Taylor Swift is famous for writing killer breakup songs. But at her Yahoo livestream yesterday — teased in a trio of “mysterious” Instagrams — she barely spent three lines of her new single, “Shake It Off,” talking about an “ex-man.” That’s because her newest ex isn’t some boy. It’s country music.
Her new album, “1989,” will be her “first documented, official pop album,” she said, not-so-gently alerting the country music establishment that it was time to let go.
Even though the three best and most successful singles off “Red” were pop songs — “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “22,” — the album still landed the number one spot on the Billboard country charts and was nominated for Best Country Album (and Album of the Year) at the Grammys. Not that anyone is looking to the Grammys to provide any coherent narrative about what sound constitutes what kind of music, as the Awards are convoluted and confusing by design, but Swift’s placement in country for an album with, if we’re being generous here, one kinda-sorta-country song (“Stay Stay Stay”) is totally illogical. Unless you’re the country music establishment, that is, and you want to be able to say of Swift, “She’s one of ours.”
The weirdest display of country’s possessive attitude towards Swift was at last year’s Country Music Awards. Maybe because Swift’s not-actually-country album couldn’t snag CMA accolades away from the purer country likes of George Strait, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, and the show’s producers knew the only way Swift would make a cameo is if she could take home something as bright and shiny as her hair, Swift was gifted the “Pinnacle Award.” This sounds like a fake thing because it basically is. The only other artist to ever get it, in the history of the CMAs, is Garth Brooks, who took home the ambiguously-named trophy in 2005. During the series of very strange speeches given in honor of Swift — it was like watching her country music Bat Mitzvah — Brad Paisley complimented Swift by subtweeting Miley Cyrus, saying, “And I want to thank you from a grateful industry, for never once humping a teddy bear or gyrating with Beetlejuice. I really appreciate it. I know that’s not easy.”
“Swift was being used as the model example of how to become bigger than country without forgetting your roots. How to occasionally leave the family but never do wrong by the family. She’s the example of the kid who leaves home for college, goes off to work elsewhere, finds some level of success, has new friends, but still comes home for the holidays as if things haven’t changed. And most importantly, as if she hasn’t changed.”
As if she hasn’t changed. Except, well, she has. She likes to change the same way she likes to do everything else: right on schedule. Swift evolves according to a precise plan that can be accompanied with a coordinated shift in her beauty and fashion regimen, culminating in the announcement of an album every other August and the release of said album in October. So there’s really no reason for the country crowd to be too surprised that Swift explicitly said “1989” will be her “first documented, official pop album.” Really, “Red” was her first documented, official pop album, but someone forgot to tell country music about it. In this scenario, country music is the equivalent of a guy who doesn’t know that you’ve broken up, even though you have made it inescapably clear that you are no longer dating. “Oh yeah, we’re just taking a break,” country music says, scrolling through photo after photo of you with another dude on Instagram. “We don’t need to put a label on it.”
Swift, master of PR management, frames all of her potentially offensive artistic choices as fan-driven, using her adoring masses as a shield against criticism. During the livestream, when a fan asked if Swift would keep hiding clues in her liner notes, she replied, “If you guys keep on liking that I do that, I’ll keep on doing it.” If Swift were the tattooing type, she’d probably have this mantra in a curlicue font looping around her ankle. More than maybe any other artist working right now, Swift is in the service industry.
As The Washington Post‘s Emily Yahr pointed out, the country music powers-that-be did their best damage control to make the break look mutual, tweeting this “couldn’t be prouder of you BUT REMEMBER WHERE YOU CAME FROM but really so happy for you though!” message after Swift’s livestream:
— Emily Yahr (@EmilyYahr) August 18, 2014
But maybe they spoke too soon; by this morning, the original tweet had been deleted. The Country Music Association’s replacement tweet only solidifies this vision of them as desperate to cling to Swift for as long as they both shall live:
— Country Music Assoc. (@CountryMusic) August 19, 2014
“Never ever ever! Get it? It’s totally a play on her song lyrics! It is not at all crazy-sounding! We’re so not crazy, we are FINE, everything is fine!!!!”
It’s quite the role-reversal for Swift and country music. Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when Swift would have to fight her way in to the country music scene, a genre that has Swift to thank for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, an entire new generation of devoted listeners, and a priceless amount of publicity. But way back when, Swift was something of a gamble, a precocious teen from Pennsylvania knocking on Nashville doors, all gawky limbs and Helena hair. She didn’t fit the country music mold, and plenty of executives were reluctant to envision a country scene with Swift in it.
In a The New Yorker profile of Swift from October 2011, pegged to the release of “Speak Now,” Swift is described as having been “a teen-age singer-songwriter [who] was an anomaly in the country-music industry.” Country stars typically got their songs after other small teams of songwriters cranked out tunes in a workshop. Teenage singers who’d broken out in the past, like LeAnn Rimes, sang hits written by people old enough to be their parents.
“Swift recalled, “I remember auditioning for record labels and having them tell me”—she adopted a snobby voice—“ ‘Well, the country-radio demographic is the thirty-five-year-old female housewife. Give us a song that relates to the thirty-five-year-old female, and we’ll talk.’ ” It’s since become a Nashville truism that Swift tapped into an audience that hadn’t previously been recognized: teen-age girls who listen to country music.”
Country’s gatekeepers quickly realized they had a superstar on their hands and claimed her as their own— even when, as Swift’s style and sound evolved, it became pretty clear that she was ready to leave their nest.
One of the challenges Swift will likely face outside of the safe, albeit limiting world of country, is already on display in her video for “Shake It Off.” Pop is the AB-positive of music, the universal recipient of language, melodies, beats, and ideas from every other genre. While you hear all the time about, say, a rapper not being “authentic” enough, you rarely hear the same complaint about pop: pop is a conscious construction, it’s a mash-up of everything you want it to be, and it doesn’t even have to be good (although it can be excellent) so much as it needs to be effective. It needs to stick in your head like gum to your shoe; by the end of the first listen you should be able to sing back the beginning. It should be danceable, head-boppable, endlessly listenable.
Now that Swift is really, “officially” outside the country homestead and in the pop melting pot, she has to reckon with other genres of music. She’s flirted with that before, slipping some dubstep into “I Knew You Were Trouble,” but the video for “Shake It Off” shows Swift dropping herself into the middle of a bunch of different kinds of dance. This means she is putting herself in the precarious position of being a tall, thin white girl gloriously failing to twerk properly surrounded by women of color. At one point, Swift literally slides on her stomach underneath these women’s widespread legs; in another clip, a black woman twerks right up against the camera lens.
Right on cue, someone has already accused Swift of appropriating minority culture, much like Miley did during her VMA performance. Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt posted his complaint on Twitter:
haven't watched the taylor swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful
— EARL (@earlxsweat) August 19, 2014
perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture
— EARL (@earlxsweat) August 19, 2014
for instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it's ok for you to be trill or twerk or say nigga
— EARL (@earlxsweat) August 19, 2014
Miley was widely accused of accessorizing with black people; with limited exception, any negative reaction to Swift’s video has been more of the eye-rolling than the vitriolic variety. People don’t seem to be especially bothered by the fact that Swift is singing lyrics that do not exactly have their roots in the white vernacular: “Players gonna play, play, play, play, play / And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
Swift, one of the savviest businesswomen/empire-builders of our time, gets away with all of it. She knows we think she looks like a goofball when she dances at awards shows, and her choice to just lean into that giddy awkwardness is what saves her from the same anger that got hurled at Miley. Miley used black dancers to look “edgy,” Swift to highlight her own ungainly dancing by using talented people, of all schools of dance, as a foil. She’s self-aware and it kind of makes her more likeable than she has ever been– certainly more likeable than she was when, in “You Belong With Me,” she tried to make anyone believe that she was too unpretty and poorly dressed to be liked.
The only un-self-aware part of “Shake It Off” comes at the very beginning, when she sings “I stay out too late / got nothing in my brain / at least that’s what they say.” This is something that literally no one has ever said about Taylor Swift, a songwriting prodigy turned twenty-something homebody who spends her free nights having slumber parties with supermodels or watching Law and Order with her cats.
Oh, as for the song: good luck not listening to it, not dancing to it, and not singing it to yourself as you psyche yourself up for some important but intimidating event in your life. This girl. She knows exactly what she’s doing.