Taylor Swift Must Lead, Not Follow with Hip-Hop

On July 28th, Taylor Swift made a whistle stop in Grand Rapids, MI on her “Speak Now” tour, and during the acoustic portion of her set covered rapper Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” from the movie 8 Mile. Many folks were up in arms over this, but Taylor had been making a point on tour to cover pop songs of artists from the region she was playing in. Seeing how Eminem calls the Great Lakes State home, the incident seemed playful and innocuous enough.

Now move forward to this weekend in Atlanta, where Taylor Swift performed with rapper T.I., who was only days removed from a halfway house after an 11-month prison stint. In the recent weeks of Taylor’s tour she’s been inviting hometown stars from the cities she’s playing in to join her on stage. For example Nashville saw appearances by Ronnie Dunn and Tim McGraw.  In Atlanta she began singing T.I’s single “Live Your Life”, originally a duet with Rihanna, and in a scenario eerily similar to the Jason Aldean & Ludacris duet of the country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” on the CMT Awards in June, Taylor and T.I traded off versus, Taylor singing, and T.I. rapping.

When Taylor Swift won the ACM Award for Entertainer of the Year back in April, I said she deserved it, because unlike many of the other artists in country, she was leading, not following. It doesn’t mean Taylor Swift is good, or that she can sing, or that she in any way is country, it simply means she is doing what she wants to do, writing her own songs, helping produce her own albums. Though Taylor’s album Speak Now has been a blockbuster commercial success, it hasn’t afforded her even one #1 song. Many of the songs are just too long, and some, just too good for radio play. The one big single she had success with is “Mean”, peaking at #2, which in the words of one of the song’s producers, is the most country song Taylor had ever recorded.

Using local celebrities to draw attention to her concerts is a brilliant move, just like singing local artist’s songs, and writing song lyrics on her arms like she did before that. What concerns me is that we might be slowly being desensitized to the eventual inclusion of hip-hop elements into Taylor Swift’s music. If Taylor made such a move, the formation of the mono-genre would be all but complete. But it would also be Taylor following the trends, instead of setting them.

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When you look at artists like Sugarland, Lady Antebellum, and the aforementioned Jason Aldean, you see artists straining for relevance by following easily-transparent trends into other genres. Would anyone argue that he popification of Sugarland and Lady Antebellum is linked to the pop success of Taylor Swift? What has made Taylor so unique, and so successful despite the lack of a huge #1 hit is that she is herself. But the impact of the monster success of Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” is no doubt enticing Music Row artists and their handlers to pursue the integration of hip-hop elements into their music. It is a copycat business. But the best have always helped set the trends, and stayed ahead of them.

It usually takes 6-9 months for the bloated machine of Music Row to realize and catch up on trends, but no doubt that within the next few months, we will begin to see more and more hip-hop infiltration into mainstream country. The next question will be, will the one artist that sits at the very top of the totem pole decide to lead ahead of that trend, or follow it? Maybe Taylor Swift wants to go in a hip hop direction, regardless of trends. Either way, if she does, we can expect the mainstream country herd to follow en masse.


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