ Bad” and “Drunk On A Plane”?
- “Automatic,” Miranda Lambert, directed by Trey Fanjoy
- “Bartender,” Lady Antebellum, directed by Shane Drake
- “Drunk On A Plane,” Dierks Bentley, directed by Wes Edwards
- “Follow Your Arrow,” Kacey Musgraves, directed by Honey & Kacey Musgraves
- “Somethin’ Bad,” Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood, directed by Trey Fanjoy
Musician of the Year
Good to see Paul Franklin land two nominations this year. Normally this is the hardest category to forecast, but you have to feel like Franklin is the front runner for 2014.
- Sam Bush, mandolin
- Jerry Douglas, dobro
- Paul Franklin, steel guitar – Winner
- Dann Huff, guitar
- Mac MacAnally, guitar
Harris Interactive has just released a new poll that queried the American public about their favorite music artists, musicians, and bands, and some noteworthy country music names made the list. When pollsters asked for unprompted responses to the question, “Who is your favorite singer/musician or band?”—George Strait was the 5th highest answer, and the highest amongst country music stars. Garth Brooks also made the top 10, coming in tied for 7th with The Eagles, Celine Dion, and Neil Diamond.
Willie Nelson also made the top of two of the lists broken down by demographics, even though he did not make the top 10 overall. Willie was the favorite artist of “Mature Adults” (69 or older), and was tied with The Beatles for the favorite musical artist amongst Republicans (despite Willie’s left-leaning politics). The Beatles came in #1 overall in the poll, right in front of Elvis at #2.
What is even more interesting for country music fans is who is not on the list, and who slipped off the list since the same poll was conducted the last time in 2010. Four years ago, Tim McGraw was #5, Rascal Flatts was #8, and Alan Jackson was #9. None of these country artists made the top 10 again. In 2010 George Strait was #7 in the poll.
With all three of the country entries into this year’s poll being more classically-oriented artists, and none of them being current stars (where is Taylor Swift in this poll?), it speaks to the continued appeal of older country artists and classic country music we’ve seen in similar studies by Edison Research, and in the move to split the country format to give more radio representation to older artists.
The younger artists that made the top 10 of the poll were Beyoncé at #3, and Bruno Mars at #6 who was potentially boosted by his recent Super Bowl appearance.
The Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between July 16th and July 21st, 2014 among 2,306 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.
“Who is your favorite singer/musician or band?”
Base: All adults
DROPPED OFF OF LIST IN 2014
U2 (was No. 2), Tim McGraw (was No. 5), Lady Gaga (was No. 6), Rascal Flatts (was No. 8) and Alan Jackson and Frank Sinatra (both ties for No. 9)
TOP MUSICIAN AMONG DIFFERENT GROUPS
|Gen X (38-49)||
|Baby Boomers (50-68)||
|Parent of child under 18||
|Not parent of child under 18||
When perusing the bereft landscape of mainstream country music and searching for a female performer with some substance and an independent spirit who could possibly still raise a blip at the highest levels, Sunny Sweeney is one of the first names to come to mind. It’s not too hard to envision the Texas native making a splash in the mainstream because she has done it before. In 2010, her single “From A Table Away” made it all the way to #10 on the Billboard charts—a feat for any woman in this particular country music climate. Of course it helped that Sweeney had Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records behind her at that time. Sweeney was one of the very first Big Machine signees along with Taylor Swift, and when Borchetta opened up the Republic Nashville imprint, Sweeney was the label’s inaugural artist.
These days the particulars of Sunny Sweeney’s business dealings are much different. Her latest album Provoked was released through Thirty Tigers—the same independent, champion-of-the-little-guy distributor that artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell use. But Sweeney’s sound still remains very much steeped in that space that can find consensus amongst both mainstream fans, and traditional/independent fans from leanings that are traditional, expressive, yet still accessible to the wide ear.
Just like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musggraves, Sunny Sweeney is an east Texas girl at her core, and no matter what Nashville does, it’s never possible to completely quiet those jangling spurs or smooth out that accent. Sweeney though, compared to Miranda and Kacey for example, seems to have held onto her decidedly Texas style even more so over the years. She very much fits that mold of the Texas country artist that got big enough to be recognized by Music Row, but always felt just a little too authentic to do much more than experience that world from the outside looking in.
At the same time, Sunny Sweeney also has some quickly-identifiable fingerprints of the industry in her sound. Sometimes it feels like instead of hearing three chords and the truth, you’re hearing three professional songwriters and a hook. It might still be a hook that is hard to escape the appeal of, but the formulas and tropes find their way into the female side of country music too, and there’s a few of those overt moments on Provoked. The album’s two beginning tracks—”You Don’t Know Your Husband” and “Bad Girl Phase”—strike at that female answer to Bro-Country vein in portraying the sassy, non-behaving female quite directly.
“Front Row Seats” is a sensational track on this album, superbly written and pointed in its message, but it still plays very much to this Kacey Musgraves anti-conformist formula that the success of “Merry ‘Go Round” has given rise to. A song like “Sunday Dress” shows that when it comes to the women in country, ‘mama’ is the female version of the men’s ‘tailgate,’ and disobeying her wisdom is expected on an album at least a few times. From another perspective though, many of these trends and tropes are hot right now, and Sunny’s contributions overall are just a little more thoughtful, and little more developed, and a little more country than most of her country peers who’ve seen mainstream success.
Sweeney also strikes out on some limbs, and in moments let’s her traditional influences shine through unapologetically. The gem of this album might be the swing-timed “Find Me.” It is so aching, so brilliant in the way it builds tension both in the story and sonically until Sunny has swept you up in a wave of emotions. Like all but two of the songs on Provoked, “Find Me” is co-written by Sweeney, and feels like a very personal expression. The only true cover on the album is Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go” which has been done many times by many artists, maybe most notably by Lucinda Williams, but Sweeney really nails her version, with the song seeming to be custom-made to fit her Southern twang, and the half-time beat highlighting the chorus being the perfect call in the arrangement.
“My Bed” with Will Hoge is another Provoked highlight, and is a good example of how Sweeney also translates well into the more progressive, Americana-style of production that a few of the album’s tracks veer toward. And though the sassy, non-behaving female formula was decried above, the final track on the album, “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is just too damn fun, the lyrics too good, and the steel guitar too hot to give it anything less than two guns up.
Sunny Sweeney has a very sweet, very alluring natural tone to her voice, but it has always felt like she stops her phrasing a little too short, as evidenced on Provoked in the song “Second Guessing.”
In the end it is not Sunny Sweeney’s super heartbreaking sentimentality, or her high caliber songwriting that makes her stand out in the crowd. It is her practical, pragmatic, bridge-building approach to country music for all that stays true to her nature that has you rooting for her no matter what the color of your country music stripes.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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At the 2013 CMA Awards in November, one of the highlights of the evening was George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year. Having recently announced his farewell tour and retirement from the performing circuit, the moment was seen by many as the country music industry bidding George a final farewell, and with it, a farewell to any and all vestiges of what country music used to be in the classic sense.
But this may have not been the only significant farewell the country music industry was bidding that night.
At the 2013 CMA’s, the association also bestowed Taylor Swift with a unique distinction called the Pinnacle Award. As an honor meant to recognize “an artist who has achieved both national and international prominence through concert performances and record sales at levels unique in Country Music,” the Pinnacle Award could be seen as the absolute “pinnacle”of recognition in the country music industry. Garth Brooks in 2005 is the only other performer in the history of country music to receive the award.
When Garth Brooks received his Pinnacle Award in 2005, it was in the midst of his retirement. 2005 was the year Garth insisted he would not be touring anymore or have any more significant releases, at least for another decade. Garth’s Pinnacle Award was almost like a period at the end of his historic, and commercially-dominating run in the industry. And looking back now, so was Taylor’s. The presentation of her Pinnacle Award at the CMA’s looked very much like either a retirement/bon voyage party, or a “please stay” presentation, with all of the performers Taylor Swift had opened for during her early country music career, including George Strait, coming out on stage to greet her while a lengthy video presentation chronicled Taylor Swift’s country career.
On Monday, August 18th, Taylor Swift announced that her next record, 1989, was going to be her “very first documented, official pop album.” Though the writing had been on the wall for a while (Saving Country Music predicted this outcome as early as April of 2013), the news still seemed to come as somewhat of a shock to the country music industry. Beyond the predictable naysayers in country music fandom and their chiding how Taylor Swift was never was country in the first place, there is an economic and logistical impact of no longer having Taylor Swift in country music that cannot be swept under the rug and forgotten. And though many classic country fans may be happy about Taylor Swift’s departure, fans hoping for more female representation or more performing songwriters in country music have just been dealt a big blow.
One of the most interesting parts about Taylor Swift’s decision is that in many ways it was completely unnecessary, and against the grain of the current popular music trends. With artists like Jerrod Niemann and Sam Hunt not just pushing the boundaries of country towards pop, but releasing songs that are clearly pop and pop only through country radio, it stands to reason that Taylor Swift could have released whatever she wanted, and country radio would have played it, and in great numbers. Taylor had already pushed the boundaries of her music with her last album, 2012′s Red, when she partnered with producers Max Martin and Shellback from the pop world and released purely pop songs to country radio like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
Right now the big trend in American popular music is for pop artists to move towards country, not away from it. Country music is pop now. Country is the most popular, and economically-lucrative genre that exists. So the most economically-sound decision for Taylor Swift to make arguably would have been to stay put, especially considering her history is with the genre, and how she could benefit from the infrastructure pop music doesn’t have, like four major award shows.
But there’s something here that many country music industry types may be unwilling to admit. Of course Taylor Swift deserves credit for being honest about her music, and calling a spade a spade by saying her music is pop instead of country. But there may be more here at play than simple genre distinctions. Maybe Taylor Swift didn’t leave country music because she felt pop music would deliver her greener pastures. Maybe she left because she did not want to be identified with what country music has become in 2014. Maybe it’s because she feels no woman can be successful in country music in 2014, at least to the degree she hopes to be with her new album.
If the flight to country music by pop and rock artists is being stimulated by commercial forces, the flight of some mainstream country artists to pop might be stimulated by critical forces. As someone who has openly expressed wanting to be respected for her songwriting, Taylor Swift might be making this decision to create more space between her music and the current trends of country, while also satisfying the conflicts about whether her music is country or not. If this is the case, Taylor Swift would not be alone.
Another female songwriting country star in Kacey Musgraves has been openly courting the pop world, not with her music specifically, but with her collaborations with Katy Perry. As a songwriter, Kacey felt the need to look to the pop world to find a worthy peer. Though the differences may look subtle at the moment, pop music in 2014 is the more adult, and the more distinguishing crowd in popular music, while country is the home of the moronic masses who simply want to be entertained by mix beats and repetitive lyricism. Martina McBride’s latest album Everlasting breaks from her country mold to cover soul and R&B pop standards. This is another example of a critical female country star deciding to make pop in lieu of trying to battle Bro-Country. Instead of artists growing old in country as we saw in previous years with Lionel Richie, Darius Rucker, and Sheryl Crow gravitating to the format, some country artists may start gravitating towards pop, especially female ones.
As Saving Country Music pointed out in the article “Is Pop Music Now Trumping Pop Country in Substance?”:
The whole theorem that pop music is just an excuse to oogle at pretty people has a problem holding up when you look at some of the recent trends in much of the pop world. Of course there’s still exceptions, and the weighty nature of Lorde and Adele can be debated. But even when looking at other Top 10 artists like Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, and Ed Sheeran, these aren’t the customary pop specimens with zero substance that are solely based on image.
Meanwhile you take a look at country music’s leading artists, and what do you see? You see image-driven, shallow males with even shallower songs, squeezed into ultra-tight jeans that have become the spandex tights of our time. Maybe backwards baseball caps have replaced kinked hair, but the servitude to image has stayed the same. Trend-focused and willing to do anything for fame, not standing on principles or worried about the legacies they’re forging, popular country music has become the new bastion for the shallow performer and the sellout; the pop of our time, camouflaged in denim.
Of course one of the problems with this theory is that Taylor Swift’s first single from her solely pop album, “Shake It Off,” is arguably her most shallow to date. If Taylor move to pop was the find more substantive peers, it is not symbolized in this song.
But Taylor Swift’s move to pop is not just a rhetorical issue. Country music has just lost what many consider to be the biggest music star in the entire world right now, and the biggest music star of a generation. Though Taylor will still benefit her label Big Machine Records based in Nashville, her sales will no longer count towards the country music industry. Her voice will no longer draw people to country radio. And her performances will no longer get people excited for country music’s now four major award shows. At least, hypothetically.
Country music already has a severe problem rounding out worthy candidates for its Female Vocalist of the Year awards at the CMA’s and ACM’s. At one point they had to reach out to the pop world and nominate Kelly Clarkson. Now who will they get to fill that 5th spot? If they’re already having to rely on a pop stars to round out the field, it will probably be Taylor Swift again. And if she’s nominated, will she show up? And if she shows up, will she put on a performance? And if she is nominated and puts on a performance, has she really left country at all?
Taylor Swift has sold over 130 million records worldwide. In 2012 when she released her last album Red, she sold over 3,107,000 units in just over two months with her October release. This was nearly triple the amount of albums sold by her two closest country competitors—Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan—and double over the artist just below her, One Direction. Only the cross-Atlantic colossus of Adele was able to outpace Taylor Swift in album sales the last time Taylor released a record. And now, all these sales for her new album 1989 will be tabulated outside of the country music fold.
How does the CMA feel about this? Where will this put country music in the rankings compared to other genres, including pop? Did the CMA reach out to Taylor Swift and try to keep her in the country music fold? Was that what Taylor’s Pinnacle Award was all about?
There will be great economic pressure to play Taylor Swift’s music on country radio, and to include her in country award show presentations because of the economic impact she could have on those mediums.
On Tuesday (8-19), The Country Music Association tweeted out this fairly blatant sign that they’re not ready to let go.
According to Billboard, Taylor Swift’s first single “Shake It Off” is receiving radio play in country, though it is not nearly what it is on pop formats, or what a lot of people expected. The Cumulus Media NASH flagship country station in New York played the song numerous times during its first day, and Clear Channel’s WSIX in Nashville has also given the song a few spins. “Shake It Off” already sits at #49 on Billboard’s building Country Airplay chart, despite not being serviced to country radio at all. Of course this would be a marginal showing if you were looking to make waves in country, but for a song purposely avoiding country radio, this symbolizes that some are unwilling to give Taylor Swift up so easily. We’re likely to see even more radio play if/when Taylor releases singles with more of a ballad, sentimental style.
Big Machine Records’ CEO Scott Borchetta said in a June Rolling Stone article, “Will country stations play a complete pop song just because it’s her? No.” But according to early reports, this answer is not completely correct. Sure, Big Machine may not be actively promoting Taylor Swift to country radio, but would they actually go out of their way to tell country radio not to play her?
Complicating the matter further is the idea that Taylor Swift could always come back to country. In fact there’s something very intuitive about her making this move in the future, when she grows older. Will country music accept her back?
Though Taylor Swift leaving country music could very much be seen as a victory from the Saving Country Music perspective, to the country music industry perspective, they just lost this generations biggest music star, and an money-making powerhouse. And the cultural and economic impact of this development cannot be overstated.
Monday afternoon (8-18), Taylor Swift conducted a 30-minute Yahoo! online stream from New York City in front of a live audience with all the irrational exuberance of a Ron Popeil infomercial, where she unveiled a new song called “Shake It Off,” announced that her new album 1989 to be released on October 27th, and after a protracted explanation, made it abundantly clear that this new album will be her “very first documented, official pop album.”
So yes country music, see you later. And sorry Country Music Hall of Fame, but your education wing is now forever named after a pop star who has officially featured twerking asses in one of her videos.
After unveiling her new single, the second portion of the informal Taylor Swift press conference played out like a protracted scene of a nasty breakup where the heartbreaker can barely muster the guts to spit out the bad news. In fact he word “country” was never uttered once throughout the presentation, and it was left very much up to the audience to put together what exactly Taylor Swift was trying to imply.
Along with the portions of Taylor Swift explaining the late 80′s influence to her new album, this is how the scene transpired.
We went into the studio and decided it was our #1 priority to make a song that sounded nothing Max and Johan [Shellback] had done, and sounded like nothing I had done.
I like to work on albums for two years, because two years gives you enough time to grow and to change, and to, you know, change your priorities. Change where you live, change your hair, change what you believe in, change who you hang out with, what’s influencing you, what’s inspiring you. And in the process of all of those changes in the last two years, my music changed. So, what ended up happening was, I woke up every single day I was recording this record not wanting, but needing to make a new a new style of music than I had ever made before. So essentially, what ended up happening was, in my opinion, we made the most sonically cohesive album we’ve ever made. We made my favorite album I’ve ever made.”
“So the inspiration behind this record. I was listening to a lot of late 80′s pop because I really love the chances they were taking. I loved how bold it was. I loved how ahead of its time it was. And so being inspired by that, I started delving into the late 80′s and what that period of time actually meant. And what I found from asking people and reading up on it, and just really just diving into the late 80′s, was that it was apparently a time of just limitless potential. And the idea that you can do what you want, be who you want, wear what you want, love who you want, and you get to decide where your life is going. Bright colors, bold chances, rebellion. And the idea of that was so inspiring to me, and the idea of endless possibility was kind of a theme from the last year of my life.
But basically in thinking about that, in thinking about all those themes, and thinking about how this album is a rebirth for me because it’s so new. I’ve never really made these kinds of changes before. And having been born on December 13th, 1989, this album is called ‘1989.’
And for the record, this is my very first documented, official pop album.
A few observations:
1) Who explained to Taylor Swift that late 80′s pop music was all about “bold chances” and “rebellion”? This is bold revisionist history, or at the least, a greatly slanted perspective.
2) Is the song “Shake It Off” in any way a departure from previous output of Taylor Swift, Max Martin, Shellback, or even what this team released on Taylor Swift’s last album? The answer is an unequivocal, “No.”
3) Lines like, “And the idea that you can do what you want, be who you want, wear what you want, love who you want, and you get to decide where your life is going,” only further this misnomer that somehow country music is this extremely limiting authoritarian regime that extremely constricts the creative aptitude of artists.
So there you go country music, Taylor Swift is gone. At least for now. And as the entire music industry seems to be moving in the direction of country music, Taylor Swift decides to cut against the grain. And along with this move goes the only female “country” music artist who could headline her own arena/stadium tour, the only female artist who could compete for the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, and one of only three females who could land a single at the top of the country charts, further compounding country music’s female problem. If in fact, country music allows Taylor Swift to leave.
Give me a break.
The histrionics that mainstream country artists (and Taylor Swift too ) go through to release an album, and the hoops they make their poor fans jump through these days is just a little bit silly, don’t you think? Brad Paisley still has the majority of his gullible fans svengalied into believing he’s in trouble with his label for releasing irrelevant three-second snippets of the dumb songs from his upcoming record, and Eric Church is still trying to rationalize why he blew a 7-figure budget on producing cryptic teaser videos for The Outsiders that barely anybody watched. Come on Music Row, we’ve got shit to do. Just tell us when you’re going to release the damn thing and we’ll pony up the dough. Maybe. Or probably not.
Yes, Taylor Swift will be announcing her new album at this August 18th press conference. And she will release a single on the same day or shortly thereafter that she will preview during the event. And then she will perform that single on the MTV Video Music Awards (or VMA’s) on August 24th that she’s scheduled to perform at. And water is wet.
All of this has been preordained for quite some time ladies and gentlemen, and it is all transpiring as predictably as the lyrical hook of a Bro-Country song (Oh, you rhymed “beer” with “Girl, get over here“? How clever.)
According to Saving Country Music’s vast circuit of moles covertly embedded throughout the inner workings of the country music’s sprawling industrial complex that feverishly feed information into this site’s coffers to be aggregated an analyzed (or actually, this random dude on Twitter), Taylor Swift will release her new album on October 13th, 2014. Or basically, two years after she released released her album Red (October 22nd, 2012), and four years after she released Speak Now (October 25th, 2010). But yes, nothing, NOTHING about this Taylor Swift album release business is in any way predictable. So let’s just all pretend this upcoming press conference is about her re-uping her endorsement deal with the sensible yet stylish canvas shoes known as Keds so we can act surprised when she tells us a bunch of crap we mostly already know.
And the album will be named A Delicious Journey.
Actually I just made that up. I have no idea what it will be named. But it will probably be something fruit flavored and effervescent like that. Say my sources.
This is when I arrogantly point out that way back on June 11th, I predicted:
- Taylor Swift will make an announcement about her new album in late July, or early to mid August.
- The announcement will coincide with the release of a new single.
- The new album will be released in October, or early November.
- There will be at least one collaboration with Justin Timberlake on the new album.
- It will include about 15 to 18 songs.
- Despite Scott Borchetta’s rhetoric, country radio will still play Taylor Swift, and with a lack of other leading females to fill the spots, Swift will still get nominated for country music’s top female awards.
About the only thing I’m sweating at this point is the wild-assed, harebrained prediction that Justin Timberlake has anything to do with this Taylor Swift album business that was based simply off a hunch and a little timeline syncing. But hey, if it pays off, I look like a genius. So there you go.
The real speculation here is whether Taylor Swift’s music will still reside in the country music fold once it is released. We already know Taylor Swift doesn’t want to be country, but will the country music industry let her get away that easy? Taylor Swift means a ton of sales figures stimulating country music’s overall GDP, and she’s one of the few females country music has left that can actually raise a blip on mainstream metrics.
UPDATE (8-18): Rumor has it that Taylor Swift new single will be called “Shake It Off” and is a very pop-oriented song in a similar vein of the first single from her last album “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It supposedly includes a horn section, and very little guitar. It also apparently contains the line, “They say I date too much and can’t make ‘em stay,” calling out the critics of her personal life. Some radio has already received advanced copies of the single.
Let’s face it, if Taylor Swift wants out of country, she’s screwed. She could release an album entirely of rap songs without a single human-played note on the entire thing … and it would still be considered country. Why? Because there’s numerous “country” artists who’ve already done this exact thing. If you release an album in 2014 and you’re white, then yeah, it’s pretty much country. Or it’s Imagine Dragons. Go listen to Jerrod Niemann’s “Drink To That All Night” or Sam Hunt’s “Leave The Night On”. Country music has literally regressed farther away from the genre’s roots in the last two years since Taylor Swift released an album than it did during the entire history of the genre before.
Though it may sound impossible to some, Taylor Swift’s new songs will be even more pop than what her music was before, and they still won’t have the power to extricate her from the genre. Country music co-opted pop, rock, and rap into the mono-genre, and now there is nowhere for Taylor Swift to go. And still, though not country by any stretch, Taylor Swift’s music will be better and more original than most of the gunk residing under the “country” flag.
The virtual disappearance of female country music stars on American radio is a dilemma that has now stretched out for nearly half a decade. Despite the efforts of many well-meaning taste makers in both the media and the industry to make sense of the problem and solve it, nothing so far has significantly penetrated the male blockade dominating country radio. When you take away Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood, there are no other female country stars who have received any significant chart success with songs since 2010.
Now the senior director of music programming at SiriusXM is looking to try and do something about the problem and hopefully create interest around some of country music’s undiscovered and worthy female talent. SiriusXM’s John Marks has launched a new feature on the satellite radio station’s major mainstream channel The Highway called Fresh Female Voices that three times an hour will feature female artists from both the up-and-coming ranks of the mainstream, and the independent music world. The feature will run all this week while John Marks monitors sales data and social network chatter to see if the program is having a significant impact and which female stars resonate the most.
Female artists who’ve been mentioned as part of the program include Brandy Clark, Sunny Sweeney, First Aid Kit, The Pistol Annies’ Angaleena Presley, Kelleigh Bannen, and Leah Turner. Fresh Female Voices will add an estimated 200 additional spins for female country acts beyond the coverage The Highway regularly gives to the women of country.
Interestingly, it was a similar John Marks program that is given credit to the rise of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise”, and songs from Chase Rice and Cole Swindell before they were signed to labels. Marks hopes a similar fate awaits the ladies he’s looking to feature.
“It’s a fan question and an industry question that everyone is asking right now,” John Marks says. “Where is the female talent in country music? With ‘Fresh Female Voices,’ we will be introducing our national audience to a wide variety of female talent that is out there right now working hard and trying to connect with fans. We hope to be a conduit by exposing a wide variety of types and styles of country music – while spotlighting up and coming female country music talent.”
“We’re pulling in a wide swath of female talent to gather up what the listeners will respond to,” Marks tells Brian Mansfield of USA Today about the program. “For me, it’s turning into a quest to find the one that finally rings the bell for the country consumer.”
Marks also says the problem isn’t male listeners dominating the country marketplace, it is female listeners not responding to female talent. “The females typically lead in not liking female talent,” he says. “The trick is going to be how you get the females to like the females.”
Fresh Female Voices marks one of the first programs specifically targeting the country listening audience on radio to try to solve country’s female problem, and one that can have a national impact because of the subscription service’s reach.
“Quarterback” is a song by female Canadian country star Kira Isabella; the first single from her upcoming Sony Music Canada release Caffeine & Big Dreams. It was released to the Canadian market on March 25th, and has performed fairly well, cresting Canada’s Hot Country Billboard songs chart at #10. Written by Rivers Rutherford, Bobby Hamrick, and Marti Dodson, the song tells the story of a young girl from the high school freshman class who is seduced by the star quarterback of the football team. After being disarmed by some sips of alcohol, the freshman girl ends up having unwanted sex with the quarterback in the back of a truck, complete with embarrassing photos being posted on the internet the following day.
The song was released to the American country market on May 19th, but did not fare well for a number of reasons, principally that Kira Isabella’s US radio promo company HitShop Records recently realigned to focus more on satellite and streaming options because the American radio climate is so difficult to promote singles in these days. But recent headlines and current events have created a resurgence of interest in the single. With its strong female voice and perspective, “Quarterback” could very much be considered another anti “Bro-Country” addition to the country music song landscape—a precursor to Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” if you will. Similarly, with a slew of high-profile rape events at country concerts, including one where many concert patrons apparently stood idly by and watched and took video and photos during a rape, and another where a woman was allegedly raped by multiple men, the merging of rape and country music has become a hot topic.
“Quarterback” was not written to tackle either Bro-Country, or country music’s recent rape problem though; it was meant to tackle the rape issue plaguing the scholastic sports environment in both high school and college, and the propensity for athletic programs and universities to institutionally look the other way when allegations are levied, especially when it comes to star players. The song was originally pitched to the American market and Carrie Underwood who almost cut it, but Carrie did not want her previous relationship with Dallas Cowboys’ star quarterback Tony Romo to lead to speculation that the song was about him.
“Quarterback” has a very Carrie Underwood feel it it—solidly pop country, but still substantive, with an very emotional quotient that allows the message to resonate deep in the listener. Kira Isabella does not have the voice of Carrie Underwood, but she fits herself into the song quite nicely, and the strings and other sonic accoutrements compliment the weighty drama of the story.
The video for “Quarterback” is also an asset. It includes just enough abstraction, and just enough realism to convey the story without coming off as too dramatic or objectionably preachy or sentimental, while still giving a strong illustration to the storyline. An interesting note, there are many elements of “Quarterback” that mirror those of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”, including the leading lady being in the marching band, the leading male being the star of the football team, and the video showing shots of the marching band girl in her bedroom. Obviously, the circumstances in “Quarterback” are a little different.
Some are touting “Quarterback” as if it could be revolutionary to country music. But if the song is going to pull off a revolution, it first must be heard. And the idea of “Quarterback” making a late game rally on US country radio at this point seems slim. And it’s not necessarily because stodgy radio programmers refuse to play a song denouncing date rape, it’s because the song really doesn’t have the push behind it at the moment from a major radio promotional outfit.
Charles Aaron of Wondering Sound wrote a great piece about “Quarterback”, asking, “Is Country Radio Ready for a Song about Date Rape?”, though he also seemed to let a personal agenda pepper the article, starting off by observing, “One of the most threatening things that a woman can do these days, it seems, is report a sexual assault, or to assert that there is a pervasive sexual-assault problem, or to push for schools to address the issue of sexual assault on campus, or to start a hashtag where women can tweet about being assaulted.”
I’m not sure if that’s really the case, even in the traditionally-conservative country music world. And I’m not sure that two high-profile rape incidents at country concerts recently constitute an epidemic just yet. Of course Charles Aaron was probably using at least part hyperbole, but it seems that country music is commonly painted with a closed-minded brush when the reality of things is a much different picture. Johnny Cash had a #1 hit with “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in 1970. Loretta Lynn released “The Pill” in 1975. And Kacey Musgraves has seen a couple of songs do quite well in country music despite controversial themes, principally “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow”. Sometimes people on the outside looking into country seem surprised country fans have the mental competency to even tie their own shoes.
In fact one of the most remarkable things about “Quarterback” is how it comes across as simply a story that is resonant and in many ways universal in its ability to be recognized as an eternal theme of American society. It is about date rape specifically, but generally it is about the doors that are opened by power and fame, and the doors that are closed by obscurity, illustrated on a yearly basis by the casting of American society by high school royal court popularity contests. The controversy in Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” was much more overt. “Quarterback” conveys its message with feeling in a narrative that is hard to not feel compassion for.
The primary problem with “Quarterback” is the same problem with many modern-day country songs written by committee, which is they create non-linear scenarios for the performers of these songs to dwell in. One of the reasons the Outlaws of country music resonated so deeply back in the mid 70′s is because they understood that the songs they sung became extensions of the persona, whether that persona was true to themselves, or not.
Kira Isabella’s previous single before “Quarterback” was a song called “Blame It On Your Truck”. Released a full year before Maggie Rose’s very submissive “Girl In Your Truck Song” (another single beset with the shuttering radio promotions department), “Blame It On Your Truck” takes a very similar subservient female position, and ironically, in the back of a guy’s truck—the same setting where the “Quarterback” date rape scene occurs.“I know you like the jeans I’m wearing, ’cause I can tell by the way you keep staring. There’s a place we like to go way back in the woods, everybody think’s we’re up to no good… Don’t wanna think about it now, but my mama will be freaking out when I don’t make it home before 2 AM. I’ll say it wouldn’t start or maybe we got stuck, I know my daddy he’ll be waiting up. Let’s blame it on your truck.”
You get the sense that Kira Isabella is just singing the song put in front of her instead of drawing on inspiration to tell a heartfelt story. There’s nothing about her performance that would allude to this; it’s more a symptom of the country music system churning out songs through committee instead of doing their best to take a truly original human expression forged from inspiration and convey it to the wide masses. It would be a fair accusation against “Quarterback” to say that the song is simply pandering to the emotional vulnerability of the audience.
The unfortunate fact is “Quarterback” has little to no chance of being heard en masse, or even receiving any sizable radio play unless Sony somehow calls a cross-border audible and puts some promotion behind it. And who knows, with Kira’s new album coming out in a week, stranger things could happen. The story of “Quarterback” is a good one, and let’s hope it gets heard by more people. But let’s also hope that its moral doesn’t become even more poignant as this summer of seediness at mainstream country music concerts continues.
Whether you love The Civil Wars (who just announced they’re officially kaput), or you found their vocal acrobatics a little too fey, it was hard to not root for the singing duo when they showed up in the nominations for country music’s major award shows. They were the one act with more of an Americana, substantive approach that you could get excited for. Sure, their “Steve Vai of Vocalists” approach and hot-burning sets sung virtually the entire time with the duo staring into each other’s eyes seemed doomed as an unsustainable approach from the beginning, but it was fun for many while it lasted.
So who could step up of in the country music vocal duo space who could duel with the heavyweights of the mainstream, and offer more substance to that category like The Civil Wars did? Of course there will only be one Civil Wars and nobody will be able to replace them completely, but here are some ideas who could have a similar impact.
First Aid Kit
If there was ever a duo that was poised for a big push into the mainstream of county, and whose songs would immediately deliver an entirely new paradigm of substance and roots to the genre without compromising melodic sensibilities, it would be the Swedish sister duo of Johanna and Klara Söderberg. Their songs are screaming for more radio play and a wider American audience, and they are supported by stellar video releases and a major American label in Columbia Records. First Aid Kit could not only deliver country music the critical entree in the duo category it craves, they could also deliver country some much needed girl power. Like the Kacey Musgraves of singing duos, but without some of the political baggage and sedated performances that have somewhat saddled Kacey, First Aid Kit could become a big player in the space vacated by The Civil Wars. Of course the duo would have to commit more deeply to the North American market, but their potential as a commercial and critical powerhouse is definitely there, and their new album Stay Gold is the ideal springboard.
Shovels & Rope
As dubbed by Saving Country Music, Shovels & Rope is “The Civil Wars for the rest of us.” Where The Civil Wars seemed somewhat saddled by the eloquence and sentimentality, Shovels & Rope is rough, dirty, sweaty, ugly, and real. At the same time, they deliver the same heated passion in their music that made The Civil Wars so compelling, and unlike The Civil Wars, that passion isn’t pretend because Shovels & Rope are also true life partners. Though they probably don’t have the same widespread commercial potential as a project like First Aid Kit or The Civil Wars did, their strong grass roots network across the United States gives them a deep base to work from. At some point this Americana powerhouse graduating to the mainstream could do wonders for both spheres of roots music, and with their new album Swimmin’ Time scheduled to come out August 25th, this could be the moment Shovels & Rope step up their game from their already quick-won success.
The Secret Sisters
Just like First Aid Kit, everything is in place for this singing sister duo to step it up to the next level. Unlike many of the other duo acts currently residing in the Americana realm, The Secret Sisters enjoy the support of a major label in Universal Republic, and have found quite a bit of success under the auspices of super producer T Bone Burnett who worked with The Civil Wars in their collaboration with Taylor Swift. The Secret Sisters have the songs, and the spice that it takes to take a duo to the top levels, combining authentic country roots with contemporary styling that could reach and resonate with a wide audience if only given a chance. All that is needed for The Secret Sisters to explode is a deeper commitment from the industry. In the vacuum left by The Civil Wars, this could be the duo’s chance.
The Milk Carton Kids
The intimacy of The Civil Wars, and their ability to do so much with simply two voices and a guitar is what made them captivating to a wider audience than what regularly would transpire from such a stripped-down production. This is also the allure of The Milk Carton Kids, who like Shovels & Rope, have seen a meteoric rise in the Americana ranks. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan may be a little too strange, a little too eepish for the wide ear compared to some of the other Civil Wars alternatives, but they certainly capture the vibe that made The Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings pairings a success that stretched into the sphere of mainstream acceptance. They also enjoy the support of ANTI records—one of the strongest of the independent labels.
The Church Sisters
Potentially the singing duo with the most upside potential because they’re still so young, sisters Sarah and Savannah Church from the coal mining region of Dickerson County, Virginia bring some of the most exquisite harmonies to their love for traditional country and gospel music. The fraternal twins have been making big waves in the traditional country, Gospel, and bluegrass circuits, and they certainly have the talent to take them to higher places in the future. Since their still somewhat in their developmental phase, the question of The Church Sisters is if they will develop a more original style or stick with standards, and if they will have enough secular material in their mostly religious music lineup to create the type of widespread acceptance they would need to take it to the next level. Either way, The Church Sisters will surely be making new fans across the country as long as they keep singing.
The Cactus Blossoms
Maybe not with the commercial potential of the rest of the field because of their fairly traditional bent, The Cactus Blossoms from Minnesota are nonetheless one of the most engaging and enjoyable vocal duos out there that deserve to discover a wider audience and greater success. Page Burkum and Jack Torrey have definitely tapped into that Louvin Brothers / Everly Brothers mojo with the ultra-tight harmonies and ear for styling that can send shivers down the back of your neck. The unsigned duo is certainly worthy of a wider ear.
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison and their “Bruce & Kelly Show” is another interesting candidate for The Civil Wars replacement. The husband and wife duo might be a more established duo like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, but performing together specifically is a more recent incarnation for the Texas music royalty couple. With the backing of the strong base of Texas country listeners and a renewed spirit, Kellie & Bruce can do what The Civil Wars did, and then some.
Mandolin Orange and Carolina Story are other promising Americana duo.
The Urban Pioneers would be the underground roots entry into the singing duo that has the legitimacy of also being a real life couple. Cut from the cloth of Jayke Orvis’s now dissolved Broken Band, it will be enjoyable to watch how this duo develops.
Now that the building that houses the historic Studio ‘A’ on Music Row in Nashville has been sold to Brentwood, TN-based real estate company Bravo Development, the next question is what moves do preservationists have in the playbook to help save the landmark? Ben Folds, the current renter of the studio, and someone who has spent over $1 million on the space in the last dozen years in both rent and renovations, says he is being forced out of the building because of a 124% rent increase. Bravo Development says the building is in poor shape, citing asbestos, bad plumbing and wiring, a leaky roof, and mold in the air ducts. And despite Bravo’s promises to Ben Folds that it was always in their plans to save the historic studio if it was architecturally feasible (even if they tore the rest of the building down), as soon as the company gained possession of the building they immediately put it back up for sale to whichever new developer is willing to pay their price. Saving Studio ‘A’ from the wrecking ball continues to get more complicated by the day.
Preservationists are trying to get the city to grant a zoning overlay on 30 Music Square West and many of Music Row’s other historic landmarks, but there is push back from wealthy developers and some of the property owners on Music Row not wanting to jeopardize future real estate profits by succumbing to such financially cumbersome restrictions. Though there is a lot of popularity for preserving Music Row’s landmarks in the community, it is not a given that saving Studio ‘A’ can be accomplished through the City of Nashville.
So now the question is, who, if anyone, would be in a position to purchase the property with the intent of preserving the Studio ‘A’ space, and potentially the building it occupies? As Bravo Development has stated, the building is in poor shape. All indications are that financially, the most feasible move for most any developer would be to demolish the building and build on the property footprint.
One of the problems in the fight to save Studio ‘A’ is that aside from the studio occupying part of the building, the building itself is not necessarily historic, or attractive, or architecturally significant. We are not talking about a turn of the century structure like the Ryman Auditorium with its regal exterior, or Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church with its Egyptian Revival style. 30 Music Square West was built in 1964 and has a very utilitarian, austere presence indicative of mid-century modern architecture. In other words, it’s a big rectangular box with little ornamentation or imagination. It’s one part offices, one part large-scale studio, with a row of windows along half of it’s horizontal front face, and a mostly brick exterior with some stone thrown in to break the starkness. Compared to the buildings that surround the property, it is fairly nondescript, if not outdated, without being old enough to be called classic. Add on top the other infrastructural and environmental problems with the building, and the outlook is not particularly rosy.
That doesn’t mean that the building, or Studio ‘A’, couldn’t be preserved, the building renovated, and the property beautified by the right owner. But it would take an institution just as interested in preserving the historic space as they are being financially smart about how to craft a sustainable future for the property. Any developer whose plans are simply concerned with the bottom line highest valuation for the asset would likely not be interested in renovation. One of the reasons the building might be in the condition it is in is because the previous owners—the estates of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradly—didn’t see the point in putting more money into a doomed building. That also might be the reason the property was up for sale for so long without finding a buyer, until Nashville’s current boom got so big, developers started looking to gobble up any assets they could.
So who might look to take on Studio ‘A’ simply for the spirit of preserving the landmark, while still getting some functionality out of the existing space? It would have to be a not-for-profit, or a public or private institution not concerned with bottom-line financial outcomes, beyond making a sound investment on a piece of property in a desirable location. And it would have to be someone with the financial resources to purchase it.
Luckily there is precedent for public institutions taking over Music Row properties, and being very successful in that pursuit. Music Row’s Studio ‘B’ on virtually the same piece of property as 30 Music Square West is owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and is on the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places. It is co-operated by the Country Music Hall of Fame, who gives guided tours of the studio daily, and another private institution, Belmont University. This partnership has resulted in both the preservation of the site, and the continued use and profit from it as a Music Row institution. Of course, it helped that the studio and land were donated by previous Studio ‘B’ owner Dan Maddox in 1992, but despite the profit potential of the property, preservation prevailed and not at the complete expense of financial return. The Studio ‘B’ building is not particularly architecturally impressive or significant either, and Studio ‘A’ and Studio ‘B’ are virtually connected, making the ability to manage the studio or conduct tours between the two properties by the Country Music Hall of Fame or someone else fairly easy.
The Country Music Hall of Fame also has the resources to raise the cash to fund the acquisition. Keith Urban, who has headlined numerous concerts for the Hall of Fame that have netted millions and helped pay for a recent $100 million expansion on the Hall of Fame, has already lent his voice to Studio ‘A’ preservation. Taylor Swift also recently gave a large sum to the Hall of Fame. Like Studio ‘B’, Studio ‘A’ could continue to function as a studio, while tours could help buffer the overall income environment for the building. The Country Music Hall of Fame could also use the offices for accounting and other tasks that don’t need to be housed at the Hall itself, or open up a Music Row museum as an annex to the Hall and the studios proper.
There is another example of an institution purchasing a historic Music Row property that is much more recent, and much more relative to the situation with Studio ‘A’ since the studio will never be donated by its current owners like Studio ‘B’ was. In early July, Vanderbilt University purchased Sony’s century-old office on Music Row for $12.1 million. Vanderbilt was currently occupying 27,000 square feet of space in the building, and when it was put up for sale by Sony, who intends to move to Nashville’s “Gulch” area a couple of miles from its current location, the purchase made sense. Vanderbilt’s close proximity to Music Row made the logistics of the sale feasible, and just like Belmont University, who has numerous co-inhabited properties with Curb Records on Music Row, the university sees the Music Row campus as a natural extension of its borders and interest.
Even if a new buyer for 30 Music Square West makes promises of preserving the historic Studio ‘A’ space, and even if new zoning restrictions kick in from the City of Nashville, minds can chance, and so can ordinances. If an institution like The Country Music Hall of Fame, or Belmont or Vanderbilt University, The City of Nashville itself, or some large entrepreneurial spirit with an established footprint on Music Row such as Mike Curb or Scott Borchetta could buy the property, it seems like this would be the best option to see the long-term preservation of Studio ‘A’. Out on the open market with investors and developers dealing in the future of the property, most indicators point to the historic studio being doomed.
30 Music Square West (Studio ‘A’ Building):
Studio ‘B’ Building on Left (lighter exterior), Studio ‘A’ on Right
Inside of Studio ‘A’
On Monday (7-7), Taylor Swift did something somewhat unusual from the music space—she posted an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal. Though not unheard of, for a pop star, especially one who is only 24-years-old, to enter the fray of intellectual discourse in this manner is a little unexpected, though it goes along with her classy approach to life in general lately (see pics of her moderately-cut bathing suit from the 4th of July weekend). And despite music listeners’ predisposition to think any and all pop stars are nothing more than bubblegum twirlers, you would be a fool to think that Taylor Swift is anything but intellectual inside to some extent. Beyond her musical success, she a savvy businesswoman who calls many of her own shots, and has created arguably the most successful music franchise of this generation.
Taylor Swift’s piece is very well-written, inviting and colloquial, but also thoughtful and challenging where it needs to be. She raises some very important points about music, and does so in a persuasive manner. And before getting too deep into the body of what she says, it’s interesting to find Swift once again referencing either her fear or just her self-awareness that she is aging as an artist. “I’ll just be sitting back and growing old, watching all of this happen or not happen,” she says at the end of the piece. 24-years-old may not seem aged to most who would read the Wall Street Journal, but in the pop world, it is long in the tooth, especially the pop world today. Taylor has also referenced her age recently in the context of hoping to realize when it’s right to hang it up, while always wanting to remain a songwriter. Maybe Swift hears her biological clock ticking, and her age references are just as much about wanting different things out of life now that she has reached the pinnacle, as it is about growing fear of becoming irrelevant in the music marketplace. But this bit of introspection once again speaks to more of a heady disposition than some of Swift’s most popular songs might allude to.
Also, it is refreshing to see an artist attempt to take some leadership in music, especially in this approach. The problem with music in general is the current regime of political correctness has made machines out of our music stars, unwilling to go out on limbs, worried it will result in some sort of public backlash or misunderstanding.
But all of that aside ladies and gentlemen, what is going on here is marketing. It beings with marketing, and ends with marketing. It doesn’t mean that Taylor Swift doesn’t make some salient points, or mean what she says, and that those points aren’t important. But the bottom dollar is what is driving the sentiments in this piece.
What we are seeing here with this op-ed, and the bevy of Taylor Swift bathing suit pics that surfaced over the 4th of July weekend, is the opening salvo in Taylor Swift’s next album release cycle. Swift is getting ready to release her 5th studio album, and she will likely make an announcement about it either later in July or possibly in August about a release date likely in October or November. What has been happening over the last few months, including her no show at the CMT Awards, is the minimal exposure a big-time star like Swift hopes to attain right before re-emerging and creating anticipation about a new project. In fact Taylor Swift spoke about this very thing when she released the song “Sweeter Than Fiction” as part of a movie soundtrack. “I had to go around and ask people, ‘Can I please, please put something out?’ even though we’re supposed to be going quiet,” she said in the Fall of 2013. Swift has been purposely absent from radio for a while, and it is ripe for a new, blockbuster single.
There are two principal points that Taylor Swift conveys in her op-ed 1) Buy my music. 2) Don’t bitch because my music isn’t country.
Of course, she says it more eloquently, and embellishes it with personal stories that help endear these ideas to the reader. But break it down, and that’s what is conveyed. Why? Because like with Swift’s concern about growing older, Taylor is approaching this album release from a position of fear. She’s afraid not enough people are going to buy it, and that everyone will criticize it because it’s not country. So she releases an op-ed that challenges both of these things before they even transpire. She’s trying to be ahead of the game, and this is smart. But the motivations may be a little misguided.
Her first point is about cherishing the music experience and asking people to still purchase music and not just stream it—a very relevant issue for Swift since her label Big Machine does not release albums to Spotify or other streamers until months after the release. Overall, it is hard to disagree with anything she says.
Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.
Yes, yes, and yes! It’s great to see these points made, and by someone with the bullhorn the size of Taylor Swift’s. But then she seems to go on to understand the realities of album purchasing, and then indirectly lobby for her album to be one of the few you should make a point to purchase.
In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart or have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone. It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album, and as artists, that should challenge and motivate us.
There are always going to be those artists who break through on an emotional level and end up in people’s lives forever.
Taylor wants the reader to be one of those life-long fans who buys any album an artist puts out. Swift’s next release may be for all intents and purposes her last blockbuster release. If not because of her age—which she has already confided in us she sees as a concern—then because in 2 1/2 years from now, the likelihood anybody will be buying anyone’s albums is greatly diminished in the face of streaming. Swift knows this might be her last big shot, and she may be sitting on one of the most costly albums to make in the history of music, and one of the last great blockbuster albums released and accepted in physical form.
The second major point is about genre.
Another theme I see fading into the gray is genre distinction. These days, nothing great you hear on the radio seems to come from just one musical influence. The wild, unpredictable fun in making music today is that anything goes. Pop sounds like hip hop; country sounds like rock; rock sounds like soul; and folk sounds like country—and to me, that’s incredible progress. I want to make music that reflects all of my influences, and I think that in the coming decades the idea of genres will become less of a career-defining path and more of an organizational tool.
This moment in music is so exciting because the creative avenues an artist can explore are limitless. In this moment in music, stepping out of your comfort zone is rewarded, and sonic evolution is not only accepted…it is celebrated. The only real risk is being too afraid to take a risk at all.
First off, there no disagreement here in Ms. Swift’s assessment that all popular music now sounds the same, regardless of genre, and that this trend continues to progress. The mono-genre is here, and all that is left at this point in popular music is some clean up duty to make sure the mono-genre is completely secured. But some of the points Swift makes while while spelling out what is happening with popular music are misguided, and in a few instances, downright insulting to many worthy musicians.
“These days, nothing great you hear on the radio seems to come from just one musical influence.”
So wait a second, nothing that draws influence from just one genre is “great”? Nothing? NOTHING? No country, no hip-hop, no jazz, pop, classical, R&B, rock, or EDM? NOTHING? This statement by Swift is just as much presumptive as it is insulting to the many artists working within specified genres who are making great music, some which remains very successful on the radio.
There’s no reason to rehash the tired arguments about what is country and what isn’t, and luckily Taylor Swift did not give the stereotypical example that we’ve heard from artists such as Blake Shelton and Eric Church that so-called “traditionalists” only want to have country sound like Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings over and over.
But the notion that somehow genres limit creativity, and working without genres immediately implies creativity, is ridiculous and misguided, and is insulting to many creative and hard-working artists. Genre is simply a music term for artistic medium. Just because a sculptor doesn’t want to use the aid of digital imaging to map out his vision in clay, does that somehow make them less creative because they refuse help from a multimedia format? Or does that make the artist more creative because they are able to work within a narrowed medium and still create something artistic and impactful to an audience?
It is the same for musical genres. As the proprietor of a website that has a genre name right there in the title, I have gone out of my way to say that genres can, and in some instances, should be blended, if that is what leads to better art. But sometimes adhering to genres makes art that’s even better because it has a familiarity or a lineage behind it. Just because something is different, doesn’t make it good, and genres creates the strong foundation from which they can be blended so that creativity can flourish. If you start with only blended art though, your palette is severely limited. In other words, scramble eggs all you want. Just understand, an egg can’t be unscrambled. And what is wrong with celebrating diversity in music, in enjoying the differences between influences instead of trying to resolve them?
Furthermore, Taylor Swift has been bestowed riches of the world very few living people on the earth can even imagine, and it has been done heretofore though the institution of country music—a defined and rigid genre. It was country radio, the CMA, which is an organization made up of radio broadcasters and labels, that have endowed Swift with many of her awards, and much of her success. Taylor Swift owes country music a historic debt of gratitude, and not to say that she hasn’t attempted to pay it back with huge endowments to the Country Music Hall of Fame and other institutions. But just because Taylor wants to leave country music, doesn’t mean she has to leave with a torch in her hand, burning the institution behind her, and genres in general as she turns her back on what made her one of the riches entertainers in the world.
Taylor Swift is leaving country with her next album, and we already know that. The only question left isif country will let her. And hey, let her go, it’s fine. The last half-decade of conflict and arguments over whether Taylor Swift is country or not have been tiresome. And by her being honest about her genre choices, it gives her music a strength it has not had before when she was trying to pass off pop for country. But for the love of God, let us enjoy our genres and country music in peace, without having our creativity or level of open-mindedness incessantly questioned. There’s a happy medium here, where genre-based music and mixed genre music can co-habitate peacefully.
But as a genre or as fans, country music shouldn’t be so quick to applaud Taylor Swift leaving. Because along with her goes one of the format’s commercial powerhouses, and most engaging songwriters. Was she ever country? Of course not. But genre’s aside, Taylor Swift was better than many of her country music alternatives and contemporaries. Truth be known, Taylor is smart to get out of country while the getting’s good.
But remember Taylor Swift, country music supported you, and loved you even when you didn’t belong. And even though genres may no longer belong in the popular music world, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve love for endowing you and other musical performers with worlds full of opportunity.
Forget Taylor Swift, and her first win for the CMA’s prestigious Entertainer of the Year award in 2009. Forget Swift’s huge pop blockbusters of 2012 like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”. Forget Jason Aldean taking the country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” and making it into the best selling song in all of country music in 2011. And forget Florida Georgia Line breaking the all-time record in country music for weeks at #1 with the song “Cruise”. All of these indelible moments on the timeline that slowly but surely is narrating the downfall of country are simply the stepping stones, the precursors to what is symbolized by the song written and released by up-and-coming “country” star Sam Hunt called “Leave The Night On”.
Don’t worry about how the song sounds to you. Whether at first listen you like it or not is somewhat irrelevant. Don’t worry so much about measuring it against the others songs doing well at country radio right now, or even the worst songs, or the best songs of the past few years. Don’t worry about measuring it against the other songs that have gone on to define clear lines of demarcation during country music’s downward spiral. Whether “Leave The Night On” is immediately objectionable to your music palette is of no concern. If fact, its innocuousness—its innocent, disguising, and typical nature is arguably what makes it so dangerous.
This is not a review, this is a warning. Sam Hunt’s “Leave The Night On” is a potential swan song for what we define as country music today, more than any song that has come before. I know, you’re saying, “Can you tell me this song is somehow more pop than Taylor Swift, or pushes the limit more than Jerrod Neimann’s EDM monster ‘I Can Drink To That All Night’?” Yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you.
Forget your hurt feelings of, “Hell country has sounded like pop for years,” or even your misappropriated wisdom of “country has always been influenced by pop.” Of course country has always been influenced by pop. But when country becomes pop, which it ostensibly does with “Leave The Night On”, this is a completely different matter. It is the implementation of a completely new rules regime defining what country music is, or what it is no longer.
Never before have we had a song that so recognizably belongs in the pop format get released to country radio by a non-established country artist. And yes I know, he’s signed to MCA Nashville, not MCA, and he’s written some songs for other country artists in the immediate past. No matter, “Leave The Night On” is a test; a canary sent down the country music shaft to see if truly any song can be released to the lucrative country format, and fly.
Country music is now the most dominant genre of American music. Not hip-hop, not rock, and not even pop. It is country that rules the roost. It is country that dominates radio and televised award shows, and that stamps more tickets at live events every year than anything else in music. Country music isn’t turning into pop. Country music now is pop by definition, because it is the most popular genre that exists. And what used to be known as “pop” is now nothing more than a derivative of country—a less country-sounding subgenre of pop, which is country.
A world where “Leave The Night On” can be successful on country radio is one where country will be unable to define itself or its borders, or control its destiny. It is one where country is open to intrusive infections of hyper-trends and performance histrionics from artists. It is one were everything is malleable and arbitrary, and is simply defined by what is popular today, with contempt for whatever came before.
And even worse, “Leave The Night On” will be a smash hit; a blockbuster of 2014. It has already seen one of the most astounding rises up the country charts from an unproven, unknown artist we’ve virtually ever seen. If Sam Hunt can release a single like “Leave The Night On” and have it be successful on country radio, then anyone can. And even more troubling, anyone will.
Welcome to the mono-genre.
Look folks, I don’t want to come across as a know-it-all, but you can see these trends forming in the mainstream country music business miles away and many months before the eventual players in these trends even know what the hell is going on. Since country music has no sustainability, and instead is simply propelled forward (or backward as the case may be) by hyper-trends and fads that explode and flame out just as fast, it continues to make the same mistakes over and over again and has become predictable as a Luke Bryan lyrical turn that resolves in “beer”.
It has come to the point where I hate the term “bro-country” even more than I hate the stupid music it is meant to describe. Christening “bro-country” gave the music legitimacy. It gave it its own subgenre. It gave “bro-country” strength by banding it all together under a term that would appeal to the same numb-skulls it was meant to make fun of, and not to toot my own horn, but as I predicted from the beginning, the term has subsequently been hijacked by those numb skulls and the artists it is meant to criticize to be used for marketing. And now the anger, the fervor against “bro-country” which has itself has been allowed to coalesce into a collective angst thanks to the term, is being used for marketing as well, to re-integrate the angry populous back into the country music industrial complex.
Bro-country is big business. And no, I’m not just talking about the music itself. I’m talking about the amount of people you can get heading in one direction simply by using the term in whatever you’re trying to promote. Whether you’re for or against “bro-country”, someone mentions it and your country music world is immediately polarized, attentive, and ready to pounce. It is like a political wedge issue that in the end both sides of the aisle have no desire to resolve because it whips their respective constituencies into such a fervor, it keeps energy (and thus, dollars) flowing into the system. “Bro-country” is man vs. woman, old vs. new, commercial vs. critically-acclaimed all wrapped up into one big hot button being pushed by country music’s powers that be.
In the vacuum of true choice, Music Row is attempting to appeal to both sides of the “bro-country” issue so they’re insured to not lose anyone’s business. Look no further to how Music Row plans to monetize your “bro-country” hatred than the recently-signed 18-year-old duo Maddie & Tae. The two girls have been taken under the wing of Scott Borchetta’s newly-acquired Dot Records, which falls under his massive Big Machine Label Group empire. Just in the last few days we’ve been allowed to sniff the duo’s first single called “Girl In A Country Song”, and if you want to believe all the hype surrounding it, the song is massive ANTI “bro-country” colossus that Borchetta has personally hand-picked from the crowd to shepherd to radio dominance as a mega hit.
Hey, it’s hard to disagree with the ANTI “bro-country” sentiment of “Girl In A Country Song”. But don’t we think that it’s just a little ironic this is coming from the same label group that gave rise to Florida Georgia Line and Brantley Gilbert, arguably the Godfather and Kings of “Bro-Country”? This is why Scott Borchetta is an evil genius; he gets you coming and going. You love “bro-country”? Then may I direct your attention to aisle 9 of Big Machine Records. You hate it? Then aisle 7 will be more your speed. And how much does the sentiment really resonate in the ANTI “bro-country” songs when you consider the source? Meanwhile the true anti “bro-country” acts are the ones playing to half-empty clubs for door deals, and eating circus peanuts for dinner.
And trust me, Maddie & Tae is just where the ANTI “bro-country” industry re-indoctrination begins. There will be a dozen of these acts before we are done, and even the “bro-country” acts themselves will be releasing ANTI “bro-country” songs. In fact, this is already said to be happening, and guess where? Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine cash cows Florida Georgia Line’s new single “Dirt” to be released on July 8th is already being touted in some sectors as a “non ‘bro-country’ song.”
The simple fact is, so called “bro-country” was already done 9 to 18 months ago, and we’re simply in a period where Music Row is working through its excess “bro-country” song inventory. As with all things, Scott Borchetta is on the cutting edge and ahead of the curve, and soon the rest of Music Row, like a 1985 Buick trying to make a U-turn in the middle of rush hour traffic, will slowly reverse course along with him.
This all fits the same test pattern that Music Row employed amongst the angry backlash that presented itself when Taylor Swift came to country music dominance in 2007. Traditional country fans all proclaimed country music was dead, and so country music’s major labels all cobbled together some “new Outlaws” to present to the format’s pissed off minority: Eric Church singing “Lotta Boot Left To Fill”, Gretchen Wilson’s “Outlaws & Renegades”. Oh and which outfit was Justin Moore signed to when he released the album Outlaws Like Me? Yep, Big Machine Records; the same as Taylor Swift.
But this type of baiting of the country music public doesn’t stop with major labels. The other day I saw the new Rolling Stone Country post an article titled, “Miranda Lambert Gives A Woman’s Take on ‘Bro Country‘.” “Well hey,” I thought. “Miranda Lambert is finally speaking out!” But when I got into the meat of the article, I read Miranda saying “….I’m happy about it and I don’t have any problem with anything that is going on.” Huh. Is this really a woman’s take on “bro-country”, or does Miranda understand the wrong words could mean curtains for her career? Maddie & Tae sure have a different perspective, but of course, Scott Borchetta has their back. The underlying point here is this “bro-country” buzzword gets the country music public clicking away, hoping to find a bowl of blood. And I don’t mean to single out Rolling Stone Country specifically. All over the country music internet you’re seeing this “bro-country” focus, especially with interviewers hoping an interviewee slips up, says the wrong thing, and starts an internet “bro-country” war of words, which is always good for business.
This type of revolving, merry-go-round system that pilfers both sides of the country music culture divide sure does stir the pot, but it’s not brewing anything healthy. The gullible country music masses and the complicit media allow this revolving door of enjoyment and contempt to continue, but you go to that well long enough, and some people will start to wisen up, and be spit out of the system in such substantial numbers that there won’t be enough current to fuel the water wheel.
I don’t want to hate on “bro-country” fans because I don’t want to hate on anybody. The solution to “bro-country” is not ANTI “bro-country”. The solution to “bro-country” is really good songs that transcend gender, age, and even taste, and unify the country music public, not pit it against itself.
Last week, one of the big stories in Nashville’s music scene became the potential bulldozing of Music Row’s historic Studio ‘A’, currently under the care of musician Ben Folds who’s been renting and upkeeping the space for the last dozen years. Studio ‘A’ has been in service since 1964, and was the site of some of country and pop music’s most important recordings, so when Ben got word that the studio was being sold to Bravo Development, the piano player feared the worst, and wrote an impassioned open letter to let people know the important landmark might be in trouble. A rally was planned for Studio ‘A’ on Monday morning (6-30, which still transpired to raise awareness about preservation in general), but the developer let it be known on Friday that it was always the plan to keep Studio ‘A’ in tact as part of any development plans.
Crisis averted, right? It was for Studio ‘A’, but it wasn’t for the Musicians Hall of Fame a few years ago. Another controversial development plan that would have put a Walgreen’s on Nashville’s historic Lower Broadway entertainment district was also shot down last week. But these might just be symbolic wins in a battle Nashville is waging that may see the erosion not just of some of its historic places and buildings, but its creative epicenters which have transformed Music City not just into the mecca for mainstream country, but has given rise to some of the most sought after dirt for artists looking to be on the cutting edge of music innovation and creativity championed by an independent spirit.
To say that Nashville is going through boom times doesn’t being to explain the half of it. Nashville has always been a draw to people with dreams of becoming big country music stars, many that end up feeding the city’s labor force for service staff at restaurants or other low skill jobs as they struggle to get a seat in exclusive songwriter circles or acoustic rooms that may help them land their big break. Some people will tell you the city’s music business is simply set up to subjugate people’s dreams, and that popular country music is just a promotional tool for the system, with millions of dollars of promotion, management, and studio time being spent by people who ultimately will never have a chance at the big time.
But with the currently popularity of country music, and the massive promotional boost ABC’s hour-long drama Nashville has given to the city, there’s parts of town that feel like they are about to burst apart at the seams, and many such neighborhoods are the places that young, aspiring artists set up shop to incorporate themselves in the creative channels running through the city. Nashville isn’t just the home of Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw, it is the home of Jack White and Dan Auerbach. It is the home of Caitlin Rose and Sturgill Simpson, of Jason Isbell and Cory Branan. It is also the home of scores of songwriters and performers that ultimately contribute to the music world creatively, even if their names are not well-known to listeners. They offer up co-writes, they influence the bigger artists that can’t take the same risks the smaller ones can. The concentration of cutting-edge talent in one place creates and environment of healthy competition that spurns everyone on to the benefit of listener’s ears, and that is what Nashville has become in the last half decade in the shadow of downtown’s big buildings, and beyond the business-oriented mindset of Music Row.
If you look at many of American popular music’s big movements and eras, they started in areas where low rents fostered the creative process. Black slums gave rise to American jazz and blues music. An abundant supply of big Victorian houses in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood allowed entire bands to move in together and have plenty of practice space right beside other bands with who they could knock ideas around with, collaborate, and coordinate tours and network with. The urban blight of Compton gave rise to Gangsta rap, Seattle to grunge, Laurel Canyon to the sound of the 60′s, Austin to the Outlaw movement, and when WSM’s Grand Ole Opry became one of the biggest radio shows in the nation, by centralizing much of country music’s talent in one place, it allowed an entire new genre of American music to form.
The draw of traditionally-poor East Nashville as a haven for musicians looking to make it in music and collaborate with like-minded artists has been one of the ingredients not just to Nashville’s current output, but to its allure. It was an ongoing theme in the early episodes of ABC’s Nashville, and still remains a vital part of what makes the Nashville creative community work. But all that is in jeopardy now as development bulldozes much of the city’s affordable housing inventory, and rents and real-estate prices continue to spike.
Nashville’s creative working poor are getting priced out of the city, and this could spell an ebbing of Nashville’s creative influx. The Nashville Ledger recently ran a story about this very problem, written by Jeannie Naujeck.
“I’m perplexed by artists being priced out of an artists’ neighborhood,” Brian Bequette, a musician turned real estate broker told The Nashville Ledger. “It’s my greatest sadness right now that in the neighborhood where I lived for 20 years, people who are just like I was back then can no longer live here. Most of our clients are musicians and artists. That’s what we specialize in; that’s our people. And I want to see them stay in this neighborhood because I feel like if we lose them, we run a really big risk of losing what makes our neighborhood and our city great.”
Eddie Latimer, CEO of the non-profit Affordable Housing Resources says, “East Nashville has historically been what makes the foundation of our creative class. The housing boom is disappointing. It’s good for the city, but it’s disappointing because everyone who is part of those communities understands that some of our best neighbors – the core of what makes Nashville Nashville – have been priced out of the city.”
As It Is In East Nashville, So It Is In East Austin
One of the reasons East Nashville has become a haven for the creative poor is because of its affordability compared to the United States’ other entertainment centers like New York and Los Angeles. Ironically, the influence of New York and LA on the business side of Nashville’s music scene has always been given credit for why country music artists are offered less freedom by labels. Since many major labels only run satellite offices on Music Row while the big shots remain in bigger cities, it necessitates tighter controls. This is one of the reasons country music’s “Outlaw” movement of the mid 70′s was partially centered around Austin, TX.
But even before East Nashville was experiencing pricing pressure on musicians moving and remaining in the neighborhood, many were already flocking from East Austin, where the same wave of gentrification and urban renewal has been sweeping independent artists out of the city like a street sweeper. Home prices in east Austin have tripled since 2007 by some estimates, creating a steady flow of musicians from Austin to Nashville over the last few years. Nashville also seemed more inviting because unlike Austin, there was more label and business infrastructure comparatively. Now when looking at home prices and rents, it’s six one, half-dozen the other comparing the two music-oriented cities, while condominium and other residential developments encroach on both of the city’s entertainment corridors, causing neighborhood conflicts with live music venues. Same can be said for Echo Park in LA, and other creative places in the United States that are being brought under price pressure, many times by retiring baby boomers moving into condos built in creative areas, or young affluent hipsters who don’t yet have to worry about quality of of schooling, so they can justify moving into traditionally downtrodden neighborhoods.
The next question would be, where do the musicians go? Many times they’re scattered to the four winds, living in outlying, and more affordable areas, and commuting into the city when they can. And while some artists and musicians will inevitably land on their feet, and if they’re good and industrious enough, find their appropriate path to a sustainable music career, with the lack of proximity to other creative peoples, the type of energetic and competitive environment can’t thrive like it did before.
Inevitably, necessity becomes the mother of invention, and other creative epicenters crop up: Portland, OR, Athens, GA., etc. But as locales far removed from the footsteps of the industry become the new creative epicenters, artists will no longer have that ability to help influence and foster a creative environment that helps push all of music creatively, and collectively.
In this whole muddled, unsettled moment we find ourselves amongst in country music, where so called “bro-country” purely dominates, and and older artists are so quickly being left behind, Kenny Chesney inhabits a very interesting space. Chesney won the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year prize in four of the five years between between 2004 and 2008, deposing a two year run by Alan Jackson with his first one, and eventually being replaced by Taylor Swift after his last, highlighting just how much Chesney is a bridge between the old and the new. So where does Chesney fit in the current scheme? He can still sell out arenas and stadiums, but is he apt to try and run with the young guns of bro-country, does he simply try to hold ground, does he do battle with the current trends, or does he cash in his chips at the end of one hell of a run?
That’s why his new single—the first one in over a year—is filled with such intrigue. Chesney just took a year or so off to retool and reflect before releasing new music, and now he’s back with a song called “American Kids” written partly by hot commodities Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, mostly known in recent memory for helping Kacey Musgraves with much of her award winning album Same Trailer, Different Park (Incidentally, Musgraves was on tour with Chesney for a while last year).
Prefacing “American Kids”, Kenny Chesney says all of the right things. “There is so much more to being alive than partying, tailgates and bonfires,” Chesney tells CountryMusicRocks. “It’s every single detail of being young, growing up, remembering when, laughing about how, but especially knowing you can still do all those things! American kids are so much more complicated, more fun, more real …. Just because it makes you smile, that doesn’t mean a song can’t say something! To me, it’s the songs that feel so good that really bring home a message.”
Okay, that all sounds good …. And then here comes the song.
Like other mainstream artists that try to work “progressive” but don’t want to go all in on releasing a rap or EDM tune, Chesney puts out a song that despite his denouncement of “partying, tailgates and bonfires,” still relies heavily on the listing off of artifactual staples daisy chained by buzzwords, while favoring a rhythmic delivery instead of a melodic one. This is one of the reasons the term “bro-country” is so ineffectual, because it fails to convey the underlying problem with the trend: the replacement of lists for stories, and rhythm for melody.Doublewide, Quick-Stop, Midnight, T-Top, Jack in a Cherry Coke Town. Mama and Daddy put there roots right here, ’cause this is where the car broke down. Yellow dog, school bus, kicking up red dust, picking a song by a barbed wire fence. MTV on the RCA, no AC in the vents.
How is this fundamentally different than “partying, tailgates and bonfires”?
Like any song that has a chance on radio today, “American Kids” starts off with a heavily-electronicized beat meant to get passive listeners bobbing their heads. The rhythm is just ambiguous enough that maybe it came from a cajón or some other instrument, hoping to shirk some criticism about its origins, and reminds one of the rounded, boppy beats of Surgarland’s 2010 single “Stuck Like Glue”. The “hey!”‘s and hand claps are about 24 months too late to be Lumineers relevant, and comes across as straining. But isn’t that the way of Music Row?
Are the words to “American Kids” a little more weighty than what Florida Georgia Line might throw down? Perhaps, but they also miss the opportunity to delve into the underlying theme that made songs like Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses” or Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” or even Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” standards of the Heartland. They all delved into the dicotomy of American youth: the elated sense of freedom, discovery, and hope, but tinged with loneliness, fear, and indecision about what the future holds. Instead of really spelling out this essential part of this eternal theme, Chesney and the songwriting team seem to rely on minor chords in the structure of the song to strike at those dark moods. Maybe it’s not fair to compare any modern song to a standard from a by-gone era, but even in Taylor Swift’s “22″ she at least touches lyrically on the youth ying yang. “We’re happy, free , confused, and lonely at the same time. It’s miserable and magical.”
I’m not really able to even label “American Kids” a mixed bag. It’s definitely different, and sonically it may be a little more complex. But that doesn’t necessarily make something good. Change the window dressing all you want, it’s still a laundry list rhythm-based waste. But as we’ve found out too frequently, that doesn’t mean radio won’t play it.
1 3/4 of 2 guns down.
Ever since the joint venture between Cumulus Media and Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group called NASH Icons was announced, one of the biggest questions on the minds of consumers has been what the actual scope of the venture will be. Sold to be the solution to the problem of aging artists getting shuffled off of mainstream radio, NASH Icons looks to revitalize the careers of artists from the last 25 years; artists like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Reba McEntire that are seen to still have great appeal, but have been left behind by country’s current obsession with youth.
On Wednesday it was announced that NASH Icons had made its first hire, and it’s a heavy hitter in the music business. Jim Weatherson, a 35-year veteran of music management has been tapped to be the NASH Icons General Manager; a move that signals a deep commitment from both Cumulus and Big Machine to the endeavor.
Jim Weatherson’s resume includes a recent stint at the Nashville office of 19 Entertainment, best known for its ties to American Idol. Weatherson also worked at artist management group ’13 Management’ which oversees Taylor Swift, and was also previously the general manager of Walt Disney Records. He’s also worked previously with Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts. “I have known Scott Borchetta for nearly 25 years,” Weatherspoon says. “And I am honestly thrilled and honored to finally get to work directly with him and his team as well as Cumulus on this groundbreaking concept.”
“Jim Weatherson is the perfect executive to lead the charge for NASH Icons,” says Scott Borchetta. “We have a longstanding relationship of working together on some of the biggest Country artists and album releases in history. To land him and have his 100% focus on Icons will only lead to one thing: success.”
“Jim’s experience and the respect he’s earned in the music business will enable NASH Icons to quickly become a leader in recording and live events for the Country stars we hold in such high regard,” says John Dickey of Cumulus.
In late May, Cumulus Chairman Lew Dickey said that he expected NASH Icons to recruit big names like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, and that announcements on the signings would be happening within a month. Though no artist names have been released yet, the announcement of Jim Weatherson would be a first step to recruiting talent for the label. Meanwhile the rest of country music looks on curiously, wondering if the launch of NASH Icons will result in a true format split.
Welp, that’s that. Gauging from the comments made in Rolling Stone‘s current country music special edition by the CEO of Big Machine Records aka the Country Music Antichrist Scott Borchetta, we can now put a period at the end of Taylor Swift’s pop country career. Finito. Done. End of story. Taylor Swift’s country run is in the books, and she’s now a pop star exclusively.
And for the love of God people, please don’t tell me she was never country to begin with. That goes without saying.
In the Rolling Stone article currently on newsstands, Scott Borchetta is quoted as saying that Swedish pop producer Max Martin, the man behind Taylor Swift’s last album Red‘s most pop-oriented material like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”, worked on “most of her” next album. Martin was the producer behind successful pop music franchises such as The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and Britney Spears before being brought onto the Swift team at Scott Borchetta’s behest. But Martin, along with his fellow Swedish collaborator Shellback, only worked on three of the sixteen total songs on Swift’s Red album, despite their footprint feeling much bigger because the partnership comprised the album’s two biggest singles.
Scott Borchetta says in the article about Swift’s new album, “Taylor fans are going to love it. Will country stations play a complete pop song just because it’s her? No.” This quote is then reinforced in a caption under a picture of Scott Borchetta and Taylor Swift together.
So much can be read into this quick statement from Borchetta. A man who is known for brevity and measuring his words, Borchetta alludes to us that there will be little, or potentially nothing about Taylor Swift’s new album, or at least the singles that will be targeted for radio, that country radio will find enticing; so much so that he predicts that a format that has moved so dramatically in a pop direction in the two years since Taylor’s last release, and especially in just the last six to nine months since a major Taylor Swift single, will still be completely unwelcoming to Taylor Swift’s new material. That is how pop it is. More pop than Jerrod Nieman’s “Drink To That All Night” or Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night”. More pop than “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. If this estimate of Taylor Swift’s new material is accurate, and if country programmers will be able to resist the urge to play Taylor to audiences as her Big Machine-backed singles blow up on Top 40 stations, then yes, it truly is time for country to say bon voyage to Taylor.
Then Scott Borchetta tells Rolling Stone, “But when she comes to town, her friends at country radio will come and see her.” This seems to allude that Borchetta and Taylor Swift don’t think they even really need country radio anymore, they’re planning without it, and can trump radio politics with the strength of Taylor’s touring might. They care so little about the acceptance of Taylor’s music by country, they’re downright flippant, unconcerned about it. And clearly these quotes are buttering up the public so when Taylor releases her first purely pop single, it doesn’t come as a complete shock. Though would it anyway, given her track record with Red?
There’s a couple of other interesting nuggets from the same small portion of the Rolling Stone piece talking about Taylor’s new album. Though the premise of the conversation is about how Scott Borchetta, unlike many of his Music Row bunk mates, actually extends quite a bit of creative latitude and freedom to his artists, it is also reinforced in the article that it was Borchetta’s idea to bring big pop producer Max Martin into Taylor Swift’s creative process in the first place.
“He’s allowed me to evolve on my own one year at a time,” Swift says about Borchetta to Rolling Stone, but the very next line in the article says, “But he did urge her [Taylor] to collaborate with Max Martin on her last album.”
This Max Martin decision is the arguably the most important, most defining moment in Taylor Swift’s entire career up to this point, and interestingly enough, it wasn’t instigated by her. It was Scott Borchetta that made the decision to bring Max Martin in, and the result has been a big shift from substantive songwriting with country pop flavor, to the pop-only, vapid stylings of Max Martin, bringing in dub-step and other influences completely foreign to country music, and resulting in shallow compositions like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Of course Taylor Swift is not completely innocent in this dramatic, and defining career shift, but its origination point is undoubtedly Borchetta.
The story of Scott Borchetta barging in on Taylor Swift’s creative process during the making of Red in late 2012 was chronicled by Billboard:
“I said, ‘You know, this song isn’t working yet.’ They both looked at me (Swift and Nathan Chapman) with a blank stare. ‘The chorus isn’t elevating like it needs to. Where you’re wanting to take the song, it’s not going there. It needs a Max Martin type of lift.”
… At that point Borchetta called Martin. Both Borchetta and Swift agree that it was a turning point for “Red”.
And it was a turning point in Taylor Swift’s entire career, putting her on a completely different path from what got her to where she was.
Who is Nathan Chapman that is referenced in the above quote? He is the producer who worked with Taylor Swift from day one, recording her first demos, and presiding over virtually all of her music up to Red, when a bevy of eight producers, including Chapman on certain songs, were brought in to work on, and in the Max Martin instances, co-write Taylor’s songs. Compare this to Swift’s previous album Speak Now where Swift wrote the entire album by herself, and produced it with help from Chapman alone.
We can’t assume that just because Max Martin has a majority stake in Taylor’s new album that there still won’t be moments of substance. The rules of the game are a little different in this instance. When Max Martin was brought in on Red, his sole purpose was to produce radio hits. Now, hypothetically, he will be employed to deal with a more diverse range of material. Still, it is concerning that Max Martin almost always insists on weaseling his way into a co-writing role of the songs he produces. This is what we saw with Red, and what we’ve seen with other Max Martin-involved projects.
What endeared Taylor Swift to America and had critics coming to her defense was the fact that however pop she was, her songs were sincere expressions from her directly. She was the superstar that was also the girl next door. The Max Martin material from Red shattered this perception, and also resulted in significantly less industry awards and accolades from both country music, and all-genre based awards. It also resulted in some of the biggest sales numbers of Taylor Swift’s career. Choosing to go with Max Martin is about trading commercial acceptance over artistic substance.
At the same time, a complete cutoff from the country music realm makes a lot of sense for Taylor Swift. What are the two biggest criticisms Taylor has faced over her career? That she can’t sing, and she’s not country. Since her debacle on the Grammy Awards with Stevie Nicks in 2010, Taylor has at least reined in her singing problems to some extent. And if she leaves country, this will put this long-suffering debate about if she’s country or not to bed for good.
So that’s good, right? Let Taylor Swift go. Let the pop world have her …. Except that she was one of the genre’s last female stars that could do battle with the men who have dominated the charts and radio, and despite the Max Martin-produced material from her last album and her early material that lacked maturity, Taylor Swift was one of the last vestiges of artistic substance mainstream country music could boast, even if she was in the genre artificially.
Country music lacks female talent. It can’t fill out the nominees for Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA and ACM Awards even when Taylor Swift is included. All signs point to Taylor Swift wanting to shake free from her country music bonds, with the singles she released from Red, and now these quotes from Borchetta that in many respects don’t seem to be taking into account the realities of country radio. But there’s no guarantee country music is willing to play ball with Taylor Swift’s departure. Country music needs Taylor Swift, and it will be unwilling to forfeit the opportunity to have her sales and touring force fall under its umbrella without a fight.
If Taylor Swift is truly leaving country, it’s hard to declare a victory for country music here, or for Taylor Swift. Without the support of country, and with the presence of Max Martin, there’s likely going to be a lot less trophies adorning Taylor’s mantle. At the same time Taylor Swift is now free to do what she wants …. or what Max Martin wants to do with her.
- Taylor Swift will make an announcement about her new album in late July, or early to mid August.
- The announcement will coincide with the release of a new single.
- The new album will be released in October, or early November.
- There will be at least one collaboration with Justin Timberlake on the new album.
- It will include about 15 to 18 songs.
- Despite Scott Borchetta’s rhetoric, country radio will still play Taylor Swift, and with a lack of other leading females to fill the spots, Swift will still get nominated for country music’s top female awards.
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