I would like to write about the latest international pop singing sensation, Taylor Swift. She is 20 years old, lives in Nashville, and her comet-like rise to superstardom has bewildered the professional music world. I believe that she represents the beginning of a new trend in popular music.
Trends? Hip-hop was the follow-up to the decades-long era of the supremacy of rock music. Was it not Michael Jackson who paved the way for the music of the hip-hop era? Did not this deadening non-music progress from the music introduced by the one-gloved man, whom I call "The Dark Lord"? I have a suspicion that Taylor is very swiftly introducing the follow-up to hip-hop, the next wave in pop music. And I think that this is a good thing.
She is a phenomenon unlike any seen before. At the American Music Awards held in Los Angeles in November, she won the coveted "Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist" artist award in addition to "Favorite Country Female Artist," "Favorite Adult Contemporary Female Artist," "Favorite Country Album" for her album Fearless, and the very coveted "Artist of the Year" award, where she beat the Dark Lord himself, whose magic glove that same day had fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars on the auction block. Oh, and by the way, Billboard Magazine has named Taylor Swift the top female artist of 2009, topping both Beyonce, and Miley Cyrus.
I have not always been a supporter of the Taylor Swift phenomenon. Being a member of the Nashville music world, I am familiar with what went into the production of her Fearless album. First of all, Taylor is not a great singer, and it can take up to four days just to record a single vocal track on a single song! Then, the best "tuners" (sound engineers using the Autotune computer program to pull all of her notes to pitch) work diligently to fix her not-so-perfect voicals. But remember, Bob Dylan "couldn't sing" either, and there was no way to fix that back in the 1960s.
I changed my mind last summer while staying in Paris, France. I had a tiny room in a small hotel and I had to go downstairs and sit in the lobby to get internet service for my laptop. Michael Jackson had just died and his videos were being broadcast on the television set in the lobby for several days. Plus, it seemed like the whole city was in mourning. I realized several things. One, the extreme popularity of this man's music, and two, just how dark this music was. I wrote extensively about it in my mini blog, awarding him the "The Dark Lord" title, which I thought appropriate.* (see 2017 update at end of article)
After three days of enduring Michael Jackson's dark music emanating from TV sets and loudspeakers all over Paris, televised videos began to shift back into the standard French and American hip-hop fare. I was in the hotel lobby when suddenly, out of the muck and mire of hip-hopdom on the lobby TV emerged an up-shift in the energy. I looked up to see what was happening. To my shock, it was Taylor Swift, from my hometown. I realized that it was Nashville, Tennessee that was at that moment, in that faraway place, providing this ray of sunlight into the darkness of current popular music.
It was the energy that I liked. I didn't care about the songs, because this young woman was not speaking to me, but to her peers, and she had their attention! If you watch any of Taylor's concert videos, or the documentary recently made for U.S. television, you will see the sea of young female faces that fill her audiences.
Taylor is not a passing phenomenon: she is someone to be reckoned with. She sells more records than Madonna. She is more self-assured than most adults. She travels all over the world with her own show, the sets for which she has personally designed, and she directs everything with the ease of a show-business veteran.…. and she is clean. She doesn't smoke, doesn't drink or use drugs. Will she stay clean? Yes, probably so. Nashville just doesn't have the same kind of energy that brought down Mariah Carey. I believe that Taylor is genuine, and that she is communicating to a large body of young people, and that she has a message.
The question for me now is: Will the "spotlight" on Taylor Swift now shine on Nashville?
Taylor is called a country singer, but she definitely is not. That's just marketing. I believe she represents the real Nashville, the music of the young independent artists and songwriters of "Music City USA."
Most people believe that Nashville got its famous nickname "Music City USA" because of the country music tradition associated with the city. This is not true. Nashville was crowned "Music City USA" a long time ago, in honor of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Nashville isn't just about "Country Music," and it never has been. It is unfortunate in many ways that this unique city has become synonymous with a single genre. I know of no other town that has this distinction. Imagine believing, for example, that New York City is only a classical music city, because of it's famous orchestra and opera, or that San Francisco is home to only 1960s rock music?
Those of us who live and work here in the Nashville music world are very aware of the explosion that is likely to come about… perhaps this year… when the music of the real Nashville is discovered. Thousands of young musicians and singers have migrated here from the other American music centers and they represent many different genres. The talent that is here is an inspiration for those of us from the older generation who have also left the other metropolitan music centers in search of something new. They travel to gigs, sleep in their cars if need be, and play music that is all their own. They are in it for love of music, performing, and communicating. They have their own personal experience to convey, like Taylor Swift. They have pages on MySpace and Facebook, and albums on iTunes, and they sell CDs at gigs. Whatever magic that is needed to bring these young artists to the surface simply hasn't done its task yet, but I don't think it will be too long before the young artists of Nashville become a sensation on the internet. The days of the "record deal" are over. It's just about the music now.
Meanwhile, Nashville's recording industry stumbles on, looking for big hit singles to bring in the cash, to keep the Titanic afloat. With just a few exceptions, day after day, the Nashville "Music Row" machine grinds out song after song in hopes of making a hit. We call it the "Bowling Alley Approach." Tens of thousands of hopeful songwriters, wishing that they could cash in, are told exactly how to write their songs… a complete formulaic approach that only straight-jackets the creative spirit. The few songs that make it to the tiny playlists used by the automated radio stations blanketing the United States really represent nothing of what was once the true country music spirit of Nashville.
One cannot put new wine into old bottles. I believe that attention will shift away from conglomerate radio as the Internet is put into full service to provide new opportunities for music discovery. The corporate giants will be left with only those whom they have hypnotized. Sad but true.
It's not about genre anymore folks. As Ray Charles once said, there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. Genre is just an arbitrary decision to classify by style. It has a certain usefulness, but for it to be the determining factor in someone's listening habits? Well, perhaps that someone can try expanding their horizons. The opportunities are here now.
January 1, 2010
* 2017 Update: Not all of his music was dark. Watch Earth Song
2019 update: Watch the video "ME!"