Taylor Swift rocking the red Les Paul, as the RED tour played Rupp Arena on Saturday April 27, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. © Herald-Leader staff photo by Mark Cornelison.
Taylor Swift may have dropped the biggest piece of non-news this week when she announced that her new album, 1989, due out Oct. 27, will be an all-pop music effort; no country music pretenses.
For many, pretense was all it was. As one of my colleagues joked, “She’s a country artist. She plays an acoustic guitar and I think they sneak a banjo in the mix somewhere. Those are the only prerequisites.”
In recent years, Taylor looked a little weird sitting among all the cowboy hats and custom boots at the country award shows, except …
Another story that rolled across our wires this was the boys in Florida Georgia Line talking about the big beats and other genre-bending elements of their forthcoming album.
This, of course, drives country music purists crazy. Country, they say, is being turned into pop music, shedding the instrumentation, song craft and roots of the genre’s traditions to co-opt hip-hop and dance sounds that currently top the pops.
Now, this is nothing new. You hear what happened back in 1965 when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival?
In any genre of music, fans create a concept of what the proper sound is and cry foul when people start messing with it, even if the broader public doesn’t care a bit. Florida Georgia Line’s Cruise became one of the biggest hits ever in country music. Even when she was supposedly just a country artist, Taylor Swift’s Red tour was the biggest one by a solo artist to play Rupp Arena. I drove by the back of the arena that day, and it was comical how many Taylor Swift trucks it took to haul her show around.
And that Dylan song that drove folk purists crazy?: Like a Rolling Stone. Go on Spotify, and it’s his most popular song by several million plays.
Fans really don’t care if you are country, folk, classical, soul, hip-hop or rock ‘n’ roll enough if they like your music.
So do genres matter, particularly in these days when music is so accessible and sampling is so easy?
You may think you don’t like, say, country music. But it is incredibly easy to get on your computer or phone, call up some Loretta Lynn or Garth Brooks and see how you really feel. Some of the most exciting music being made today is when genre lines are crossed, and no, I’m not talking about that Brad Paisley-LL Cool J thing. I’m talking about things like Goat Rodeo, where classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma teamed with Nashville artists like Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan. I’m talking about University of Kentucky graduate and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s adventurous solo compositions and the culturally illuminating hybrid projects of artists like Paul Simon and Talking Heads.
That doesn’t mean all cross over is good. I really find the whole bro country thing Florida Georgia Line represents kind of insufferable; kind of posing, more appropriation than exploration and the lyrical content is incredibly narrow.
And it doesn’t mean genres don’t matter. Country music, since that’s what started this discussion, was born as a genuine expression of the American South in the early 20th Century and produced iconic genre definers such as Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. It has deep roots and traditions that are still practiced by artists such as Kentucky’s own Dwight Yoakam and deserves respect and preservation. Most genres have similar stories.
Maybe what Swift did this week was a sign of respect, acknowledging country is not what she is doing right now. But what she did before was nothing to get upset about.
Really, when it comes to music, if you like it, listen to it. And if you don’t, don’t listen to it, regardless of genre. A long time ago, when people asked me what kind of music I like, I settled on this answer: good music.