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.