‘You Belong with Me?’: Taylor Goes for Grammy Gold

Blake Boldt | January 29th, 2010

In her ubiquitous smash hit “You Belong with Me,” Taylor Swift’s cute quirks work for her. To fend off a prettier, more-perfect romantic rival, she‘s making her would-be man think twice about his options. “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts/She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” Swift sings, fully aware that she’s got a lot to offer despite her dowdy ways. Swift’s motto is tucked away within her tuneful message: Modesty is the best policy.

This year’s Grammy Awards test another Taylor-made theory: Not all single ladies are alike. While R&B pin-up Beyonce is a leotard-wearing glamour gal and dancehall prima donna Lady Gaga oozes guilt-free lust, Swift shows how we’re all just awkward kids at heart. Her conquests this year were spurred by a candid, child-like nature in song and on stage, even as she endured the life-and-death dramas of a teenage Cinderella.

Swift’s second album, Fearless, was the biggest-seller of 2009, tallying over five million copies by year’s end. And with eight Grammy nominations (second only to Beyonce’s 10 nods), she’s poised to be the princess of Sunday’s ceremony, a feat that’s eluded her Music Row peers in the past. Though country acts Alison Krauss and the Dixie Chicks have controlled the Big Four races in recent years, their successes were against-the-grain triumphs rather than tributes to Nashville’s major label system. Krauss’s collaboration with Robert Plant on last year’s Best Album, Raising Sand, was inspired by delta blues and dusky folk-pop—a far cry from mainstream country—while the Chicks used their eviction from country radio to explore ‘70s Cali-rock sounds on 2006 Album of the Year, Taking the Long Way.

Swift, though, is an unabashed booster for suburban twang and an unlikely ambassador for Nashville’s record business. In turn, the country music industry, mired in a sales slump and in dire need of a world-beating idol, has embraced her eagerly. Last fall, soon after Kanye-gate rocked the nation, Swift loomed large over the CMA Awards, winning four trophies including Entertainer of the Year.

Swift doesn’t sound like a Nashville artist, at least not in the retro sense. She’s never been and never will be, but in today’s genre-less society, her success speaks volumes about her talent, despite wild claims that she’s killing country music. With rural communities surrendering to the strip mall and young artists now being nursed on a variety of musical styles, traditional country has faded from the mainstream. Swift isn’t to blame for this shift.

What does Taylor-mania mean for Nashville then? Simply put, money. A number of newcomers are riding her prom dresses in order to secure Music Row record deals. But Swift is a supernova, a once-in-a-generation whiz kid who just happens to work in Nashville and who’s used her teenaged foibles for her gain. Lightning never strikes in the same place twice.

Critics have grumbled—correctly—about the value of Swift’s live vocals, including her off-the-rails opening performance at the CMAs, as well as the clear pop polish on her songs. Admittedly, she’s turned into music’s biggest star with a limited voice and a penchant for formulaic melodies. It’s clear that she can still improve these skills (and hopefully she will) to justify her domination. But it’s that same innocent, imperfect style that’s endeared her to a whole wave of worldwide fans. Her flawed voice and even more flawed love life only add to the magic.

Swift will likely need a U-haul for all her trophies on Grammy night. She’s nominated in three of the four General Field categories, competing for Album of the Year (Fearless), Song of the Year (“You Belong with Me,” with co-writer Liz Rose) and Record of the Year (“You Belong with Me”). While the vocal performance categories belong to someone else—Carrie Underwood and Pink, perhaps?—Swift’s a legitimate contender for the three leading awards. But will she emerge as the evening’s major champ?

In previous years, two things could’ve prevented a Swift sweep: her age and her ties to country music. Swift’s youth isn’t likely to spoil her shot at the top prizes this year. Old-timers like U2, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are exiled to the ghettos of rock and Americana, and her closest competitors—Beyonce (28 years old) and Gaga (23)—are hardly vintage acts. The same goes for the Black Eyed Peas and their low-IQ electro-funk, a silly if stimulating mix that should come with a warning label: Ages 12 and Under.

And Swift might just convert where her sistren of the country crossover—Faith, Shania and Carrie—haven’t. Country has often been seen as the black sheep of mainstream music, but selling five million albums can change minds fast. In a show of appreciation—or a sign of the apocalypse—the Recording Academy has honored their best-selling roster yet, a surefire ratings booster that smacks of desperation. To them, Swift is an accessible, earnest superstar who’s given the music industry a breath of fresh air, even as record sales are eroding and artist rosters dwindle by the day.

The Record of the Year race in particular is full of popular, heavily-produced tracks that are built more on sharp hooks and sexual energy than the warmth and sincerity of their performances. Beyonce’s “Halo” is a lush ballad, building to a gorgeous crescendo by virtue of her layered vocals, but it comes off as a cold, distant echo of the Wall of Sound model. “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga’s coming-out party, carves out dancehall grooves and uses card shark metaphors to mask her naked needs. And Kings of Leon’s arena anthem “Use Somebody” owes more to its enormous chorus than first-rate songcraft. If you’re scanning the list for a modern-day standard, mazel tov.

Score one for Swift. “You Belong with Me,” her biggest hit to date, is a sprightly burst of yearning teen-pop, bounding up the country charts and soon becoming a staple of Top 40 radio. Her lilting performance, along with a hellaciously-catchy chorus, put America in a fit of angst-filled frenzy. When voters cast their ballots, they turn towards songs about real life (“W” for Winehouse) and Swift’s aching vulnerability—with lyrics spilled out from the hole in her heart—veers right into their comfort zone. With a dose of down-home charisma, she’s a modern-day Holly Golightly, dishing out hooks and humor to spare. Her songwriting is a rush of pop pleasure and old-soul spirit, easy fodder for old fogies who make up a good share of the Grammy membership. That quaint, simple-minded nature, once pooh-poohed by the Grammy powers-that-be, now stands out from a pack of show-off nominees.

Swift, with her gallant flair, can give TV viewers and academy members alike a warm, fuzzy feeling if she wins this year. An old pro at age twenty, Swift has been a quick study in the art of shock and awe, mouth agape—No p-p-p-poker face from Taylor—with every awards show victory. Expect a repeat on Sunday when her rivals likely sit on the bleachers as she basks in Grammy glory.

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  1. jeremy
    January 29, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    hey, fearless was only number 1 in the US, not the world. gaga had the number two selling album in the world with 5.8 million copies and taylor number 4 with 4.2 million copies, not over 5. Gaga had much more of an international impact than taylor and that is a lot more impressive. I know you are biased towards taylor, but please put in all the facts. Sorry, but Gaga is more deserving of the album than Taylor since her album had more of an impact worldwide. The same can be said for best song. Your girl Taylor will not be winning as many awards as you think.

  2. Steve M.
    January 29, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    i was thinking at first this was a cover of Carly Simon’s “You belong to me.” Not that Taylor Swift probably knows who Carly Simon is.

  3. K
    January 29, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I like Taylor, but I hope that she doesn’t win any vocalist awards. If she does win any trophies, I hope she wins for “Fearless.”

    “You Belong With Me” is an enjoyable slice of catchy teen-kiddie pop. Does it deserve Grammy’s? Hell no!

  4. Billy
    January 29, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I bet that Taylor will walk away with her share of awards Sunday night. I bet that she’ll lose the Female Pop Vocal to Adele. Hometown Glory was a fantastic song. I wouldn’t mind it going to Pink either.

    In Grammyland, the vocal categories isn’t about how good the vocal is. It is only classified as vocal to set it apart from the instrumental categories.

    I don’t think Taylor will win Song or Record of the year. I see that honor going to Kings of Leon for the great Use Somebody.

  5. Jon
    January 29, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    If a real country fan misread “With” as “To,” he or she would think of Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, not Carly Simon.

  6. MaeB
    January 29, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Are you sure Taylor’s Mom didn’t write this article????

  7. Ian
    January 29, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    This is just sick… Country music has lost it’s soul

  8. Phil
    January 29, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Killing Country Music?…I say killing music. If music were only about sales and personality and relating music to the artist rather than to the listener than Taylor Swift is a great artist. Her music is not timeless because it is all about her as a person.

    But overall, that has been my biggest problem with today’s music and artists as a whole. You have to relate to the Artist as a person singing it first, rather than being able to relate it to your own life first. Which proves that personality has taken over mainstream music as a whole…and why the music won’t be remembered…just the fleeting image of a person who once had the need to sort out some personal problems or stories and tell the world about it. Has music always been a personal thing to the Artist…heck yeah it has. But today’s Artists lack the awareness of how to make it personal to the listener as well on the listeners terms…and not on the artists terms.

    One only needs to turn on any format of Today’s mainstream radio for proof (or watch this years Grammy’s or any music award show)…but Taylor is just one example of a plentitude of today’s Artist’s doing the same thing. Perhaps it’s because today’s Artists and audience all grew up watching Barney?….haha, just throwing the possibility out there.

  9. Phil
    January 29, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Oh yeah…and I forgot to mention. Today’s music does not make me “think” either. Which is very important to get to my “feelings”.

  10. Rick
    January 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Wow, that was quite a send up Blake. I’m an old fogey and I can’t stand Taylor Swift’s music, so I’m not so sure about her engendering “warm and fuzzy” feelings among the older Grammy voters.

    Rick’s Random Rumors: On a related country music and pop culture note, the makers of the FOX network “GLEE” TV show were so impressed with Kristin Chenoweth’s version of “Before He Cheats” they are going pop country again! Rumors have them planning a “mash-up” of two songs off of Blake Shelton’s new EP with the end result titled “Kiss My Hillbilly Bone”! A suggestion by the actor who plays the gay Kurt character to sing it to Finn as a love ballad while wearing overalls is still being considered…

  11. sam (sam)
    January 29, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Though I am not a big Swift fan, I have little problem relating her music to my life. I was once a teenager myself, and though not a female, many of the thing she sings about were once a big part of my life.

    In fact, much of Swift’s music is easier to relate to my life than is the music of some of country’s greats. I’ve never experienced alcoholism, jail time, poverty, murder, divorce, infidelity or other topics of many great country songs. I love those songs nonetheless: not because I “relate” to them, but for other reasons.

    Although today’s music may not make everyone think, it certainly makes some people think. In fact there are many thoughtful posts on the 1953 about topics that today’s singers sing about. Whatever else can be said for “There Is A God,” “Shutting Detroit Down,” “Picture to Burn” “American Ride,” “Southern Voice,” and many others, it cannot be denied that it they have inspired much thought (even thought of the intelligent variety!) on message boards. Admittedly, few top 40 country songs are intellectual masterpieces, but many of them, in one way or another, are able to inspire me to think.

  12. Phil
    January 29, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I don’t know Sam (Sam)…I think you missed my point I was trying to make. I’d give examples of what I am talking about, but I have been for the past 6 months plus. It’s not about whether you relate to the song…it’s whether you relate to the song on the artist’s terms or your own. And any great artist or song can make you relate to it on your own. It’s a matter of whether you can put yourself in the shoes of the song…not whether you can put yourself in the shoes of the artist singing it. At least for me it is. And I cannot do that with most of today’s mainstream music for reasons I have already mentioned.

    As far as making me think goes…well, let’s just say that overall it does not make me think first and get my feelings from my thoughts. Instead, it seems today’s music is more geared toward getting your thoughts from your feelings. I’ve said this before, but in general, I would say today’s music is more of a thought based off of a feeling rather than a feeling based off of a thought. In other words, the intangible leads to the tangible…rather than the tangible leads to the intangible. So it’s hard to think (or feel) much of it since it is all based off of a feeling to begin with…rather than based off of a thought to begin with.

  13. klark
    January 29, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    why be so harsh?
    Come on, everyone has its flaw hrg.

  14. stormy
    January 29, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    At least the Grammies didn’t expand the number of Best Albums to 10 in order to try to appease people who complain about the lack mainstream options.

  15. stormy
    January 29, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Klark: Don’t judge. Some of us are flawed by a gift for snarking on music.

  16. Troy
    January 29, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    @jeremy “Gaga had much more of an international impact than taylor”

    Lady gaga fits nicely with Europop. Over there her style isn’t as unique as it is in America. And as far impact T Swift was the only country song in the uk top 40 this year. And the Grammys are American based anyway. Different Countries have their own award shows like the brit awards. Also if were going by charts The Fame didn’t go #1 in US and Fearless went # 1 in Canada and New Zealand. Finally Fearless has sold 6.4 million worldwide.

  17. Troy
    January 29, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    To point out that Gaga style isn’t unique in the rest of the world this song came out in 2007 in Sweden http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xl9q7yleX-4 its sounds like Just Dance

  18. Vance
    January 30, 2010 at 12:45 am

    Taylor Swift’s works are crimes against the world. If there is any justice, she will not win any Grammys.

  19. Dan E.
    January 30, 2010 at 12:54 am

    So, congratulations in advance to Taylor for winning some much deserved Grammy’s Sunday night.

    8 nods – wonder how many she will be taking home with her. (my guess = at least 2)

  20. Vicki
    January 30, 2010 at 7:29 am

    I don’t mind if she win’s Country album or pop Album of the year but keep her off the female vocalists awards. I’m praying that they vote for true vocalists, unlike the CMA jokers.

  21. Jon
    January 31, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Are we sure Jim Malec didn’t write this piece and hide under someone else’s name?

  22. Vicki
    January 31, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    BLAH! Grammys went for sales instead of good vocalist. OH well. I wonder as well if what someone said is true. “Dixie Chicks” won so big for the Grammy’s were making a point. They said if Taylor got Female Vocalist..it may be a grammy sweep in sympathy to “the incident”. I sure hope not.

  23. Noeller
    January 31, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    As long as she’s not winning vocal awards, I’m cool with it!

  24. K
    January 31, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Bad news everyone. Taylor already won for Best Country Song and best country vocal performance. Guess the killing of the industry can’t be blaned on the fans anymore…

  25. Jon
    January 31, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Guess the killing of the industry can’t be blaned on the fans anymore…

    It should be blamed on Kanye.

  26. Thomas
    January 31, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    …some people wouldn’t recognize a superstar even if they bumped into michael jordan on a basketball court.

  27. K
    January 31, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Taylor is no superstar. She’s an immature teenager stuck in a faitytale world. She is not Grammy material, and she won’t be for a very long time, if ever. I feel like she should apologize to alll the VOCALLY TALENTED women she “won” the award over. I”m never watching an awards show ever again. Taylor has now successfully taken the word “vocalist” out of every award.

  28. Dan E.
    January 31, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Congratulations Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Randy Travis, Keith Urban, and Lady Antebellum!!

  29. sam (sam)
    January 31, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    Taylor may or may not be “an immature teenager stuck in a faitytale world” but she is a superstar. (Michael Jackson may have been a pedophile, but he too was a superstar. Apparently, one can be a superstar and many other things as well!)

    Nor do I think Swift should “apologize the the vocally talented women she won the award over.” Perhaps the voters did the wrong thing by voting for her, but Swift herself did nothing wrong. Its not her fault that she won the award. She has nothing to apologize for.

  30. ALJID
    January 31, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Just now, the vocalist award means nothing to me. I can’t force my reasoning to align Swift’s vocals to previous winners. I am an Underwood fan but I don’t even care if Underwood wins this award herself because the vocalist award in my opinion has become “cheap” or rather a sort of billboard award where the sales are considered more than quality. White Horse winning over Just A Dream is a nightmare! This can’t be happening, I wish this was just a dream…

  31. Vance
    January 31, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    What a joke. The Grammys should be canceled for rewarding the juvenile tripe that is Swift’s work. The industry is full of morons who are suckers for fabricated events that evoke sympathy.

  32. stormy
    January 31, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    The Grammies were due a crappy mainstream win for a couple of years now.

  33. Jon
    January 31, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    So much for a “Swift Sweep”. Nothing on the major categories so far.

    The way they are “spreading” the main awards, I won’t be surprised to see AOTY go to Gaga.

  34. Vicki
    January 31, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Jon, I’m thinking that too. Although after Taylor’s horrid singing tonight. Not too bad but you couldn’t count the times she went out of tune on both hands..it would surpass your fingers. I noticed she didn’t get much applause after she sang. I felt Country got cheated as they felt they had to give her some singing award and so since she’s “country” they gave her that one. I had high hopes that the pure Grammy’s would not give it to the worse singer of the 5 nominated, but they did. I guess it’s a given now who will get female vocalist at the ACM’s now. Sighhhhhhhhh…

  35. Troy
    January 31, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Album of the year fearless:)!!!!!!!!!!!

  36. allison
    January 31, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    Congrats Taylor. She deserved this!

  37. ALJID
    February 1, 2010 at 12:15 am

    If you didn’t look at the name, you would think that Jim Malec wrote this stuff.

  38. Roger
    February 1, 2010 at 12:28 am

    wow did she sound awful…..good songwriter no doubt…but can’t hold pitch at all…Lady A sounded great…Taylor can’t blame the sound man for sounding as bad as she did…poor stevie nicks…..how degrading to only be able to be on the grammys telecast if she sings with an off-pitch teen-amazon….all of the other performers i heard sounded great…you could tell they had good monitors and all the mics were set right..hell Stevie Nicks sounded great….what a sorry state the music business is in when image and marketing is all that matters…..

  39. Vicki
    February 1, 2010 at 5:58 am

    Taylor only sounded good on the slowed down rendition of “you Belong to me”. That first one..”Today was a Fairy Tale” she was off on some notes but the worse was the duet. Stevie couldn’t sing her part for it didn’t go with the notes that Taylor was singing..and Stevie was with the band!

  40. Vicki
    February 1, 2010 at 6:00 am

    But I was extremely proud of Zac Brown band..they were the best and Lady A too. They did Country proud.

  41. Shannon
    February 1, 2010 at 8:37 am

    WOW!!! TSwift == female vocalist for white horse?!?!? I thought the grammy’s went by talent and not by records sold

  42. K
    February 1, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    “Nor do I think Swift should “apologize the the vocally talented women she won the award Perhaps the voters did the wrong thing by voting for her, but Swift herself did nothing wrong. Its not her fault that she won the award. She has nothing to apolog
    ize for.”

    Sorry, the academy voters should publicly explain why they chose Swift to represent current country music. Taylor is the worst singer in any genre of music, and I was embarrased to be a country fan during her performances. I don’t neeed people believing that the genre of music that I respect and love is headed by an immature teenager with a limited view of the world, and no vocal talent whatsoever.

    Taylor has gotten horrible reviews for newspapers all across the country:

    Washington Post:

    “Earlier, however, she delivered the evening’s most miserable performances. (Which this year is saying something.) She was joined by Stevie Nicks for a pitchy duet of “Today Was a Fairytale” and “You Belong With Me,” as well as the Fleetwood Mac classic “Rhiannon.” The singers took turns dragging each other off key and Swift was soon suffering a beat-down on Twitter.”

    “This is why televisions have mute buttons: Oh, that Taylor Swift is so loveable and her duet partner Stevie Nicks is an icon. But neither seemed able to hit many correct notes as they warbled Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” and Swift’s “You Belong with Me.”

    “The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences would like to leave its television audience with the impression that Taylor Swift made the best album of the last year, “Fearless,” by awarding her its most prestigious prize. But what many people who watched the show are talking about Monday is not the “artistic achievement” of that album, to use the academy hyperbole, but the inability of Taylor Swift to sing on key. She was flatter than a pancake in her frankly embarrassing duet with Stevie Nicks.

    “One could write it off as a bad night, but Swift has had more than one in nationally televised awards shows. Her duet with Miley Cyrus (remember her?) on last year’s Grammys was just as shaky, leaving viewers who had not previously heard her music wondering what all the fuss was about. To put this in context for the “American Idol” audience that the Grammys were clearly courting with Sunday’s pop-heavy lineup, what do you think Simon Cowell would’ve said about Swift’s performance?”

    “Ok, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Tay. I sing “You Belong With Me” in the shower like every single day. But her pitchy, off-key duet with Stevie Nicks was a major disappointment. Not only did Taylor sound bad, Stevie Nicks looked like she would have rather been cleaning her carpets than singing on stage with Taylor”

    “Taylor Swift: what a shame for the evening’s big winner to prove that hers is a studio voice. Her live chops were poor: mostly flat she was trying to be a star, not a performer. It may have been nerves, but her vocals were weak and off-key throughout.”

    “That duet by Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks on “Rhiannon.” Swift was singing so noticeably flat that it was excruciating. It reminded me of her performance at the CMAs in 2008, when she also sounded off-key. Either she needs to get some new monitors or stop singing at these shows.
    evie Nicks was a welcome respite, top-notch as ever.) Great banjo.”

    Taylor may be a great girl and excellent writer, but I was embarrased that she has been chosen to be the country music representative for the night. It’s difficult to accept that the genere cannot sing, is a marginal performer and writer, and she writes nothing outside the scope of he said/she said teenage diary entries. I want better talent representing the genre I love, and Taylor is not it. I felt like the Grammy voters were telling her that her teenage songs, lyrics and autrocious vocals were up to par with the legends who have changed the face of music itself, and it makes me sick. I lost all respect for every awards show last night, and I have no respect for anyone who showers her marginal talent like it’s the best of the best. I feel sorry for the better talent that lost out to her.

  43. Dan E.
    February 1, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    K: These performances from Taylor and the fact that she won 4 grammys will only enhance the sales of her cds. I honestly didn’t think she did bad anyway. She represented country well and there was nothing embarassing about it. Taylor, Carrie, Keith, Lady A., and Zac Brown Band walked away from that night as winners. All is good!

  44. Vance
    February 1, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    I agree with all anti-Swift comments. It’s a shame that the industry devalues all awards and music by rewarding her inferior material.

  45. starr
    February 6, 2010 at 9:09 am

    Taylor Swift should blame the person who arranged the song with Stevie Nicks. The song was in a key that was too low for Taylor to sing. It seems like they arranged it with Stevie Nix vocal in mind. Taylor could not hit the low notes. It should have been in a higher Key.

  46. Razor X
    February 6, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Taylor Swift should blame the person who arranged the song with Stevie Nicks. The song was in a key that was too low for Taylor to sing. It seems like they arranged it with Stevie Nix vocal in mind. Taylor could not hit the low notes. It should have been in a higher Key.

    According to Scott Borchetta, the song was rehearsed several times, so if the key was wrong for Taylor, then that would have been the time to bring up the matter. Taylor should blame herself for not being up to the task at hand.

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