On Taylor Swift’s “Betty” Coming to Country Radio

From Taylor Swift’s recent surprise album Folklore, the most folkish or “country” song from the collection called “Betty” is being sent to country radio as a proper radio single. It was sent officially to many radio affiliates on Thursday (7-30) after numerous stations were already playing the track, resulting in multiple “adds” for the song on the mainstream country radio format. An official impact date on country radio of an edited version of the song (removing a very prominent F-bomb) is August 17th.

From all indications, “Betty” will not be just a perfunctory single that they send out hoping some stations will play. Though Taylor Swift’s current label is Republic, they are partnering with fellow Universal Records-owned imprint MCA Nashville to promote the single to country radio specifically. In other words, there’s a good chance Taylor Swift is coming back to country radio, and in a big way.

The last Taylor Swift single to have a significant impact on country radio was “Red” in 2013 which settled at #5, and was the title track to Taylor’s transitional record before she made the full move to pop. In 2014 when she released her first full pop record 1989, Big Machine Records owner Scott Borchetta wanted to send singles to country radio stations as well, but Taylor Swift resisted, insisting she wanted a clean break from country to remove the conflict that had roiled around the categorizing of her music, and to help keep her bridge to the format in tact.

But some also forget that another Taylor Swift single was sent to country radio in 2017. The sedate and piano-driven “New Year’s Day” that concluded her 2017 record Reputation wasn’t just sent to country radio stations right before the actual New Year’s Day in 2017, it was accompanied by a massive push by Big Machine, including a full page ad in the Country Aircheck trade periodical, with four additional pages featuring huge Taylor Swift images embossing the left margin—way more real estate than you would see for a regular single.

But strangely, after the initial push for “New Year’s Day,” Big Machine pulled their promotion of the single entirely. The song never registered more than a whimper on the country format before being summarily forgotten. Even if you are Taylor Swift, to have a successful song on country radio requires commitment, and follow through.

So what might make the story for “Betty” a different one? Well first off, it’s actually a bit more country than “New Year’s Day,” or really most of the singles Swift has released to country radio aside from the singles from her first self-titled record, which some are quick to forget were pretty country too compared to what you hear on the country format today. With prominent harmonica, and acoustic guitar comprising the heart of the song, “Betty” is more respectful to the country format than most of the singles currently being programmed there.

While some were quick to characterize Folklore as a folk or Americana record when it was first released, this is mostly fantasy based off the title and more lyric-driven recordings. The prevailing presence of electronic beats and drum loops throughout the record exclude most Folklore material from consideration in the roots realm, but “Betty” is the exception, with little drumming at all aside from what sounds like brushes on toms.

Though some may be reluctant to welcome a Taylor Swift song back to the country format, they shouldn’t be so wary of “Betty.” It’s a far better-written, and more country option than most of the tracks Maren Morris, Avenue Beat, or whatever other nauseating monstrosity is currently being pushed to the format by pop artists claiming country affiliation.

Besides, it’s names like Miranda Lambert whose song “Bluebird” is #1 right now, Maddie & Tae’s “Die From a Broken Heart” which has entered the Top 5, and Ashley McBryde’s “One Night Standards” finding traction in the Top 20 that are helping change the landscape. As long as Swift doesn’t take any important slots from these ladies, she should be welcome. If she sent a more patently pop-oriented song to the format, that is when it would be warranted to cry foul, no matter the genre she calls home.

But be mindful for the gaming of the country music mind when it comes to “Betty.” We’ve already seen multiple media outlets misgendering the song on their way to declaring it a “gay anthem.” Instead, it’s Taylor Swift writing with co-writer William Bowery from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy named James. “Betty” is part of a song trilogy that also includes the tracks “Cardigan” (which is referenced in “Betty”), and another song called “August.” It’s basically three separate perspectives on a love affair, and helps define one of the themes of the record.

Some have surmised that “James” is actually a girl, and who knows, maybe the song does have a hidden message or meaning. But let’s let people interpret the song however they wish out of respect for the songwriting as opposed to assigning wishful notions to it to align with someone’s ideologies. Let’s also not make this into another “Girl Crush” scenario, where Little Big Town admitted to hoping that a gender misunderstanding of the lyrics would lead to conversation and controversy, resulting in an otherwise fine, but average song becoming a #1 hit and the CMA Song of the Year in 2015. Make no mistake, enterprising journalists are waiting in the wings for some redneck on Facebook to claim they’re offended by who is kissing who in “Betty,” and maybe that’s part of the calculus of releasing it to country radio.

But “Betty” coming to country is fine. Many of the staunch traditionalists who will gripe about it don’t listen to mainstream country anyway, and if they did, they would know it’s actually an improvement to what you normally hear. It’s much more troubling and offensive to hear much of the pop music passed off as country that’s native to the format at the moment. Taylor Swift left country for pop with a greater level of respect from country fans for being honest about her music instead of sowing endless conflict by pushing pop through the country genre like we see with Sam Hunt, Maren Morris, and so many others.

“Betty” to country radio? It’s hard to hear it becoming a big hit, but who knows. Bring it on I guess. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

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