We’re supposed to be avoiding discussion of Taylor Swift in country music. That wasn’t just the hope of traditional country fans who were glad to see her finally come out a few years ago and say that she wanted to be considered pop and pop only henceforth. That was the wish of Taylor Swift herself and the entire point of her “I’ve gone pop” declaration. We would only be so lucky if half a dozen other so-called “country” artists of today would be as honest with themselves and their fans and do the same. It would save a lot of unnecessary conflict.
But now Taylor Swift is back, at least in a way where it’s going to be difficult to not talk about her in country. This isn’t to say that Taylor is “going country” as some have asserted. There is absolutely no indication Swift wants back in, nor would there be any benefit to Taylor downgrading commercially to country genre at this point. It’s also not something we should anticipate from Swift in the near term. Sure, perhaps there’s a future where Taylor Swift has three kids and hasn’t recorded in some years, and decides she wants to re-connect with her songwriting roots and releases a mostly acoustic album James Taylor style. But that’s not what we’re seeing here.
Taylor Swift as mega pop star franchise is in trouble. Taking the extra year off between albums, and taking a PR beating in the press for the whole Kim Kardashian/Kanye West imbroglio a couple of years ago has allowed a slew of new stars such as Cardi B and Drake to come in an dominate the superstar narrative while Swift was laying low and letting negative headlines blow over. Now she’s struggling mightily to sell tickets on her massive worldwide tour for which she’s asking handsome prices. With both her last record Reputation and her upcoming tour, Swift sought to find out the most aggressive price points the market could bear, and it appears she took one or two steps over the line.
Taylor Swift is a living example of why the biggest problem with money is you can always have more of it. Don’t misunderstand, she is still doing very well. But greed has compromised not just her creative integrity, it has corrupted her economic compass. Just like any corporation, maintaining Swift’s massive revenue is not enough. If you’re not increasing revenue and profits, you’re failing. But this is no longer 2014. Similar to Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and a host of other pop stars who’ve been around for a while, they’re being slowly sidelined by a crop of new stars, and are finding difficulty in a market where hip-hop is dominating instead of pop.
Only six months since Taylor Swift released Reputation, and she’s already blown through half a dozen singles on radio. Sure the first couple did okay, but their life span was like a sugar rush, like much of pop. It takes the average country music single six months just to make it up the charts. Even with a big video, the best Swift’s latest single “Delicate” could manage on the Billboard Hot 100 was #46. Meanwhile Drake currently has the #1 and #2 spots, and a guy you’ve probably never heard of called J Cole has six songs in the Top 20. And now Taylor Swift’s massive world tour is starting, and she’s already expended all her best ammunition to help promote it while ample tickets still remain.
And so with the lack of any marketable singles left from Reputation, Taylor Swift is doing what all smart artists do when they’re in a slide: they seek strength in their base.
Remember the reports in early 2017 that Taylor Swift was spotted in Nashville and recording country-sounding songs? Some thought this meant selections from Reputation might be country. That didn’t turn out to be the case at all, but a few weeks ago and quite randomly, Swift released a cover of Earth, Wind, And Fire’s “September” as a Spotify single. In fact the full track name is “September-Recorded at The Tracking Room Nashville.” This was probably one of the rumored three songs the unnamed source said they heard Swift recording last year that sounded like country. Since Swift plays “September” on the banjo, it would easy in passing to call the song “country-sounding” if you’re a janitor overhearing a recording session as you’re taking out the trash, for example.
Of course Taylor Swift also took home a CMA Song of the Year trophy last November for a song she wrote for Little Big Town called “Better Man.” If nothing else was proven with the win, it’s that country music still sees value in trying to entice Swift back to awards shows, and to use her name to garner interest in the genre. “Better Man” is fine, but it’s no Song of the Year. This was all about trying to create buzz. Same goes for the random and unexpected appearance by Swift at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, stimulating even more speculation that Swift is considering a return to country.
But that’s completely foolish. There is no benefit, and only drawbacks to Taylor Swift coming back to country. Swift is just trying to stay in the headlines, and specifically with country fans who may be sitting on the fence about paying for those pricey Reputation stadium tour tickets. Everything coming from the Taylor Swift camp these days is calculated. It’s all meant to buzz the populous. There is no serious reason to be concerned, fearful, or hopeful if you’re a Swift country fan, that she’s planning a country return. At least for now.
But this new single from Sugarland with Taylor Swift called “Babe” changes the calculus completely. It doesn’t change the fact that Taylor Swift is still not “going country.” But it does mean she will most certainly be returning to a country radio station (and streaming playlist) near you, and in a big way.
Last week, “Babe” was the 2nd most added track to country radio. It’s already sitting at #8 on the Hot Country Songs chart, and rising. It hit #1 on the Country Digital Song Sales chart last week. It’s all over Spotify’s big country playlists. Full page ads are filling country radio’s periodicals for the song. Big Machine is pulling out all the stops to make sure “Babe” is a super hit. And how could it not be? It’s using the same exact formula Bebe Rexha’s “Meant To Be” with Florida Georgia Line, and other pop/country collaborations utilized to game the system and get to #1.
It may not immediately evident since Swift is such a familiar face in the country space, but Sugarland’s “Babe” is the latest “country” single to use a pop star to gain market advantage over the competition by playing to Billboard’s lax chart rules that count pop spins and streams on country charts. Since Swift doesn’t have another single impacting radio at the moment and already breezed through the six bullets in her singles gun, Big Machine Records paired her with Sugarland looking to re-launch their career, and viola, it’s Bebe Rexha and “Meant To Be” all over again, and right as Swift is ready to embark on her big Reputation tour and needs the promotion.
This is the brave new world of popular music, where there are little to no delineation lines between genres. It’s not that Taylor Swift is going country, it’s that country is going pop. “Babe” is just the latest example. Just like Bebe Rexha’s “Meant To Be,” it’s not about the quality of the song. As pop, “Babe” is tolerable, and probably better than some of the other alternatives right now on country radio. It’s about how the lines of demarcation continue to blur as labels attempt to use whatever leverage at their dispose to get their tracks heard in an increasingly-crowded marketplace.
In 2009 when Taylor Swift won the CMA Entertainer of the Year, many declared country music dead. Little did we know about the scourge that was just around the corner in Bro-Country. Now it’s Bro-Country that is being chased out in the ever-cyclical nature of music, and it’s cross-genre pop and country collaborations like Sugarland’s “Babe” that are posing the existential threat to the country genre. And it’s a familiar name in the pop vs. country debate in Taylor Swift who is helping this dubious trend along.