‘You Belong with Me?’: Taylor Goes for Grammy Gold
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.
- Dave W.: Just read the news here. Will miss E145 very much - love this site. All the best to you Juli …
- Leeann Ward: Oh, dang! This is real. Farewell to the most generous, informative, quality, intelligent, consistent, ethical country music blog! You …
- bll: Thanks Juli for all the great articles and information; you'll be missed by me and I suss several others. Best …
- Both Kinds of Music: I hope people appreciate the irony that one of the best "Americana" albums is titled Metamodern Sounds in COUNTRY Music.
- Barry Mazor: I would not rule out that possibility..There's a different set of voters involved..
- Dana M: Does anyone else think that Brandy Clark actually has a good chance of winning since this isn't a country awards …
- Juli Thanki: UPDATE: Brandy Clark got a Best New Artist nom. BEST AMERICANA ALBUM: Rosanne Cash -- The River & The Thread John Hiatt -- Terms …
- luckyoldsun: Glenn Campbell is great and I'd love to see him get an award, but the words of that song may …
- Casey Penn: Juli, it was an honor to write for you here on Engine145.com. You're good at what you do, and The …
- bob: Go Brandy FGL - Just go away.