Those who’ve been waiting impatiently for a new Taylor Swift single finally have their wish. It just happens to be coming from Kelsea Ballerini. Many have considered Kelsea as the most obvious choice to replace Swift in country music since similarly to Taylor, there’s really nothing country about Kelsea. In a sane world though, nobody would be replacing Taylor Swift because Taylor shouldn’t have been labeled country in the first place. Eventually Swift came to this conclusion herself and did the right thing by scooting over to pop. But since Taylor touted Ballerini hard and heavy when Kelsea first came on the scene, and they’re both more pop than anything, the comparisons continue.
Unlike Taylor Swift though, Kelsea has yet to evidence any underlying substance to her music like Taylor Swift did later on in her country career. It may have been mislabeled, but there was something about a Taylor Swift song that clearly resonated with the public deeper than just bubblegum pop, even if older country fans come to this conclusion begrudgingly. Ballerini hasn’t had that same impact though. She’s all giggles and coos, cute boys this, and cute boys that. Taylor Swift became a superstar by expressing vulnerability that millions of awkward girls could identify with. You wonder if Ballerini ever stops smiling or has a sad moment. You want to know that she bleeds. You want to see a bead of sweat emanate from her brow just to know she’s actually human.
Forget that Kelsea Ballerini’s first three singles went #1 on the country charts. She’s mainstream country’s token female—the reason radio programmers can boast about inroads being made in the gender gap when no real underlying change has been made. It doesn’t count if you crest the country charts with a pop song. It’s just a different set of problems. Ballerini’s singles heretofore have been godawful. That recent “Yeah Boy” track was vomitous. Now it’s time to get ready for her second album, and just like Swift, she needs to evidence some maturation.
“Legends” is a Taylor Swift song circa Swift’s Speak Now/Red era, plain and simple. The subject matter, the style, including how it’s sung by going to the falsetto for the final word of the phrase, the production, including the “ooh’s” at the 2:50 mark which were a favorite of Swift during that period, even the cover art is similar, with the purple/pink hues from Taylor Swift’s dress on the Speak Now album cover matching the “Legends” color scheme, as well as the shimmer accents and cursive writing. The chords of “Legends” are darker than most pop, just like a Swift song. The story is about a break up, which we all can concur Taylor Swift’s best known for.
With “Legends,” Kelsea Ballerini, purposefully or subconsciously is retreading the steps Taylor Swift took to superstardom, which also means it’s a somewhat improved direction for Kelsea Ballerini, however slight, and however non country it continues to be. Kelsea Ballerini aping mid-era Taylor Swift is not a bad thing compared to “Yeah Boy,” “Love Me Like You Mean It,” or the stupid “Dibs.” The piano of “Legends” is somewhat welcoming, even if the ethereal productions treatments (similar to many Swift songs) makes you feel like you’re floating through cotton candy clouds instead of listening to a country song.
And that’s where to underlying problem with “Legends” remains. No matter how improved the songwriting might be (and it is), no matter how much vulnerability Ballerini may try to illustrate on the track (and she does), it’s still in no respect country music, and Ballerini still struggles to connect with the audience because she’s a little too perfect. It was Taylor Swift’s flaws that made her appealing. “Legends” takes Ballerini to the point where she isn’t bad as pop, but it’s still bad because it’s labeled country.
Kelsea Ballerini following Taylor Swift may not be a bad strategy. But it also means that her next move should be coming clean to her fans and herself, just like Swift did, and switching genres. And then possibly, just like Swift, she can extricate herself from the conflicts surrounding her music, and be allowed to flourish.