Taylor Swift (Yes, Taylor Swift) Sends a Murder Ballad to Radio

Well this is an interesting development. With her last two surprise records Folklore and Evermore, former pop country superstar Taylor Swift has been dabbling more in sedated and organic styles that some are equating to folk music—or at least folk-inspired. In truth, the music is still very much warranted to be categorized in the pop range. But some of the songs with their acoustic nature have put Swift more in touch with country music than much of her previous material, even when she was claiming to be country.

Because of this, Taylor Swift and her team have been sending some singles to country radio again. From Folklore released in July of 2020, Swift sent the stripped-down and harmonica-happy “Betty” to country radio, which didn’t do well, but didn’t do terrible either. It ended up at #32 on radio, and also charted at #6 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, despite not really fitting the mainstream country format very well.

Now from Evermore released in December 2020, Swift will be releasing to country radio the song “no body, no crime” (purposely lowercased), and this one’s a bit more interesting. Tapping into the long-standing tradition in country music of the murder ballad, “no body, no crime” features two members of the sister trio Haim. The song tells the story of Este (also the name of Haim’s oldest sister), who suspects her husband of cheating, tells a friend, and then goes missing. So the friend takes matters into her own hand, killing the husband, and hiding the body in the bottom of the lake, the whole time the refrain “No body, no crime” constituting the chorus.

Similar to “Betty,” the new song includes some country instrumentation, including mandolin, lap steel, and harmonica. But unlike “Betty,” whose lyrics were very much steeped in high school theater, “no body, no crime” sits down in thematic and lyrical traditions in country dating all the way back to The Carter Family. Let’s not oversell it though. This song is still very much a pop offering more than anything, and the production by Aaron Dessner (from The National) is not exactly ideal for either country radio, or the traditional country crowd who may find a murder ballad appealing. Tapping into country music’s murder ballad tradition won’t necessarily help the prospects of Taylor Swift’s “no body, no crime” on radio. In fact, it’s more likely to hurt them.

But with the major success other murder ballads from women have enjoyed in country over the years, it wouldn’t be smart to count it out. Though “no body, no crime” has drawn comparisons to “Goodbye Earl” from The Chicks, the 2000 single had a decidedly more playful mood despite the macabre story. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” draws the line on revenge of a cheating man at property damage. “no body, no crime” is more in line with The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” or Underwood’s “Church Bells,” both of which had a much darker hue to the music like this Swift single, and both which were big #1’s.

Murder ballads have always played an important role in country music. As songwriter Stefanie Joyce told Saving Country Music recently, “There was a time in the early days of hillbilly music and the early Carter Family recordings when you could talk about really disturbing things. And I feel like the genre has become so sanitized, especially in the last 20 or 30 years … There’s something about murder ballads that people find as sinister and almost fun, along with country music that explores stuff like crime, murder, death, and drugs. For the genre to stay relevant, it needs to talk about the broad range of human experience. There was a time when people were more comfortable going to those places.”

It will be interesting to see what happens with “no body, no crime,” not just because it’s a murder ballad, but because it’s coming from the unlikely source in Taylor Swift. This is a long way from Taylor singing into her hair brush in “You Belong With Me.” But like with so many things with country radio, it’s success has mostly to do with how bought in the label is to promoting it.

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