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Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift mid-speech at the 2009 VMA’s is one of the most iconic cultural moments of the 21st century thus far. This may appear to some as a complete over exaggeration yet there’s so much more to this incident than mere tabloid-esque scandal. It was the public birthplace of the West/Swift rivalry, a dynamic that has resonated with both artists to this day. There’s the obvious infamy of the moment itself too, a genuinely shocking outburst of realness that brought forth the undying “Imma let you finish” meme. For Kanye, an artist who had seemingly moved past the social consciousness of his earlier records, it was the grand unveiling of the persona that would come to truly define him: the egotistical asshole.
Kanye became such a villain that he effectively went into exile following it, eventually returning redeemed upon the release of his masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (a cycle that he is effectively repeating now). Yet, as vilified as he was, Kanye wasn’t wrong. His outrage over seeing a white artist triumph unfairly over a black artist is now such a commonplace sentiment that white musicians like Adele and Macklemore are now almost preemptively apologising for the accolades they garner. Kanye storming that stage was wrong, but it cast a spotlight on the marginalisation of nonwhite talent, a systemic discrimination that continues to exist but is under increasing public pressure to change. Swift’s victory is largely neglected in the telling of this story, inevitably overshadowed by what the incident meant for Kanye. This moment on stage was when Swift became a star, a true household name. But she got to that stage by making country music.
Swift’s credentials as a country musician have been disputed due to the influence of pop on her music, and the general distrust that often surrounds female artists who position themselves as the authors of their own voice. Country is a genre often regarded as ‘authentic’, with fans who are fiercely protective over this legacy. On the other hand pop is typically dismissed as something artificial, thus the two genres appear fundamentally opposed.
Swift is the ultimate refutation of that presumption. Swift is both pop and country. Her first ever single was named after country star Tim McGraw and it was a hit. “You Belong With Me”, the song that received the VMA award that so desperately triggered West, is a song that replays the typical country dynamic of a man wasting his love on an undeserving woman within the context of high school, a shift that doesn’t quite justify the regressive woman shaming that such material inevitably evokes. Swift’s compositions are so deeply informed by her country roots that even after largely ditching her former country sweetheart image for full out popstar (as on 1989), elements of country still exist in her music. Country and pop aren’t inherently opposed. They can co-exist, and this co-existence isn’t limited to Swift. Far from it.
Country isn’t exactly the ‘norm’ sound for any pop star, and it never will be. But embracing a country influenced all-American image has become a viable move for any artist looking to ‘evolve their sound’ or to reach a new audience. Swift proved that country could spawn a legitimate pop power player even if the image was abandoned to reach that next level of pop stardom. In her wake has come a string of (mostly) female artists who have flirted with the sounds that Swift has left behind.
When Lady GaGa wanted to reboot her career (following the failure of her cacophonous ARTPOP) she stripped herself of her eccentricities for the Americana influenced Joanne. Miley Cyrus, a moment ago was twerking and hitting us with Bangerz, now she’s crooning about Malibu and making music that’s safe for your mom to listen to again. Even the recently released Kesha album Rainbow, the brash and confident star’s triumphant return from the wilderness, is an album that largely moves away from the youthful brattiness of her earlier music to embrace a more timeless rock and country aesthetic. Hell, Young Thug kinda made his own country album too. That this level of interest exists anywhere near the world of pop is surprising, a development that couldn’t have been anticipated even following the ascendance of Swift.
A big part of the recent appeal for the ‘Nashville’ sound is that it is lucrative. The middle of the road is a big market. You might not be dominating the cultural conversation by duetting with Dolly Parton (as Kesha did on Rainbow and Miley Cyrus will do on Younger Now) but you will reach an audience that flies under the radar of internet culture. Why strain yourself to maintain relevance in a culture that increasingly values rap and RnB? This shift is reducing the stage on which pop stars can stand and a natural consequence is you’re going to see a once huge star like Katy Perry get squeezed out.
If absolute dominance isn’t your goal, settling for niche appeal is a smart move, a chief reason for why indie pop has become such a sizeable segment of the pop market as a whole. None of this is to say that this music is unexciting or a mere result of careerist thinking. Someone like Kesha has long been open about her country/folk/rock roots, and her adoption of such styles on Rainbow make for music that’s just as thrilling as her early career as a hit maker. Her reward for this is a commercially successful record that has earned critical acclaim, a representation of all that is good when you buck modern trends in favour of a style more suited to who you actually are.
The unchanging truth of pop is that it is a youth game. Consequently, pop careers are generally brief. Those stars who do stick around can either age gracefully or chase hits and become embarrassing caricatures of what they once were. The provocative moves made by a Lady Gaga or a Miley Cyrus are not sustainable for long term careers, no matter the quality of the music. A move to a more ‘adult’ sound that can demonstrate your ‘legit’ talent is the common choice, as if making stripped down acoustic music is somehow harder than pop.
The effectiveness of the move is debatable however. No one doubted that Lady Gaga could sing but Joanne was an uncertain slog of a record that captured neither what she can do well nor gave any substantial suggestion that she should deviate from her usual tricks. Gaga’s change of aesthetic never justified itself beyond mere novelty, and the entire project registered as insincere and craven. Similarly, Cyrus’s decision to return to her ‘roots’ following her long exploitation of black culture now renders that exploitation as even more inappropriate than it already was. Now that she is a recognised adult star, Cyrus doesn’t need to court controversy as publicly as she once did and her quick abandonment of rap and Mike WiLL Made-It beats is a mostly cynical kind of career machination, a sharp contrast to the refreshing sincerity of Kesha’s Rainbow.
Pop stars will always be eager to display their vocal and songwriting abilities with the occasional acoustic ballad. Pop is over-saturated and generally derided as inauthentic. If you can display ‘authenticity’, a concept that is problematic when examined with any scrutiny at all, then you can stand apart from the crowd and sell yourself as the genuine article. This branding is deeply desirable for those stars who have hit a commercial rut, or are just genuinely eager to stretch themselves as artists. For many female pop stars of late this search for ‘realness’ has been deeply indebted to country or a more general Nashville sound.
It’s hard to predict if this will blow up into a full on trend or is simply a mere 2017 flash in the pan. There are some signs that a return to rock or country is not a completely absurd idea though. Harry Styles, though trafficking in a different type of revivalism, is making rock music as pop. Beyoncé’s world conquering Lemonade had a country song which she performed at the Country Music Award’s (CMA’s) with The Dixie Chicks. Justin Timberlake, alongside country star Chris Stapleton, performed at the CMA’s too, his performance of “Tennessee Whiskey” suggesting that there are worse moves for the ageing pop star to make than going full blown country. Maybe Swift will ditch pop in favour of music more in line with her earlier work (unlikely though). Nobody really knows anything. All we can know is what’s going on in front of us. And what’s going on in front of us sounds an awful lot like Nashville.