The return of the prodigal daughter: Why country fans will always accept Taylor Swift back into their fold
With the changing landscape of country, it could very well be the perfect time for the multi-Grammy winner to return to her roots.
Over half a decade since her last country single (the title track of her 2012 album 'Red'), Taylor Swift has hinted at a possible return to her country roots. Last month, Tay Tay featured on Sugarland's new single 'Babe' as she dipped her toes back into the genre that provided her a launchpad and the Internet was riddled with conflicting opinions.
Taste of Country even went far enough to say that once you go pop, there's no turning back and made a few compelling points to substantiate their claim. One of the more obvious reasons was the exclusivity of the genre and how the world of country doesn't take kindly to comebacks or new starts from popular artists.
The feature piece cited a few examples from recent history to drive the point home. The likes of Justin Timberlake (who dropped his new album Man of the Woods earlier this year to mixed reviews) and Jessica Simpson have tried their hand at penetrating the genre but not with great success. Kenny Rogers and Darius Rucker, Kid Rock, Aaron Lewis; they've all tried their hand but haven't managed to make quite the impact they were looking for. It's no secret that country fans value loyalty.
That being said, I still believe that if there is one person who can make the genre-jump smoothly and still create some massive waves is Taylor Swift. Here's why:
Let's start with Swift's roots. Swift moved to Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 14 to pursue a career in country music. She signed with the label Big Machine Records and became the youngest artist ever signed by the Sony/ATV Music publishing house. Her 2006 self-titled debut album peaked at number five on the Billboard 200 and spent the most weeks on the chart in the 2000s. The album's third single, 'Our Song', made her the youngest person to single-handedly write and perform a number-one song on the Hot Country Songs chart.
Swift's second album, 2008's 'Fearless', became the best-selling album of the year in the United States. The album won four Grammy Awards, with Swift becoming the youngest winner of the Album of the Year award. But by then, her sonic feel was already taking a slight bend towards pop, incorporating catchy hooks into more traditional country structures and serving as a premonition for the massive fame and success she would receive as a pop star. That sonic transition deepened on the next two albums, 'Speak Now' (2010) and 'Red' (2012). By the time she got around to her fifth studio album '1989', the country was all but gone and replaced with honey-soaked pop hooks, massive synths, crisp drum programming, pulsating bass and processed backing vocals, marking her entry into the glamorous world of pop and the rest is history.
But Tay Tay has remained humbly rooted through her entire image transformation. Apart from 'Babe,' Swift also gave away a great country song recently to Little Big Town in the form of 'Better Man.' She also made a recent appearance at the Bluebird Cafe in country's home ground, Nashville, and it was an unexpected and a fun reminder of the good years. The truth is that as she’s transitioned from country singer-songwriter to pop queen, Swift has carefully continued to pay her respects to the town that launched her career, while continuing to wield considerable power there through her label, Big Machine.
Agreed, Swift’s presence in Nashville is relatively minimal these days, but even the executives of Nashville have still not abandoned her altogether. In an interview late last year, Neil Pond, former editorial director at the now-defunct Country Weekly magazine and current managing editor at Parade Magazine said, "I think [Nashville] realizes that country music just couldn't hold her.”
"The country part of it was great, but she's got a lot of music and textures to explore and experiment with." That's absolutely true. Swift's move from country to pop is less like an abandonment, and more like an evolution. Throughout the whole affair, she has handled the transition with grace. Never dismissing her country past or indicating that she has used the country genre as a gateway to pop, she continued to keep her toes dipped in the country world, which was evident on last year's hit track 'Better Man'.
Though she could write a song for practically any artist in almost any genre, Swift not only wrote 'Better Man' specifically for Little Big Town, but also allowed the group to release the single without initially revealing who wrote it, for fear of any backlash. Ultimately, the song went on to bag a CMA award, much to the surprise of fans.
Taylor's hinted that she may write and record something for the country audience on future albums, which was evident on the song 'New Year's Day' from her latest album, 2017's 'Reputation'. But is a full-blown backflip to country on the cards for the multi-Grammy winner? At this point we can only speculate.
But let us for a moment assume that Taylor Swift does decide to pay a homage to her roots and drops a new country album. Would it be that hard for the Nashville scene and the rest of the hordes of country aficionados to accept her back? I think not. The recent changing landscape of country should be a sign of just that.
Every genre of music undergoes its own evolution. While genres like rock and hip-hop are faster to adapt to modern and contemporary tonal shifts, genres like country and folk do take their own sweet time. Even so, the slew of new gen country artists like Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt and Maren Morris have stretched the boundaries of the genre by incorporating elements of hip-hop and rap into the genre.
Like other genres, country is also exploring new territories, but it's unfolding at a more deliberate pace in a genre where innovation constantly fights against preservation and the path to success often passes through conservative terrestrial radio plays. That's why it's taken years for the stylistic shifts anticipated by Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt and Maren Morris to actually arrive. Musgraves' emergence, five years ago, generated discussion about the potential for changes in country's outlook, attitude and style, but it's only now, with the release of 'Golden Hour', Musgraves' third proper, major label album that she sounds truly freed from having to claim her place in the country landscape.
At such a cusp in the timeline of the genre, the playing field couldn't be more welcoming for a Taylor Swift return. Of course, like any sudden divergence from an artist, we can expect fans to be polarized. But this is Taylor Swift we're talking about here - probably one of the hardest to hate artists in the music industry today!
All said and done, we're at a time when genrefication of music seems less and less relevant. The massive exposure that streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have provided has led to the intermingling of more sonic textures than ever before. It's not very black and white anymore. You can't sit down and say 'Oh this is rock, or this one is definitely trap' or whatever. Every other day, we see more and more artists being labeled under the alternative genre simply because the boundaries set by genres are getting blurrier. The same can be said of country, although it is slightly more water-tight compared to other genres.
If the hardest challenge is for Swift to find airplay on country radio stations, it most definitely won't be a mammoth task because some of her older country-flavored hits still find ample airtime on the radio waves. Newer material should obviously have a much easier time breaking the barriers. So whether you hate or love this hypothetical Taylor Swift country return, one thing is for sure - it surely won't go unnoticed.