The Lesson of Taylor Swift’s Success: “Choose a Lane.”


Right now, Taylor Swift is more powerful than Barack Obama. She’s more popular than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. She’s got stronger grassroots than Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders, and a release of one of her videos would upstage even a new Star Wards movie trailer. And how has she done it?

“Choose a lane.”

We already knew when Taylor Swift delivered her latest record 1989 to the headquarters of Big Machine Records, they initially tried to persuade Swift to put a few country songs on the record to keep her career alive on the country radio format. But Taylor Swift refused.

“When she first turned in the record, she says the head of her label, Scott Borchetta, told her, ‘This is extraordinary it’s the best album you’ve ever done. Can you just give me three country songs?'” is how Rolling Stone portrayed the interchange between Swift and the Big Machine CEO. “‘Love you, mean it,’ is how Swift characterizes her response. ‘But this is how it’s going to be.'”

However a new feature recently posted in GQ goes much farther in describing the conflict between Swift and Big Machine. This wasn’t a simple exchange between Swift and Borchetta. There was an outright intervention going on, with numerous high-level executives doing what they could to assuage Swift into not going pop 100%.

“Even calling this record 1989 was a risk,” Swift says in the GQ feature. “I had so many intense conversations where my label really tried to step in. I could tell they’d all gotten together and decided, ‘We gotta talk some sense into her. She’s had an established, astronomically successful career in country music. To shake that up would be the biggest mistake she ever makes,’ . . . I’d go into the label office, and they were like, ‘Can we talk about putting a fiddle and a steel-guitar solo on ‘Shake It Off’ to service country radio?’”

But Taylor Swift refused. Why?

“I’d read a review of [2012’s] Red that said it wasn’t sonically cohesive. So that was what I wanted on 1989: an umbrella that would go over all of these songs, so that they all belonged on the same album.”

Huh. I wonder whose review said that.

“I was trying to make the most honest record I could possibly make,” Swift continues. “And they were kind of asking me to be a little disingenuous about it: ‘Let’s capitalize on both markets.’ No, let’s not. Let’s choose a lane.”

Also in a new video from The Grammy’s, Swift said there was “like a dozen sit-downs” with Big Machine.

So much wisdom to be gained here from the biggest music artist in the world. First, we get some good insight into the aggressiveness of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records to attempt to pressure their artists into following the label’s designated path instead of their own, even when it’s an artist with the celebrity power and track record of Taylor Swift. Just as Swift might be pressured to stay country, others may be pressured to go pop or rock or EDM with some of their music. And this is from a label known for extending more creative freedom to their roster than most on Music Row.

But once again, Taylor Swift illustrates the importance of genre. So many artists, so many labels and fans will tell you genre is irrelevant in this day and age. It wasn’t irrelevant to Taylor Swift. To hear her talk, choosing a genre and sticking to it, and making sure it was the genre that best represented her music was the ultimate key to the success of 1989. And if she had listened to her label, it might have never happened on such a grand scale.

Of course, “success” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, even though Swift’s high-profile stance against Apple Music and now this silly Ryan Adam’s cover album of 1989 has made throngs of Taylor Swift apologists and outright fans of otherwise intelligent music listeners who should know better. In the same recent Grammy feature, Taylor Swift admitted that when her album Red did not win Best Album in 2014, “I remember not going to after-parties, I went home and I cried a little bit, and I got In-N-Out Burger and ate a lot.”

Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now won the Grammy for Best Album in 2010, and her song “Mean” won two Grammy Awards. But since the inclusion of Swedish producer Max Martin into her production staff and songwriting process, Swift has been locked out of the Grammy Awards, at least so far. The resounding commercial success of 1989 may give Grammy voters not other choice but to award it Best Album this upcoming season, but now possibly Swift is understanding that money is not all that music is about. She won her Grammy Awards when it was her songs, and her music. Max Martin has brought her grand commercial success, but at the expense of her critical praise.

Taylor Swift has ascended to the top spot in all of music not because she has avoided missteps. It’s because she has learned from mistakes, and been honest with her fans. Not lying about the style and genre of her music not only brought her the greatest success of her career, but some of the greatest success we’ve ever seen in music. Meanwhile many current mainstream country artists bend over backwards to tell you how their music is country when we all know it isn’t, and how the reliance on genre distinctions is outmoded. But the success of Taylor Swift should impart a big lesson to the performers of today:

“Choose a lane.”

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