in defense of swift and the grand ole genre
One warm afternoon in the fall of 2008, my best friend Alex and I lay spread-eagle on the trampoline in her backyard and stared up at the cloudless Virginia sky. Taylor Swift’s “Hey Steven” played from the tinny speakers of my LG Chocolate Slide. We were two starry-eyed, self-involved preteen girls coming of age in a leafy commuter neighborhood thirty minutes west of Richmond, Virginia, physically and culturally equidistant from a Nordstrom-boasting Mega Mall and small-town U.S.A. Twilight’s New Moon was coming soon to a theater near us, and Taylor Lautner was hot, but not nearly as hot as the blue-jean-wearing, banjo-playing Luke Bryan, who sang our anthem, “Country Girl Shake it For Me,” which contained the irresistibly singable lines, “Shake it for the catfish swimming down deep in the creek / for the crickets and the critters and the squirrels / shake it to the moon / shake it for me girl”—lines which, when revisited years later, would seem completely absurd.
Though we were not technically “country girls,” we really, really wanted to be. Being a “country girl” meant belonging to a sacred utopic community built on tradition and camaraderie, like a redneck Dead Poets Society, and Swift, who was only a few years older than us, seemed to share in our longing—both for male validation and the embrace of some gritty, romantic order that was greater than ourselves. Swift’s Fearless album, with hits like “White Horse” and “Fifteen,” seemed to speak to our entire realm of experience, touching on friendships, family, and, of course, romance. “Hey Jeremy,” Alex began to sing in jest, replacing Swift’s “Steven” with the name of her dark-haired, football-playing crush who only had eyes for popular girls. Drawing on Swift’s wisdom, I reminded Alex that she would do greater things than dating a boy on the football team, “You know, like, cure cancer or fight crime or something.”
Alex remained unconvinced.
“BREAKING NEWS: Taylor Swift Working On New Album, May Go Back to Country,” read a headline of Whiskey Riff this April, just five months before Taylor released her snarky statement single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Swift was rumored to be recording in Nashville, and her brief cameo on Kenny Chesney’s Live in No Shoes Nation album supposedly made people wonder if she’d desert pop and return to the Grand Ole Genre. When “Look” turned out to sound more Kesha than country, countless fans who had hoped the screen-door-slammin’ girl-next-door might pull a “Miley Cyrus” were sorely disappointed. But could Swift still pull a Miley Cyrus? You know, graffiti obscenities all over her former personas in a desperate, futile attempt to reclaim her identity from the public gaze, only to grow tired of the “good girl gone wild” act and circle back around to her roots?
Just days after murdering her acoustic guitar-carrying persona in the “Look” music video, Taylor Swift won her 12th Country Music Award. While critics were busy trying to decipher “Look”‘s subtext, Swift was being recognized for single-handedly writing Little Big Town’s hit “Better Man,” which won Song of the Year. A simple, sentimental love song that never once mentions beer or blue jeans, its chorus croons:
“Sometimes in the middle of the night I can feel you again / but I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man.”
Confusing matters further is the fact that Swift’s record label, Big Machine Records, purportedly pre-sold “Look” to country radio stations across the country in hopes of getting it airplay, which just seems…so hugely irresponsible. Audiences that were used to hearing lightly autotuned ballads about fatherhood, football, and infidelity were undoubtedly shocked when “I—don’t—like your silly games,” began to snake through their dashboard stereos. One country radio DJ from New Jersey expressed her frustration, “To put amazing country songs amongst such TRASH is demoralizing to our amazing country artists.”
Recent “TRASH” aside, Swift’s collaboration with Little Big Town indicates that she hasn’t completely severed her music from its sentimental, small-town roots. Of course, many country fans claim that Swift doesn’t have the right to these roots, pointing out that Swift was born and raised in Pennsylvania, which calls into question the Southern drawl that courses through her first album. In dark, cobwebby corners of the internet, furious bloggers like “Trigger” behind savecountrymusic.com are dedicated to spreading anti-Swift gospel. “Trigger,” who proudly suspects himself to be the critic addressed in Swift’s song “Mean,” insists that her country affiliation was merely a marketing ploy and that her early pop-infused music made a mockery of the genre. She was never “truly” a country artist, he says, repeatedly and in caps lock.
But what does it mean to be a “true” country artist in a genre that is inextricably entangled with politics? A genre that deals in the reinforcement of utopic ideals of the “real America” that run counter to the interests of, well, every other America?
Swift’s debut album, titled Taylor Swift, was released in 2006, when she was only sixteen years old. Classic hits like “Our Song” and “Teardrops on My Guitar” deal largely in the undulations of high school romances. Family. Football. Infidelity. They conjure up images of the innocent, across-the-console hand holding that was totally not a part of my teenage experience, but boy, did I want it to be. They also revolve around the genre-defining buzzwords that serve as the building blocks of 99% of contemporary country narratives.
“He said the way my blue eyes shined / put those Georgia stars to shame at night / I said that’s a lie / Just a boy in a Chevy truck / Who had a tendency of getting stuck / on backroads at night.”
Blue eyes, an American-made truck, a backroad. The first lines of Swift’s hit “Tim McGraw,” set to a lonesome ukelele, were critical in establishing Swift as a country artist. All that’s missing is blue jeans and a cold can of Bud, and you’d have… every country song ever.
The most common complaint about country music is that it “all sounds the same,” but more incisive critics condemn the genre for being an instrument of white identity politics. Just days after the Country Music Award ceremony on November 8th, Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards published a scathing critique of the country genre, arguing that it has become an escapist soundtrack of a “nonexistent, apolitical no-place.” Richards is clearly in league with comedian Bo Burnham, who famously satirizes country artists’ usage of buzzwords like “truck” and “beer” to pander to existentially insecure audiences. I, too, lament country music’s departure from its detail-grounded storytelling roots—think Gillian Welch—to the blissful naivete of the Zac Brown Band. I also agree that country’s rhetorical tropes align with problematic metanarratives. But I draw the line at Richard’s accusation of country music being the chosen genre of an “apolitical no-place.” Country music is totally political, it’s just not liberal. The stars at the CMAs likely had reasons for not advocating for gun control in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, reasons that I don’t personally agree with, but that they can probably ground in rational thought and statistics—statistics that are different from the statistics that we liberals hear on the liberal news. Backroads and pickup trucks, while undoubtedly over-referenced, are not totally mythic. People who love country music often live in rural-suburban America, and when you live in a rural-suburban America, as I used to, you often find yourself wearing blue jeans. In a pickup truck. And when you look out the window to your left, believe it or not, there’s a frickin’ cornfield. Rural people like to jam to music about the rural lifestyle, just as party people like to jam to music about party rocking.
“I’m in love with the shape of you / you push and pull like a magnet do / although my heart is falling too / I’m in love with your body,” sings Ed Sheeran, over and over again in his smash hit, “Shape of You,” and no one ever accuses Sheeran of being “too romantic” or apolitical, despite the fact that his lyrics are almost always about the ladies. I know, I know, that’s reductive. The stakes are higher with country music, and I’m straying from the point of Richards’s article, which criticized the blissful naivete of the Award Ceremony attendants more than the genre itself. But rural-suburban Americans need to hear their lifestyles validated somehow. The mainstream media’s constant mockery of rural culture gets on rural people’s nerves, and was undoubtedly a factor in the rise of you-know-who.
When Taylor Swift was sixteen, she probably longed to become a part of the romantic, utopic America that was sung about by her country heroes, like LeeAnn Rimes and the Dixie Chicks. In interviews, she frequently admits to being an outsider in high school, alienated from her peers by her love of country music, which was not technically “hers” to love, as a Pennsylvanian.
And then she grew out of it. Or just grew as an artist in general.
While Swift might have dabbled in aforementioned buzzwords in the early stages of her career, her second album, Fearless, released in 2008, retained the stylistic trappings of the country genre without becoming entrenched in the economies of identity politics. Identity politics were not Swift’s “stock in trade.” Girlhood was.
Of course, Swift’s depictions of “traditional” girlhood have been critiqued ad nauseum. In the popular Buzzfeed article, “How Taylor Swift Played the Victim for an Entire Decade and Made her Entire Career,” Ellie Woodward accuses Swift of “adhering to the markers of white feminine fragility” and being “enchanted” by “fairy tales.” To an extent, I agree that Swift’s early music probably encouraged girls to foster sub-ideal standards of self-worth. But if we’ve reached the age where “fairy tales” are consigned to ironizing scare quotes, I think we’ve gone a step too far. Swift wrote about what it felt like to be a starry-eyed, self-involved teenage girl desperately seeking validation from boys, which is, albeit a little barf-worthy, a completely valid experience.
Her music resonated with us because it struck true. Just as country music keeps rural-suburban Americans company in times of existential duress, Taylor Swift’s teenage folktales let young girls know that they aren’t alone, that their barf-worthy daydreams are shared by others. Maybe Swift’s music shouldn’t do either of those things. Maybe in fifty years, our daughters won’t pine after the smelly boys in their middle school Spanish classes because they’ll know better. They’ll be so focused on curing cancer or fighting crime that their hunger pangs for human connection will be permanently satiated. But, for now, this culture persists, so, in the spirit of Marie Antoinette, let them have their Taylor Swift.