Taylor Swift, Songwriting and Country Vs. Pop

Friday, 05 July 2013 04:49 PM Written by 

So, is Taylor Swift pop, country, both or neither?  I addressed this before two years ago. I don't consider her country in the conventional sense. She's after an entirely different audience. I discussed all this a couple of years ago.

Scott Mervis had an intriguing Preview spin on Swift in Thursday's Weekend section that included a sidebar with insights from Pittsburgh-area singer-songwriters.  I don't cover the local scene, especially in that area but Scott has a total command of that and knows who to ask.

Many of comments he received were knowing and smart. Eric Himan, discussing her songwriting abilities, said of Swift writing her material that "I bet it changed the game in Nashville."

It really didn't. Many stars once routinely wrote their own material.  Among them: Hank Williams Sr., Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Jr., Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, Mel Tillis, Don Gibson, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, etc. In recent times Alan Jackson wrote many of his hits.  In Bakersfield, Buck Owens wrote much of his own material. In the past and today, Merle Haggard still does.

I give Swift props for writing so many—at least up to recently—of her tunes herself, minus any dreaded "co-writers." She was born with the gift, being among those destined write, even if she had outside help on some of the more recent pop-oriented stuff.

While she can put a lyric together, otherwise it's not so hot in Nashville 2013 for writers. Nowadays, two or more co-writers, some talented, others little more than mediocre hacks, have "writing sessions" to cobble together tunes, often motivated not by creativity but by what topics are currently  "hot" (girls in short skirts, hot guys, pickup trucks, beer, small towns, etc.) at the moment with country record producers. The result: more unmitigated garbage than at any time in country music history.

Many current Nashville singers are billed by publicists and record labels as singer-songwriters. Some are. Many aren't. A few are active in the writing process. Others, billed as co-writers on songs on their albums, aren't really involved. Actual co-writers often give up partial credit to get a song recorded and generate royalties. One can't blame them for that.  It is business. Meanwhile, a non-writing singer gets to represent themselves as a writer. That is as bogus as Autotune.

Is Swift using country as a jumping off point to a pop career? If so, again, it's nothing new. Hall of Famer Brenda Lee started in the country field, working on the "Ozark Jubilee" TV show. Nonetheless, most of her 50's and 60's hits, produced in Nashville, were pop songs produced in Nashville. She didn't consciously turn to country until the 1970s. Her success was equally impressive, but she didn't write the songs. She wasn't alone in this zig-zag between country and pop. Elvis Presley did it. So did rockabilly greats Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty and Wanda Jackson.  They started in country, went to rock and later returned to their roots.

I'm not going to tell you I religiously follow every move Swift makes. A few decades separate us, but I see where she's coming from. She writes catchy songs? A lot of classic American pop music fits that pattern. "Serious" and "profound" songs aren't always good ones.  

If she wants to move toward pop, fine. In her case, it's really not that much of a stretch. If you hate her because she's not Patsy, Miranda or Dolly, you're missing the point. 

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