Is Taylor Swift Still Country? Do We Care?

Taylor Swift
Big Machine

Taylor Swift’s 22 October release of her fourth album, Red, might be the country-music event of a year without many country-music events. What else is there? Whose album is, or was, more anticipated: Jason Aldean? Carrie Underwood? Kenny Chesney? It’s hard to figure anyone in the genre who has built up more of an aura of hype and expectation around each new release. Her previous albums have broken sales records, won awards, inspired screaming fans and drawn analysis from critics. Each album has taken a different step outwards, perhaps more so than any other in country music today.

But is Swift even in country music anymore? With each album she seems less a genre figure and more a larger-than-life pop-culture figure who stands as her own entity outside of genre, if she was ever that tied to genre in the first place. Then, in August 2012, two months shy of two years since her last album’s release, the first single from Red is released, and it’s quite probably her least country-sounding song yet, both on paper and in practice. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was co-written and produced by Max Martin (and his often partner Shellback), a name associated with many of the big pop acts of the last decade or so: Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys, Robyn, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, Pink, Adam Labert, Britney Spears, Usher and more. Martin has helped write more than 10 #1 songs since 2008. His is the name associated with songs like “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”.

Queue the screams of diehard Swift fans who don’t see their hero in this same company. But do those imaginary outraged fans even exist, or are Swift fans already more likely to be listening to top 40 pop radio than to country? There’s certainly a swing between pop and country that you can trace within the radio chart numbers of her singles – though not a clear-cut one. The first album’s singles were bigger country hits than pop ones, but they did appear on the pop charts, the highest being “Teardrops on My Guitar”, #13 pop.

With her next two albums, this was still generally true (with a couple more minor songs being more successful on the pop charts), but there was more of a balancing between the two, with the biggest country hits being quite big pop hits (most notably “You Belong With Me”, “Love Story”, and “Mine”). “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, her first single that’s a bigger pop hit than a country one. It hit #1 on the pop charts, her first #1, and so far has only reached #13 on the country charts. Its follow-up, “Begin Again”, has so far made it to #7 pop and #37 country.

Listening to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (not to mention watching the creepy-cute music video), it would be hard for someone who hasn’t been following the story to relate this to country music, the genre. That isn’t necessarily not true of her past hits, but it’s more true here. That’s partly because of the sound and big, resounding chorus, which do feel like it could be a single for, say, Pink. But it’s as much because of how much the song focuses on the life of teenagers without being too serious about it (it’s not an after-school-special song like “Fifteen”, for example).

Wait a second, you say, aren’t all those ‘it’s summer time, we’re going to drink cold beer and drive our trucks to the swimming hole” songs that I hear on country radio about teenagers? Yes, but the protagonists always feel like (or explicitly are) old people looking back on what they either remember or, more likely, imagine teenage life to be like. They don’t feel as in the moment as this. Swift works little teenager-isms into the lyrics (“like, ever”), while singing about the back-and-forth nature of teenage romance in a flippant way that seems to parallel both how we imagine young love to be (flighty, impermanent, but feeling oh so important at the time) and how we remember it. The song’s tone and music echo this same flippancy; in uniting the two it forms a pointed argument for the song as even more of a laugh at critics than the supposed critic’s rebuttal “Mean”. You think my music’s too teenage-y, too fluffy, too flighty, she seems to say, then here, what do you think of this?

If the song represents a certain “so what” attitude towards the very idea of an argument over whether Swift is country or pop or whatever, and by relation a push against any narrow definition of country as a genre, so does Swift as a personality. Always the polite young student of celebrity, her spoken attitude towards country is gracious and “gee whiz, you like me”. Which is basically her attitude towards audiences, period. But musically she’s always seemed to be trying to carve out a not genre-specific place for herself, without ever taking wild swings across genre, but also while making conscious moves to play into the hands of all of her fans. She’ll pull one way and then pull back another, to try and be many things to many people while still being one singular thing. Isn’t that what being a superstar is all about?

So the next single after the big pop hit is the lower-key, more serious, prettier “Begin Again”, about the closest to a country ballad she’ll get, a song very much in line with her past songs but continuing a path towards refinement. It also both acknowledges her feeling that genre boundaries for listeners aren’t important (“you say you never met one girl who has as many James Taylor records as you / but I do”) and, by focusing so much on rebirth and beginning again, feels like she’s slyly winking at us with the notion that she’s going to keep being one thing and then being something else, keeping listeners on their toes while pulling in more and more of them, the way politicians toss out different ideas to appease different audiences, while trying to tie them all into one cohesive image of the person.

Swift plays every angle, in other words, like the smart businessperson she is. In the weeks leading up to Red’s release, she’s releasing another song each week, each one forming a fuller picture of the album that reinforces both the idea that this isn’t country music and the idea that it’s as much country music as the rest of what we hear on the radio, while reminding us we don’t listen to just one genre so why does it matter that much?

The next single “Red” predictably falls in a musical place between “Begin Again” and “We Can Never…”, perhaps making it most representative of the album (time will tell). Its use of color to represent a complicated feeling (“loving him was red”) is likely too subtle for country radio right now, though its general melodic thrust seems right in line with many of today’s hits.

Where all of these songs fall in relation to country music as an industry is a logical question, but also maybe an uninteresting one. The record industry and critics need genre to exist, and maybe some listeners do to an extent – so they can contextualize what they hear, identify fully with one pop-cultural community, and talk more easily with one another about what music they like. But at the end of the day, few listeners are all that tied to genre; they like what they like. That’s something Swift reminds us of, but so too does even a casual listen to country radio these days, which is as likely to sound like Bryan Adams or Pat Benatar and reference Bruce Springsteen or Lynrd Skynrd as it is talk up old Hank and Waylon songs.

As soon as I start to draw conclusions about where Taylor Swift sits in 2012 – whether I can convincingly write about her in a “country music” column, for example – she’ll throw in another twist. So on the day I’m finishing up this piece, she releases “I Knew You Were Trouble”, another Martin/Shellback collaboration and a song she’s reportedly described as her dubstep song. I don’t know enough about dubstep to confirm or deny that, but the song does slam up and down in a way that Jason Aldean might try to achieve, albeit with much different tools. The song ultimately puts her in a place much lonelier than your heart-broken macho cowboys usually admit to being in. The narrator is left “lying on the cold hard ground” by the trouble man of the title.

If country=hardship, that might make the song the countriest of them all; more country than most of what’s on country radio. If the least country song can also be the most country song, have we reached the apocalypse? or are we transcending to a place where we can think about genre as a flexible set of schemes and signposts, and not a rigid set of rules?