Taylor Swift's '1989' Will Be A Pop Album. What Else Is New?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014 06:12 AM Written by 

A couple years ago, I blogged here about Taylor Swift, contending while she could not be considered a country performer in the conventional sense, she had succeeded in doing something Nashville had tried to do for decades and failed: bring a younger audience to country with a totally different sound.  I said at the time that I doubted Music Row would jump on the bandwagon. 

I was wrong about that.  They have, trying endlessly to find the next Swift.

Now, it's been announced that 1989, Swift's next album, will be a pop album and not country in any respect. Supposedly, it's inspired by her interest in late 1990's pop music. I guess that means we won't be hearing the banjo plunking as a sound effect in the background.  The video of her first single, "Shake It Off," makes that point rather clearly.  A controversy is already developing as some  in country radio show some reluctance to play her pop material.  Most of them don't realize that most of what they're now playing on the air is pop, anyway.

I've said in the past that female artists nowadays have greater latitude. Kacey Musgraves and Kellie Pickler, even relative veterans like Miranda Lambert seem to have a broader palette than Nashville producers are willing to permit male singers.

Male singers' current overreliance on party songs ("bro-country" to some) is limiting them creatively. Even Brad Paisley isn't exempt, as his upcoming album demonstrates,  Male singers seem limited to exploring that cliched nonsense or embracing lightweight poppy mediocrity in the vein of Rascal Flatts and Florida Georgia Line.

There are those who will buy into this, excitedly chanting, "Gee! 'T' is recording a pop album. Wow!" 

Wait a second. This is no visionary leap. Country singers recorded pop albums well over half a century ago. Rockin' Rollin' Robbins, the first 10-inch LP by country balladeer Marty Robbins, featured rockers like Elvis Presley's "That's All Right" (1954) and Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" (1956). Eddy Arnold and Ferlin Husky did albums of pop standards in 1957 and 1958, respectively.  Pop influences helped producers like Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley and Ken Nelson define the "Nashville Sound" that framed Patsy Cline, Faron Young, Skeeter Davis and Jim Reeves. 

Robbins singing "Maybelline," (1956)

Willie Nelson was recording pop tunes, with pop arrangements, 15 years before Stardust.

Willie singing "Am I Blue," with full orchestral arrangement by Ernie Freeman, 1963  (the photos are a lot later).

For decades, acts of both genders have taken cues from pop or rock though for the past 20 years rock-pop influences often outweighed country, from Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood to Little Big Town, Jason Aldean and Sugarland. Others, Kellie Pickler, Scotty McCreery and Eric Church, retained greater country content in their music.

So regardless of the quality, what Swift is doing is a lot more ordinary than than the spin her handlers are throwing out. I've long suspected a pop career was her actual goal. She's not the first one who came in the back door. Jimmy Buffett tried unsuccessfully to break into Nashville long before he found mass acceptance. Swift has found the highest level of Nashville stardom, Now, she's free to embrace the music where she's always been rooted, in her case pop.

Swift isn't slamming the door on a return her particular version of country. But to me, it's no surprise she's going a direction that is, in the long run, a lot more natural for her. That's not to say she might not "return" to country someday, but I doubt it.  I'm not really sure how long she ever intended to stay in the genre to begin with.

Does it excite me? Not a bit. What she's doing, at least to my ear, is nowhere near as interesting as what Lambert, Pickler, Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and other female artists are doing nowadays.  As for the "recording a pop album" bit, everything old is new again.


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