In an era in which country music radio is dominated by the much-derided subgenre dismissively labeled “bro-country," a style which fuses influences of classic country with elements of hip-hop and classic rock, Little Big Town is one of the more critically-acclaimed acts to still achieve significant radio play.
As it currently stands, the Alabama quartet's “Better Man” is the number-one song on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
Although their influence on pop radio is minimal, having only one song reach the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Little Big Town is still a pretty big deal in their genre. They have scored eight top-ten airplay singles and currently hold the Hot Country #1 spot for the third time.
But when it came to their current, ethereal smash, they went to an external songwriter.
And while many of the most prominent songwriters in the music industry today are fairly anonymous (Max Martin, the man who wrote many of their generation’s biggest hits, for instance), the "Better Man" songwriter is one of the five biggest names in popular music today— Taylor Swift.
Swift, of course, started out as a somewhat straightforward country artist. (Granted, her self-titled debut landed five singles in the Top 40, while two cracked the Top 20.)
But while her songs were poppy and nobody was confusing the singer/songwriter with ultra-traditionalist country, she was still very much a presence on country radio. Her sophomore album, “Fearless,” shifted again towards pop, and both “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me” reached the top five on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.
Her third LP, “Speak Now” shifted somewhat back towards country, but “Red” was a quantum leap to pop. And by the time “1989” came around, Swift was no longer a crossover country artist — she was an enormous pop star.
That country radio largely abandoned Swift is understandable. She wasn’t making country music. As great as “Wildest Dreams” was, it was far more Lana Del Rey than it was Patsy Cline.
And while Taylor Swift did receive critical praise for her early country-pop, she received further accolades for her transition to a full-fledged pop artist.
Had she written “Better Man” following “Speak Now” however, rather than following “1989,” there is little doubt in my mind that “Better Man” would’ve been a Taylor Swift single. And it would’ve been a really good single. As strong as Little Big Town singer Karen Fairchild’s voice is, the vulnerability of the lyrics arguably suits Swift better.
So why is it that Swift couldn’t dip back into country music? Although the genre has become increasingly male-dominated, some women have still found tremendous success: Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Kelsea Ballerini, and of course, Taylor Swift. But to an extent, they (or whoever is marketing them) are forced to decide whether they are pop artists or country artists. The former is more fruitful, but the latter leads to more consistent (smaller-scale) success.
Carrie Underwood had pop success in the aftermath of her “American Idol” victory, but upon becoming the most reliably popular female country artist of her era, has failed to make significant inroads on the pop charts for a decade.
My fear is that Swift no longer wants to be considered a “country artist.” The problem with this is that it implies that being a country artist, or an artist in any genre in particular, is an inherently bad thing. Or, worse, that being a certain type of artist restricts an artist’s creativity.
Swift, in making stylistic changes, was forced to find a new audience. Yet, when Luke Bryan decided he wanted to name-drop T-Pain in a song, or Blake Shelton pseudo-rapped about not knowing how to dougie (even if he doesn’t actually know how, he knows the reference, and that’s what really matters here), country radio embraced it. And listeners didn’t mind the seemingly anti-country references, because the vast majority of country music listeners also have a functional knowledge of mass culture. A generation raised on the internet, even if living in the most rural of settings imaginable, can still be versed in the inner workings of Cali Swag District.
There seems to me to be a gender gap here. If Shelton, who's not in the same stratosphere of musical talent as Swift, is allowed to be a genre star while serving as judge on “The Voice,” a show whose entire premise is based on producing pop singers, not traditional country artists, why isn’t Swift allowed to step back?
Many legendary artists throughout the years have been celebrated for musical eclecticism and evolution. David Bowie’s turn from folk to glam to R&B to electronic to new wave to everything else in-between, the Bee Gees moving from Beatle-esque pop to disco, George Michael and Justin Timberlake going from boy band pop to a darker, more R&B influenced pop.
But, with the notable exception of Madonna, these types of artists are almost uniformly men. And Madonna was aided by the fact that she looked half her age by the time she was entering the third decade of her career.
Madonna, who wrote the majority of her songs, has sporadically been regarded as an inventive songwriter over the last 35 years, but she has far more often been objectified. A lot of this has been her own carefully crafted public image.
Swift, though bearing some marketing resemblance to Madonna, is not especially similar to her musically. Lady Gaga is the more commonly cited contemporary to the "Express Yourself" singer.
In recent years, Gaga has suffered some pop radio backlash. While her first two albums featured wall-to-wall pop hits, and “Born This Way” wasn’t exactly a non-factor in terms of chart influence, she has been noticeably less omnipresent following her jazz standards albums with Tony Bennett.
And it’s not as though she hasn’t gotten away with being weird (Gaga’s 2010 VMAs meat dress has its own Wikipedia page), she just hasn’t gotten away with being weird outside of an acceptable path of weirdness.
We have a regrettable double standard when it comes to women in music. We accept Gaga being weird as long as she does so with a fairly predictable trajectory. When she diverges from that path to make an album with your grandma's favorite singer, we freak out.
Madonna is accepted during the different shades of her musical development as long as she still can conform to societal expectations as a sex symbol. And we accepted Taylor Swift as a country star, and then as a pop star, but for reasons I cannot understand, we seem to resist the idea that she can be both at once.