Taylor’s obsession with 13 is going too far. We are never ever getting back together sold 13,000 downloads less than Right round (the No. 1 greatest weekly total) and Shake it off sold 13,000 downloads less than Roar (the third greatest).
At the height of the Outlaw quasi-crossover hysteria, Waylon Jennings defiantly declared, “I couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers.” Taylor Swift, country’s biggest record-seller this century, has flirted with pop and AC for the past five years, yet her Yahoo livestream announcement last week, “This is my first straight-up pop album,” hit like an 8.6-magnitude earthquake. Tweets went out, tweets came down; Facebook erupted.The New Yorker even posted a response.
In Nashville the next day, Big Machine Label Group President and CEO Scott Borchetta attended the Country Music Association board meeting where, according to a board member who wishes anonymity, “He went about the business of what was going on with the CMA Awards telecast and wasn’t the least bit ruffled. Nobody really talked about [‘Shake It Off’]. When we finished, he went to the airport to go to the VMAs, where Taylor was debuting her single.”
CMT PresidentBrian Philips laughs at the outrage. A maverick multi-genre radio programmer, he sees the outcry as a failure of business over art, fans and common sense. “All this hand-wringing is so last century!” says Philips. “There’s this weird sense that overtakes the sensibility of the gatekeepers—and the only other place you see it is alternative—that they have ownership. A long time ago, country was more rigid: pedal steel, a recognized Nashville-style arrangement, a set of topics. I used to get in trouble for playing Hank Jr. on an AM Country station as a teenager. But my kids? They’re agnostic: it’s just good music, whether it’s Avicii, Pitbull or Taylor Swift.”
Jay Williams, agent for Luke Bryan, Eric Church and Dierks Bentley at William Morris Endeavour, offers, “I promise: consumers of her music aren’t debating. Kids today like Florida Georgia Line and Skrillex. I’ve heard the single; it’s a really catchy song that’s fun and doesn’t take itself so seriously. Let’s be honest: she sorta outgrew the format. We have massive country artists, and then look at her numbers. Country touring is air traffic control as much as anything, and she doesn’t even come up in the conversations, because her audience is that different. And they love her, which is what matters.”
“If more artists took such an unconventional approach to their career as Taylor, music as a whole would be better off,” says SiriusXM SVP/GM Steve Blatter, who’s playing “Shake It Off” on Hits 1, Pulse and Blend. “The more Taylor achieves as a pop artist, the better it will be for country music when she returns to her roots—and brings her maturing pop fans with her.”
Brandi Clark, a critically acclaimed new artist/Grammy-nominated songwriter now opening for Jennifer Nettles, endorses the transparency. “If she was calling this country music, it would be bad for the format. I’m a traditionalist, so that’s gonna always be my answer. But since she’s calling it what it is, I can get behind it and enjoy it as a fan. She’s truly an artist doing what artists do. To me, Taylor Swift making pop music isn’t anything new. I feel like her music has had a very pop slant for a long time. She worked some with Max Martin on her last project.”
Becky Brenner, consulting partner at Albright O’Malley & Brenner, is even more philosophical. “I don’t think it was a surprise to most country fans. She has been moving in that direction for a long time, and actually I think it is a positive that she chose a clear path on this album. Country will certainly miss Taylor, but I liken it to your kids growing up and going off to College. They will experiment and evolve, but eventually they come back home to visit, or in some cases stay.”
Brenner’s firm surveyed their stations. While 95% weren’t surprised by the move, “The PDs and MDs in our quick survey agreed by a margin of 4-1 that they would welcome a Taylor country tune in the future.”
Sandbox Entertainment’s Jason Owen, who manages country’s last great crossover artist, Shania Twain, as well as the alt-upstart Kacey Musgraves, is known for his marketing acumen. Shrugging, he says, “She was up front and honest from the very beginning by clearly stating this was a ‘pop’ album, thwarting any naysayers from claiming she was releasing anything but. And who cares if it’s pop, country or polka music? The song is a smash. Taylor Swift is a superstar, a superstar who has done more for the expansion of the country music audience than anyone else before her or since. The set up for this single and album should be studied for years to come.”
I.R.S. Nashville President John Grady, who was at Mercury during Twain’s rise, agrees. “I came to this during the Shania Twain crossover days: We as record companies and managers have to do as good of a job with the business as the artists do with their music. If other audiences want to adopt them, so be it. It should be a goal. I have always thought that the exclusive genre ownership argument was total bullshit.”
Hard 8 Management’s Rich Egan, whose metal-meets-Music Row client Brantley Gilbert is another naysaying lightning rod in Nashville, echoes that notion: “If she isn’t making country music right now, there’s no reason to play it on country radio. Country radio doesn’t have an obligation to play non-country music any more than Taylor Swift has an obligation to make country music. Taylor exists in her own hemisphere—one where she sets the rules based on her own artistic vision—and in the process has become the biggest musical star on earth. She is one of a kind; if she wants to make a polka record, who has any right to tell her no?”
"I don’t give much thought to genres; I like music. I believe in letting the artist lead, the people can decide what is good and bad for themselves," says Q Prime’s John Peets, whose Eric Church, Nickel Creek and Black Keysall color outside the lines and expectations. "Only business people care about genres. File it under ‘Swift’ and let the people have it.
"We’re wasting our time with this insular conversation, meanwhile Taylor’s headlining in China (and still donating her time at CMA Fest). We should be proud of her.”
“She writes what she knows and what she cares about,” says Cynthia Sanz, People Assistant Managing Editorand People Country Editor, defining Swift’s arc and appeal. “She was 16, 17 when she really took hold, and it would be weird if she didn’t evolve. There’s always been a pop influence—and country hasn’t been all George Strait and Lee Ann Womack for a long time. I think the song is catchy, and we’ll cover her because my readers like her. They’ve got a 10-year relationship, and she demonstrates her respect for these roots every time she shows up for an awards show or writes those big checks to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“I don’t think people like being in boxes; the fans certainly don’t listen in boxes. Why do you only have to be one? So why should Taylor, who’s so creative, only be allowed to be one thing, either? Why can’t she come back? But until then, she’s still Taylor—and she knows hooks and how to engage us.”
“If she’d made [Emmylou Harris’ storied bluegrass album] Roses in the Snow, then I think we’d be surprised,” Philips adds. “But she’s been at the center of mainstream traffic for years. I heard as much Taylor driving around L.A. on KIIS-FM as I heard on WSM Nashville, probably more. For five years, people have been saying, ‘Well, it’s really not country,’ but playing her because this young woman writing about her feelings got traction. And this time, she’s not putting a banjo line behind the hook to justify, she’s making exactly the record she wants—and she’s not pretending its country.”
Doing exactly what you want—especially if you’re a woman—can be risky business in the realm of country music. Peter Cooper, The Tennessean’s longstanding critic, observes, “For now, the format has twice in the new century lost its most popular artist: in 2003 with the Dixie Chicks, and now with Taylor Swift. It also means that a format with only three reliable, solo female contemporary radio voices now has only two reliable, solo female contemporary radio voices.”
Asking about in the inherent sausage fest that is modern country, Williams looks at what people want, “Taylor figured out how to do it for her audience, but mostly these fans in their teens and 20s wanna party. That’s where the guys have really got it; only Miranda [Lambert] seems to throw it down like that. And then there’s Taylor…”
Besides Borchetta and Team Swift, Louis Messina has the most to lose. President of the Messina Group/AEG Live, Messina has produced all of Swift’s massive tours, but he’s unruffled, “Taylor’s made a magnificent record, and her fans are going to love it. I’m not worried about [ticket] sales, except do I have enough tickets to sell?”
Certainly Dolly Parton, who was far more Appalachian in her kind of country, faced this debate. Though some miss her hard country and bluegrass leanings, Parton went on to become arguably the most recognizable country star in the world.
For Taylor Swift, it may just be another day in the office. But for the media, it’s a chance to sell papers. Ask Brian Philips, who laughs, “We aren’t above a salacious headline to get people to click! From RollingStone.com, I get ‘Behind Taylor’s Defiant New Song…’ and I think, Wow! But what I think of as the threshold for the word ‘defiant’ is Never Mind the Bullocks, Here Comes the Sex Pistols, or Dylan plugging in.Neil Young making Trans or Bruce Springsteen doing Nebraska—all things that wouldn’t get heard on the radio, that might be shocking to the fans. Taylor is doing what she’s always shown us she was going to do, and Nashville is going on with its hot streak. There are a lot of big tours. Big television morning shows can’t get enough. The format isn’t built on one artist, but we shouldn’t try to hold our artists down either.”
Or, as Grady snarks, “Guess what, everybody? Patsy Cline had pop hits!”