“They might be bigger / but we’re faster / and never scared”
—Taylor Swift, “Change”
Taylor Swift must have hugged a hundred people, mid-song, during the Kansas City, Missouri stop of her Fearless tour (2 April 2010, Sprint Center). “She really is fearless. I hope she has a lot of hand sanitizer,” was my wife’s reaction. This section of the show was designed to bring Swift closer to fans, to show that she cared about the “little people” sitting in the back. Distracting us with a video montage, she appeared suddenly in an upper-level section in the rear, sang part of a song, and then made her way through the crowd, hugging all the way, ending up on a small stage at the opposite side of the arena from the main stage. There she sang a few ballads, before hugging her way back through the crowd up to the stage.
I was comparing her hug-a-thon to a presidential candidate working the crowd, until my brother’s comment: “I went to a John Kerry rally, and he didn’t hug anybody.”
During the opening acts, I spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure out who the apparent celebrity was in my section, a young redheaded woman who people kept flocking to for autographs and photos. During the “small club” portion of the show, her identity was revealed: Swift’s friend Abigail, the one she wrote the song “Fifteen” about (“Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind / we both cried”). She and her friends had front-row seats for the smaller stage, where Swift sang directly to Abigail the song she wrote about her. It was a clear illustration of the night’s two major themes, which were present in every video clip and in even some of the many big-stage theatrical setpieces.
One theme: Swift cares about her fans so much, she owes her entire success to them. The other: Swift writes songs about her friends, even using their (gasp) real names.
Both are also about an audience identifying with a star, and getting the message that she identifies with them. That was the night’s true theme. The fans posing for pictures with Abigail were essentially posing for pictures with a song, putting themselves into Swift’s song. From where I stood, I saw Swift’s back and the faces of a dozen or so of the fans she hugged. I can’t imagine a politician evoking these faces. Women and men, mostly teenagers or 20-somethings, hugged her in tears or close to it, their faces showing the delight in getting that close to someone who they feel really understands them.
In turn, Swift continually conveyed the message that the fans had the power over her, that their understanding of her is what propelled her to superstardom. Throughout the night, she stood at the front of the stage in awkward silence, reacting to the adoring, cheering crowd with the same awestruck look she’s given while accepting awards. “Kansas City, I will never forget this night”, she declared. Her fans have the power, she often insinuated, even suggesting that she was especially excited for the upcoming Academy of Country Music awards show for that reason, since fans vote for Entertainer of the Year.
In that fan worship was also the message “I’m just a person like you, writing song about our lives, and, “I understand that we all dream of romance, we all get let down.” The Fearless album has many songs about fantasy versus real life, and the Fearless show reflected this. She described the big stage-show setpieces as the way she’s always seen her songs in her imagination. (Apparently, the way she’s always imagined “Should Have Said No” involves her standing, soaken wet, under a waterfall that spells out words like “No”.)
Fearless contains that dichotomy of fantasy versus reality; romance versus disappointment; “Love Story” (“you’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess”) versus “White Horse” (“I’m not a princess / this ain’t a fairy tale”). The audience looked like the embodiment of this: the teary faces of the fans hugging her contrasted with the alarming number of parents who accompanied children dressed up in heavy makeup and princess dresses, Toddlers and Tiaras-style.
What the crowd didn’t look like was what you would imagine a typical country-music audience to look like. I saw two cowboy hats; a lot of women with their daughters; families that spanned three generations; pre-teens with homemade signs declaring their love. That audience, and the way they reacted to Swift, seemed a snapshot of the way the young pop-leaning country acts, embodied by Swift, represent a different sort of audience-identification than the sort that Nashville usually traffics in.
Even a cursory listen to country radio reveals the way country music preys on its audience feeling that they are “country”, and on what that means. Little on country radio strictly sounds “country” in the way we imagine it, though that’s been true for a long time. Genre purity is a myth, but the perpetual “what is country?” question is not just a musical one. “Country” as a concept is worn as a badge of honor, part of what is being sold (listen to recent hits like Billy Currington’s “That’s How Country Boys Roll” or Easton Corbin’s “A Little More Country Than That”, for example). At the same time, these days there are young stars with country-radio hits, on country labels, that don’t make it a point to continually proclaim their country-ness.
Taylor Swift is the biggest example. Though her first-album had some (references to pick-up trucks and Tim McGraw), Fearless, the album and the concert, have few, possibly none, of those country signifiers. The hubbub among country-music purists over Swift winning country awards (the CMA Entertainer of the Year, for example) may be less about her musical style than about the themes and signifiers in her songs. Fearless is about teenage dreams and realities. Its mega-success lies in the specificity of that vision and the way it’s made universal.
There’s also a corollary that could be drawn between the everyday-person perspective she’s going for (I sing about my friends, and you could be one of them) and her singing voice, which is not flawless. She has a strong voice, but not an American Idol-winning virtuosic voice. Critics have hammered on this aspect of her music, and used it with her youth as a contrast with the perceived model of what a best-selling, award-winning singer should be. The night before the sold-out Kansas City show, Kansas City Star music critic Timothy Finn posted to his blog a YouTube video of a supposed terrible vocal performance by Swift (actually a hoax video using someone else’s voice), with the message to readers, “here’s a dose of what you’ll be missing” if you’re not going to the show.
Fearless the album actually address a lot of these conflicts. The difference between expectation and reality is what the album is all about. Songs like “Forever and Always” address the breakdown between what people say and do. He tells her he loves her, but in his behavior she sees that it can’t be true. Throughout the album she sings of an ideal of “perfection”, of trying to meet it and never getting there.
It was in her earliest songs too, like the lyric in “Teardrops on My Guitar” about “the kind of flawless I wish I could be”. On Fearless, it’s about recognizing that lack of being flawless. “You might think I’m bulletproof but I’m not”, she sings in “Tell Me Why”. The way she sings emulates both the perfection and that striving to get there. She veers off the path of vocal perfection in ways that make the songs strike listeners as more emotional. In “White Horse”, when she sings that she’s going to find someone else “who might actually treat me well”, she sounds unhinged, which makes that one of the moments when listeners find their hearts catching in their throats, the same sound she’s going for with her singing.
This emotional approach is woven into the songwriting itself, too; the yearning is built in. In “Love Story”, the bridge takes the song up a level, as it reaches the climax of the proposal. “You Belong With Me” is a perfect exercise in getting the audience on your side, emotionally. A John Hughes movie in song, it sets up a specific us versus them scenario and then uses the chorus and a series of building, driving motions to get listeners to join in that yearning to be understood. Again the bridge is used to take everything up a notch, the drums and electric guitars then dropping out and returning with extra force, all of it part of the action of getting us to feel that we understand the “why can’t you see?” in her voice. We understand that longing to be recognized and understood.
Staying within the lines and breaking out of them is a central theme of Fearless. Does that make her outlaw country? It’s a ridiculous thing to say, but there is a constant focus on wild-ness. Instead of drugs and guns, its embodiment is kissing in the rain, dancing in the rain, wearing your best dress while kissing and dancing in the rain. She seems obsessed with rain. The first line of the album is “There’s something about the way the street looks when it’s just rained / there’s a glow off the pavement”. Like Woody Allen, she finds rain deeply romantic. As in his films, it symbolizes the gap between how you know you should behave and what you deep down really want to do. That gap drives her music, exemplified by “’The Way I Loved You”, where she’s shifting allegiances between the perfect lover, on paper, and the less reliable, angrier, more rebellious lover that she finds herself drawn to.
The album’s first song, “Fearless”, turns that gap between expectation and reality into an anthem, also pinning her overall agenda down to one word. The last song on the album, “Change”, tries to turn that notion of fearlessness into a movement of some kind. It’s a particularly generic call for change, where you’re not really sure what she wants to change. “I believe in whatever you do”, she sings, like she’s unconcerned with the specifics of the cause. In the chorus, however, the force she sings with again makes the call for change feel universal, makes it appeal to anyone who feels unfairly slighted, who feels like they’re being held back.
This idea of change is a pushing forward beyond everyone else’s expectations. “These walls that they put up to hold us back will fall down”, she sings. She could be singing about genre, about the old way of thinking about “country”, or about what young ‘country’ musicians can or should do with their careers.
Her performance of “Change” at the Academy of Country Music Awards, 18 April, became a visual representation of this. After floating above the crowd in a dazzling dress, like an untouchable pop icon, close but always just out of reach, she dropped down to the ground, changed to plain black clothes, and led a group of anonymous somebodies, standing in for “the people”, through the crowd to make “change”. A teenage choir appeared to support her. She ended up falling backwards into the crowd like a martyr figure, still grinning big like a giggling teenager. “These things will change”, the refrain rings out, but how, in what way, and why? These questions have no clear answers. The messiness of genre change is that it’s never as apparent as it seems to be, but neither is it invisible. Things are changing, yet they’re never changing as quickly or dramatically as people fear they are.
Swift’s notion of fearlessness seems endemic to young pop-country acts. A dominant theme is shaking things up, even if musically that moving forwards is also a look backwards, to previous decades, or sideways, to other genres. To sing about change, though, is to put a desire for it as your nominal mission. “Runaway” by Love and Theft, a trio that includes the Stephen of Swift’s “Hey Stephen”, is all about running away from one thing towards another: “And from the rear view / I’ve got a clear view of who I used to be”.
Gloriana, the pop-leaning country foursome (two men, two women) that had one of the opening slots on the Fearless tour (the other was former American Idol contestant Kellie Pickler), sing of being “Wild at Heart”. The first song on their debut LP asks the question, “How Far Do You Wanna Go?” Like “Runaway”, it is a fast-paced pop-rock song, not country-sounding at all. The song is about escaping from a small town, like Swift in “White Horse”, so the question “how far do you wanna go?” is geographical.
It’s also about mental space, about where you place yourself in relation to others. That, combined with the way the song sounds and the role Gloriana have as young up-and-comers, makes the question about genre too. Country and pop aren’t discrete forms. Country singers have had pop hits and pop singers have had country hits time and time again over the years. There is plenty of crossover each way, but there’s also a tendency of country/pop singers to lean back towards country signifiers to keep that audience abated. A country singer will have big pop-leaning hits and then later purposefully lean back into the roots of the music, to make that connection clear.
A question for Taylor Swift is how far she will go within the country genre without trying harder to wear the right clothes. In a way it seems a superfluous question; she was the most successful musical act of last year, and so far is the most-downloaded artist of all time. There seems no reason for her to do anything but keep pushing forward with what she’s been doing. Fearless was such a big album, with such broad appeal, that in a way it marks Taylor Swift as a broadening agent, someone drawing in fans outside of her genre. It may be her Thriller, an album that transcends strict genre categories.
At the same time, country is a genre that even while it is perpetually broadening in musical scope, seems always more resistant to leaving behind the notion that it’s a discrete genre with well-defined boundaries. That’s where the bounty of “I’m a country boy” songs come in.
“How far do you wanna go?” is a question for the country-music industry, but the answer is likely to be wherever the money goes. If Darius Rucker can reinvent himself as a country act and have big hit songs with it, then he’s welcomed with open arms. If Laura Bell Bundy can leave Broadway behind for Nashville, and have hits, the same will happen with her. The musical direction of Nashville will inevitably be driven by money, by the charts.
“How far do you wanna go?” is a question for the “country” audiences then, too. What musicians will you accept as “country” and support with your hard-earned cash? That audience is always broadening, though, and will continue to broaden. There is no rigid country-music audience. The more the industry opens itself up to young acts, even if they refuse to play the “I’m more country than you” game, the more the audience will broaden.
“How far do you wanna go?” may be an even more timely question for critics. The prototypical music critic these days is too cool for country. Some think it’s too sentimental, too macho, and these days too driven by un-hip musical styles from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Nashville songwriting structure is too alien for rock critics who have convinced themselves that it’s more “real” to write your own songs than sing someone else’s. Country songs rely too much on templates to please critics that have convinced themselves their purpose is to find the “new”, to spot innovation in its most obvious state.
Teenage pop-country stars throw in the complications of youth, of identifying with, in Swift’s case, a suburban 20-year-old female singing about crushes, friendship, and the comforts of growing up in a good home with a loving family (see “The Best Day”). Those aren’t ideas most critics want to privilege. There’s nothing on the surface that’s rebellious or strange. To push through that surface and get to how the music really works on its audience requires a certain kind of fearlessness.
Whether it’s the longtime country-music fans who decide to accept her as country, the non-country fans who become fans despite her country affiliation, or the hipper-than-thou critic who decides to set that fear of being ‘uncool’ aside for a moment, Taylor Swift represents an opportunity for everyone to be fearless in their own way, or at least to think of themselves that way.
// Notes from the Road
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