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.