Yesterday, October 27, 2014, Taylor Swift dropped yet another album that will likely make music history. It’s also one that, in title at least, invokes a different decade. With the release of her ultra-hyped 1989, the once-country femme fatale appears to be shooting for full pop star status. Anyone who has listened to Swift over the years will not feel that the album marks too drastic of a departure from her progression from country darling to stadium mogul. 2013’s Red provided some measure of indication of her shift towards a sleeker sound. The album spawned its share of highly produced singles – most notably the Max Martin-helmed, bass-heavy “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Still, though, Swift didn’t stray too far from her country roots, with tracks like “Begin Again” invoking the acoustic sound on which she has relied since she first sang about teardrops on her guitar. And, of course, her subject matter rarely strayed from relationships, even if she dealt with them a little more maturely than on past albums.
The question of how Swift became so popular in the first place is an interesting one to explore. Swift first gained traction in the world of country, and has nearly every country-specific award imaginable, as well as several Grammys in the category. However, Swift has constantly encountered criticism for her less-than-stellar set of pipes. The fact that she managed to first succeed in country, albeit subset of the music industry in which strong female vocalists prevail, is extremely remarkable. Sure, Swift’s insane success could be credited to the fact that she writes or co-writes nearly all of the music she has ever released. But Swift is by no means the only country female country artist of her generation to write her own music, as the country world certainly puts more stock in authenticity that the pop sphere does. Swift’s ownership of her music, then, cannot be considered her sole point of differentiation and initial success in country.
Some critics have raised the question of whether or not Swift’s music could be considered “country” at all, and this is certainly a valid one in evaluating her success. Her self-entitled debut album certainly had all the hallmarks of the country ingenue: story-like songs, idyllic settings, pickup trucks – even some fiddles for good measure. Surely, Swift could be considered at least somewhat “country” at the outset of her career. But by 2008’s Fearless, Swift’s songs were seriously leaning towards “crossover”; nearly all of the songs on this album, if they were produced without the slight tinge of twang, could have been considered pop. Perhaps Swift’s early success with “crossover” hits is due in part to the fact that her style of music filled a void of more singer-songwriter oriented fare in an auditory age of pop that was beginning to be dominated by tropes like autotune. In other words, being “a little bit country” – but mostly pop – allowed Swift to occupy a valuable niche in the pop market. This niche was one in which her songwriting skills were an essential point of differentiation.
With her new album – which does, in fact, feature some autotune – Swift has perhaps come full circle. Although some critics may declare that Swift’s vocals aren’t sufficient for her survival in pop, they would be ignoring the fact that she’s already succeeded in country, a world in which she had to compete against her fair share of strong voices. They would also be ignoring the fact that she’s already topped Billboard charts with some of Red’s hits – which, even if they weren’t branded as such, were certainly qualified to be considered true pop. Critics would also be remiss in forgetting that 1989’s hater-flaunting debut single, “Shake It Off,” already topped the charts this summer. With it, Taylor seemed to be insulating herself against any criticisms of her new pop persona – “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
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