Taylor Swift’s Op-Ed in the Wall St. Journal (A Rebuttal)


On Monday (7-7),  Taylor Swift did something somewhat unusual from the music space—she posted an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal. Though not unheard of, for a pop star, especially one who is only 24-years-old, to enter the fray of intellectual discourse in this manner is a little unexpected, though it goes along with her classy approach to life in general lately (see pics of her moderately-cut bathing suit from the 4th of July weekend). And despite music listeners’ predisposition to think any and all pop stars are nothing more than bubblegum twirlers, you would be a fool to think that Taylor Swift is anything but intellectual inside to some extent. Beyond her musical success, she a savvy businesswoman who calls many of her own shots, and has created arguably the most successful music franchise of this generation.

Taylor Swift’s piece is very well-written, inviting and colloquial, but also thoughtful and challenging where it needs to be. She raises some very important points about music, and does so in a persuasive manner. And before getting too deep into the body of what she says, it’s interesting to find Swift once again referencing either her fear or just her self-awareness that she is aging as an artist. “I’ll just be sitting back and growing old, watching all of this happen or not happen,” she says at the end of the piece. 24-years-old may not seem aged to most who would read the Wall Street Journal, but in the pop world, it is long in the tooth, especially the pop world today. Taylor has also referenced her age recently in the context of hoping to realize when it’s right to hang it up, while always wanting to remain a songwriter. Maybe Swift hears her biological clock ticking, and her age references are just as much about wanting different things out of life now that she has reached the pinnacle, as it is about growing fear of becoming irrelevant in the music marketplace. But this bit of introspection once again speaks to more of a heady disposition than some of Swift’s most popular songs might allude to.

Also, it is refreshing to see an artist attempt to take some leadership in music, especially in this approach. The problem with music in general is the current regime of political correctness has made machines out of our music stars, unwilling to go out on limbs, worried it will result in some sort of public backlash or misunderstanding.

But all of that aside ladies and gentlemen, what is going on here is marketing. It beings with marketing, and ends with marketing. It doesn’t mean that Taylor Swift doesn’t make some salient points, or mean what she says, and that those points aren’t important. But the bottom dollar is what is driving the sentiments in this piece.

What we are seeing here with this op-ed, and the bevy of Taylor Swift bathing suit pics that surfaced over the 4th of July weekend, is the opening salvo in Taylor Swift’s next album release cycle. Swift is getting ready to release her 5th studio album, and she will likely make an announcement about it either later in July or possibly in August about a release date likely in October or November. What has been happening over the last few months, including her no show at the CMT Awards, is the minimal exposure a big-time star like Swift hopes to attain right before re-emerging and creating anticipation about a new project. In fact Taylor Swift spoke about this very thing when she released the song “Sweeter Than Fiction” as part of a movie soundtrack. “I had to go around and ask people, ‘Can I please, please put something out?’ even though we’re supposed to be going quiet,” she said in the Fall of 2013. Swift has been purposely absent from radio for a while, and it is ripe for a new, blockbuster single.

There are two principal points that Taylor Swift conveys in her op-ed 1) Buy my music. 2) Don’t bitch because my music isn’t country.

Of course, she says it more eloquently, and embellishes it with personal stories that help endear these ideas to the reader. But break it down, and that’s what is conveyed. Why? Because like with Swift’s concern about growing older, Taylor is approaching this album release from a position of fear. She’s afraid not enough people are going to buy it, and that everyone will criticize it because it’s not country. So she releases an op-ed that challenges both of these things before they even transpire. She’s trying to be ahead of the game, and this is smart. But the motivations may be a little misguided.

Her first point is about cherishing the music experience and asking people to still purchase music and not just stream it—a very relevant issue for Swift since her label Big Machine does not release albums to Spotify or other streamers until months after the release. Overall, it is hard to disagree with anything she says.

Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.

Yes, yes, and yes! It’s great to see these points made, and by someone with the bullhorn the size of Taylor Swift’s. But then she seems to go on to understand the realities of album purchasing, and then indirectly lobby for her album to be one of the few you should make a point to purchase.

In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart or have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone. It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album, and as artists, that should challenge and motivate us.

There are always going to be those artists who break through on an emotional level and end up in people’s lives forever.

Taylor wants the reader to be one of those life-long fans who buys any album an artist puts out. Swift’s next release may be for all intents and purposes her last blockbuster release. If not because of her age—which she has already confided in us she sees as a concern—then because in 2 1/2 years from now, the likelihood anybody will be buying anyone’s albums is greatly diminished in the face of streaming. Swift knows this might be her last big shot, and she may be sitting on one of the most costly albums to make in the history of music, and one of the last great blockbuster albums released and accepted in physical form.

The second major point is about genre.

Another theme I see fading into the gray is genre distinction. These days, nothing great you hear on the radio seems to come from just one musical influence. The wild, unpredictable fun in making music today is that anything goes. Pop sounds like hip hop; country sounds like rock; rock sounds like soul; and folk sounds like country and to me, that’s incredible progress. I want to make music that reflects all of my influences, and I think that in the coming decades the idea of genres will become less of a career-defining path and more of an organizational tool.

This moment in music is so exciting because the creative avenues an artist can explore are limitless. In this moment in music, stepping out of your comfort zone is rewarded, and sonic evolution is not only accepted”¦it is celebrated. The only real risk is being too afraid to take a risk at all.

First off, there no disagreement here in Ms. Swift’s assessment that all popular music now sounds the same, regardless of genre, and that this trend continues to progress. The mono-genre is here, and all that is left at this point in popular music is some clean up duty to make sure the mono-genre is completely secured. But some of the points Swift makes while while spelling out what is happening with popular music are misguided, and in a few instances, downright insulting to many worthy musicians.

“These days, nothing great you hear on the radio seems to come from just one musical influence.”

So wait a second, nothing that draws influence from just one genre is “great”? Nothing? NOTHING? No country, no hip-hop, no jazz, pop, classical, R&B, rock, or EDM? NOTHING? This statement by Swift is just as much presumptive as it is insulting to the many artists working within specified genres who are making great music, some which remains very successful on the radio.

There’s no reason to rehash the tired arguments about what is country and what isn’t, and luckily Taylor Swift did not give the stereotypical example that we’ve heard from artists such as Blake Shelton and Eric Church that so-called “traditionalists” only want to have country sound like Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings over and over.

But the notion that somehow genres limit creativity, and working without genres immediately implies creativity, is ridiculous and misguided, and is insulting to many creative and hard-working artists. Genre is simply a music term for artistic medium. Just because a sculptor doesn’t want to use the aid of digital imaging to map out his vision in clay, does that somehow make them less creative because they refuse help from a multimedia format? Or does that make the artist more creative because they are able to work within a narrowed medium and still create something artistic and impactful to an audience?

It is the same for musical genres. As the proprietor of a website that has a genre name right there in the title, I have gone out of my way to say that genres can, and in some instances, should be blended, if that is what leads to better art. But sometimes adhering to genres makes art that’s even better because it has a familiarity or a lineage behind it. Just because something is different, doesn’t make it good, and genres creates the strong foundation from which they can be blended so that creativity can flourish. If you start with only blended art though, your palette is severely limited. In other words, scramble eggs all you want. Just understand, an egg can’t be unscrambled. And what is wrong with celebrating diversity in music, in enjoying the differences between influences instead of trying to resolve them?

Furthermore, Taylor Swift has been bestowed riches of the world very few living people on the earth can even imagine, and it has been done heretofore though the institution of country music—a defined and rigid genre. It was country radio, the CMA, which is an organization made up of radio broadcasters and labels, that have endowed Swift with many of her awards, and much of her success. Taylor Swift owes country music a historic debt of gratitude, and not to say that she hasn’t attempted to pay it back with huge endowments to the Country Music Hall of Fame and other institutions. But just because Taylor wants to leave country music, doesn’t mean she has to leave with a torch in her hand, burning the institution behind her, and genres in general as she turns her back on what made her one of the riches entertainers in the world.

Taylor Swift is leaving country with her next album, and we already know that. The only question left isif country will let her. And hey, let her go, it’s fine. The last half-decade of conflict and arguments over whether Taylor Swift is country or not have been tiresome. And by her being honest about her genre choices, it gives her music a strength it has not had before when she was trying to pass off pop for country. But for the love of God, let us enjoy our genres and country music in peace, without having our creativity or level of open-mindedness incessantly questioned. There’s a happy medium here, where genre-based music and mixed genre music can co-habitate peacefully.

But as a genre or as fans, country music shouldn’t be so quick to applaud Taylor Swift leaving. Because along with her goes one of the format’s commercial powerhouses, and most engaging songwriters. Was she ever country? Of course not. But genre’s aside, Taylor Swift was better than many of her country music alternatives and contemporaries. Truth be known, Taylor is smart to get out of country while the getting’s good.

But remember Taylor Swift, country music supported you, and loved you even when you didn’t belong. And even though genres may no longer belong in the popular music world, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve love for endowing you and other musical performers with worlds full of opportunity.

Read Taylor Swift’s Wall St. Journal Op-Ed

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