Despite the sheer level of bombast and confused—and confusing—showmanship displayed at this year’s Grammy awards, there was nothing about the show that could be considered controversial. In fact, with its largest audience since 2004, the program can be considered, in business terms at least, a stunning success. But where there isn’t controversy, you can be sure that someone in the news business will create some, and sure enough, here comes MTV, that bastion of journalistic integrity, doing their best to maintain what is now a week long debate over Taylor Swift’s inability to hit certain notes in the chorus of “Rhiannon”, and whether that inability invalidates her entire career.
Just to keep the debate humming, and no doubt to keep his client’s name in the papers (as if she needed the publicity), the owner of Swift’s label, Scott Borchetta, gave an interview providing a defense that ran along the lines of the importance of emotion over technical proficiency, and in the process took a swipe at American Idol. This brought out Kelly Clarkson, who quite rightly felt insulted, though she made it clear that her beef was with Borchetta, and not Swift herself. Swift, meanwhile, with wisdom beyond her years, has kept her mouth shut about the whole thing.
What many of those currently following this apparently meaningless debate may not realize is that it isn’t new. For well over a year, country blogs have been full of comments about Swift’s occasionally erratic pitch in live performance, and the debate has moved pretty much along the same lines it has on MTV over the last week: she can’t sing and her music sucks vs. she can too sing vs. she can’t sing but it doesn’t matter because her records are still great.
My own opinion is that despite obvious technical limitations, Swift is still an excellent vocalist, and an even better songwriter. I’m also tempted to say “who cares as long as the records are good?” Except that a lot of people care, and they care for a very important reason: Swift represents the future of country music, and everyone, whether they like it or not, knows it. They also know that that future is going to be a lot different from the present, in ways that many people may not have even realized.
In terms of the current debate, one piece of the future Swift represents is the ultimate collapse, for a time at least, of the cult of the vocalist, which has ruled country for several years now. Listening to the country top ten over the last few years, it’s been impossible not to notice the almost fetishistic attention that is paid to vocals, especially among male singers. Whether it’s the tenor keening of Rascal Flatts, or the craggy baritone of someone like Trace Adkins, vocal perfection and detail is a central part of their records’ appeal. As such, the songs are no longer the point of most country records, but merely the vehicle for various vocal pyrotechnics.
Oddly, less attention seems to be lavished on women’s vocals (women are somewhat out of the picture in country right now, anyway—though they’re making a comeback, there are only nine in the current country top forty—another area where Swift could end up changing things). In the current market, women are required to be either belters or vamps, and little else (the whole redneck woman phase seems to have faded), and the prettier their voices are the better. Carrie Underwood is the obvious reflection of this, and no doubt Swift’s manager was thinking of her when he made his comment about American Idol. The only major exception beside Swift is Miranda Lambert, and even she had to soften her violent ways to finally get to number one; the others are mostly old-timers like Reba McEntire and Martina McBride.
Swift steps away from this completely. Not that her voice isn’t pretty enough, but because her primary focus is on her songs, not her voice. Not that her songs aren’t shaped to her vocal strengths —of course they are. But that’s because she wrote them, not because she chose them to fit her voice or show it off. And this is another area where Swift could have a major impact on current country. When she accepted her first award Sunday night and thanked her record company for letting her put out an album consisting entirely of her own songs, she wasn’t just rambling, she was helping to overturn a major country paradigm. Few country performers, and certainly not teenagers straight out of high school, record their own material, even if they’re capable of writing it. Only major stars who have proved themselves in the marketplace get to do that, and even then few do.
But if Swift does represent sweeping change in the country market, no one in the country establishment is resisting it. They’re well aware that the music has been in the doldrums the last few years, just like the rest of the music industry, only worse. Like every other genre, country album sales are down over 30% the last couple of years, and without the benefit, so far, of catching on digitally to compensate. They desperately need someone like Swift, who, besides selling a lot of records, promises a whole new paradigm for the industry and its audience, something that more traditional performers like Carrie Underwood or Lady Antebellum could never do, despite their sales.
So they’ve given Swift every award they could think of, and more so. Who can blame them? Name another performer who could generate a week of debate among a non-country audience over a couple of bum notes?