Music

'Red' alert: Is Taylor Swift country enough for the CMAs? 

Nov. 6, 2013 at 3:59 AM ET

Image: Taylor Swift
Larry Busacca/TAS / Getty Images file
Taylor Swift wraps the North American portion of her "Red" tour playing to a crowd of more than 14,000 fans on the first of three sold-out hometown shows at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on Sept. 19.

Taylor Swift is a seven-time Grammy Award-winning artist, two- time VMA winner, a hit songwriter, and an international pop icon. But one label that doesn’t really rise to the top anymore is that of "country music artist." Still, come Nov. 6, she’ll be front-and-center at the 47th annual Country Music Association Awards, where she’s up for entertainer of the year, female vocalist of the year and album of the year, as well as three others.

Swift will also receive a Pinnacle Award, a distinction given to artists who have achieved worldwide success and recognition unique to country music. Garth Brooks is the only previous winner and these accolades and distinctions underscore one of the biggest debates in country music: whether crossover country-pop artist Swift deserves so much country praise.

Although she made her mark in 2006 as a country artist with her self-titled debut, with each succeeding album she’s moved further afield from the genre. Her 2008 album, "Fearless," was a giant step into pop and by 2010’s "Speak Now" Swift seemed to be taking a page from Shania Twain’s playbook by pushing the music way beyond its roots.

But with last year’s "Red," Swift left those roots in the dust. In their place were funky pop beats (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) and even dubstep ("I Knew You Were Trouble"). Considering what’s actually on the CD, “Red” is likely to go down in history as the most un-country album to be nominated by the CMA for album of the year.

So why all the CMA love? Part of the reason is that Swift sells a whole lot of records for the Nashville-based Big Machine label. But "Red" isn't entirely what you would call a "Nashville" album. Some of it was recorded as far away as Sweden and Swift’s collaborators included Swedish producers Max Martin and Shellbach, known for their work with Britney Spears and Pink, among others.

No artist should be criticized for wanting to grow artistically and judging by the massive popularity of "Red," Swift’s metamorphosis into a pop singer has been a huge success. But that doesn’t means she fits in with the CMA crowd anymore. Kelly Clarkson, who is also up for female singer of the year, sounded more country on her single “Don’t Rush” than Swift has in years.

So why is Swift still the CMA’s darling? Simply put, she fills a room, and more eyes will be on the CMAs with her around. Swift has also expanded country’s audience with her massive fan base. Had she not stepped away from country completely, a good argument could have been made that she was broadening the palette of country the way the Beatles expanded the vocabulary of rock.

Swift’s moving country away from its roots also follows a pattern of sorts. The music has gone through previous pop phases, like the ’60s countrypolitian of Glenn Campbell and Conway Twitty and the ’80s urban pop of Mickey Gilley or Johnny Lee. But both times traditionalists came along to bring the music back home. Kacey Musgraves, who received six CMA nominations this year, might be the artist who does that again.

Swift could save face if she does not perform one of her newer songs alongside fellow entertainer of the year nominees Blake Shelton, George Strait, Jason Aldean, or Luke Bryan. She’s got a better, genuine new country-song option in the aforementioned "Highway Don’t Care," which topped the country charts. It might not be her song, but it’s definitely a country number. And Swift’s participation on the track shows she’s still a little bit country, even if "Red" isn’t.

Image: Taylor Swift
Isaac Brekken
Country music’s young superstar is making a splash from Nashville to Hollywood.


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