Country No More? "Shake It Off," People!
August 21, 2014
So, Taylor Swift has declared her just-announced, upcoming "1989" project, "My very first documented, official pop album."
Enough already, with the "Taylor dumped Country music" crap, okay?
In the hours following Swift's live-stream on Yahoo.com where she detailed the album, then debuted her "Shake It Off" single and video, that snarky sentiment pervaded the Twitterverse, blogosphere and nearly all of social media, proliferated by so-called pundits, presuming to know what this not-at-all shocking, non-news item means for Country music.
Except that they don't.
In one especially infuriating, ill-informed piece published on "Thinkprogress.org," the author, Jessica Goldstein fictionalized, "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.'"
Um ... no Jessica, you've got it all horribly, wrong. What you obviously don't know is that, we, the collective "Country music," are a confident, self-assured bunch who know exactly what we're doing, who we are and how our relationship with Taylor has evolved for the past few years. We're good here. So actually, in this scenario, you're the equivalent of a girl who walks in the room, naively assuming she's the smartest, hippest and most-informed.
Except that you're not.
Among Country programmers I speak to every week - and that numbers in the dozens - there's universal, enthusiastic support for Swift's direction. They absolutely love her lead single, "Shake It Off," and think the video is amazing, breakthrough stuff. They're not mad, hurt or disillusioned; they're rooting for her success.
WQMX/Akron, OH PD Sue Wilson, on her Facebook page, posted: "I guess when you are that famous you are a target. So she's releasing a pop CD; it's music. She's an artist. She can be pop or country, or whatever: music is music and she is what she is. If people don't like it they don't have to buy it but why trash her? I don't get it."
It's not just radio who supports Swift. From Tenacity VP/Promotion Tim McFadden, "This is what great artists do. They do what they want and let the world decide what to do with it. She is special for sure. I always see her dancing at awards shows and everywhere. It's because she can. Ha. Very cool. Go girl!"
KSCS & KPLX/Dallas OM JR Schumann correctly points out that criticism of Swift is nothing new, observing that it's happened with every release that followed "Taylor Swift," her 2006 debut album. "Grown men and women say terrible things about a girl making music -- music with a positive message, mind you," said Schumann. "Music that tells kids in their most formative years to be themselves and not let the world get to them. Year after year, Taylor Swift (who has never been pictured drunk, partying, doing drugs, arrested or anything) remains the subject of so much hate, and we wonder why the world is the way it is. Let's just hope the kids of today listen to her lyrics and not what the adults around them are saying."
To anybody experiencing shock and awe over Swift's direction, I would ask: Where the Hell have you been? This anxiety about her "going pop" all started with 2008's "Fearless," when Country die-hards claimed "You Belong With Me" was the first hint of a dreaded drift from Country. But it fit Country radio then and was a big hit; by today's sound-coding criteria, that song is a solid, middle-of-the-road, mainstream record. To me, the real demonstration of her songwriting versatility and pop sensitivity on that album was "Hey Stephen."
There were more signs of diversity on "Speak Now" and c'mon, let's be honest now: "Red" was Swift's first "official" pop album. The point is, whether organic or a well-defined, long term strategy, Swift has been gradually merging across the musical highway since 2008. She's like that car you see on the morning freeway commute. You first notice it in the far left lane but eventually, it's over there on your right, having gotten there without disrupting traffic, careful to have used its turn signal before each lane change and eventually, safely exiting the road.
Nobody's veering suddenly and dangerously here. And to JR Schumann's earlier point, unlike Miley Cyrus, who needed to engineer a seismic change of image to, pardon the pun here, "shake off" the Hannah Montana identity, Swift can now confirm a different artistic turn, because she's been prepping us for the move all along. We should be good with that, too.
No, "Shake It Off" is not even close to a fit for Country radio -- even in its current sonic state -- nor was it meant to be. But that didn't stop a handful of Country stations from spinning it moments after Swift's live introduction, because they understand that Country fans care about her. And it's not just because Swift matured from a precocious, adorable teen to an amazing and influential woman before their eyes, but also because, as planet Earth's biggest music star -- of any genre -- when Swift has news about her music, it's that rare, big-assed, international pop-culture phenomenon that radio should absolutely claim ownership of.
WSIX/Nashville had logged 10 spins by Wednesday (8/20), two days after the song's unveiling. KSCS/Dallas had five plays in the same time period. As a format, Country played "Shake It Off" a modest 54 times by mid-week, enough to earn the song a #66 rank on the Mediabase Real Time chart. Naturally, that was dwarfed by mainstream Top 40's more than 3,500 spins in the same period, firmly landing it in that format's top 15 on Real Time .. pretty much what it was expected to do.
Let's also keep in mind what Tim McFadden said: "This is what great artists do." I could not agree more. Swift will only be 25 in December; she may not even be at the peak of her artistic powers. Does anybody know one 25-year-old whose musical tastes are identical to their 16-year-old selves? Did anybody expect her to keep making albums that sound the same? Thank God she hasn't. In fact, I think Swift is one of those rare artists that, when a new album is coming, her fans and the entire musical world are on pins and needles wondering what the Hell it's gonna sound like, because all the others were sure different from the ones before. What other artists were/are like that? Katy Perry? Gaga? Prince? U2? Madonna? Springsteen? Michael Jackson? ... dare I say it .... The Beatles?
Here's what I believe and what a handful of PDs have totally agreed with this week: I don't think we've heard the last Country album or song penned or sung by Swift. It's in her roots. She grew up listening to it, aspired to be a star in it and, I believe, genuinely loves it. Always will. I think at some point, maybe in five years, we see Taylor Swift on another live-stream, proclaiming, "This is my very next, documented Country album."
If that happens, knowing her songwriting gifts, the music will be solid. As KEEY/Minneapolis PD Gregg Swedberg said in "USA Today" this week, "She makes high-quality music no matter the genre." Someday, Swift will be in a different place in her life and ready to share new stories and life experiences. And Swedberg also said something that sums up what every PD I talked to this week told me: "I hope she gets the Country muse again soon, and we'll gladly welcome her back, whenever that is."
Til then Taylor, bring on "1989." I can't wait to hear the rest of it, whatever it sounds like.
As for the haters who are, as Swift sings "Gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate," well, they might be wise to read and repeat the lyrics to "Shake It Off."