Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 28 October 2020

Why Taylor Swift's heart always bleeds country music

The singer used the genre’s songwriting principles to fashion her biggest hits

 Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards at the Grand Ole Opry on September 16, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.  Getty Images
 Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards at the Grand Ole Opry on September 16, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.  Getty Images

Swift's appearance at this week's American Country Music Awards was not so much a departure but a return home.

Her stripped down solo performance of new single Betty, which saw her play with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, is a welcome throwback to a teenage Swift gigging in small country music venuesmore than a decade ago.

With Swift evolving into a fully-fledged pop-star and selling out arenas for the last few years, a new generation of fans would have probably assumed her ACM performance was a new phase of her career.

The reality, however, is that she never really left the building.

While the last four albums have seen her exploring everything from pop, indie-music, EDM and hip-hop, Swift's artistic heart has always bled country music.

From heart rending lyricism and respect for traditional songwriting structure to meaningful ballads, Swift attacked various genres through the prism of a country music artist.

This is best illustrated in these five songs released throughout her 15-year career.

1. ‘All Too Well’ (2013)

Taken from her fierce 2013 album Red, this elegant track falls into country music's ‘story song’ tradition. Over a sprawling five minutes, the piece is not so much an autopsy but a lamenting look back at relationship that burnt itself out. While Swift feels she was taken for granted, she is certainly no victim. With the song's driving rhythm gaining intensity, Swift's lyrics move from tender to cutting descriptions of a man who doesn’t live up to his word. "You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest.”

2. ‘Dear John’ (2010)

Country music revels in ‘my baby done me wrong’ songs, but Dear John is something else.

Addressed to former flame, John Mayer, Dear John is a lacerating take-down of the singer-songwriter. Delivered in the style of a torch ballad with emotive steel guitars, Swift sets fire to Mayer’s nice guy image with seven minutes of brutal character analysis. “I took your matches before fire could catch me/ So don't look now, I'm shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town.” Ouch.

Mayer understandably wasn't pleased and addressed the song in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone. “I will say as a songwriter that I think it’s kind of cheap songwriting,” he says. “I know she’s the biggest thing in the world, and I’m not trying to sink anybody’s ship, but I think it’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, ‘wait till he gets a load of this.’

3. ‘Our Song’ (2006)

It isn't country if it doesn’t have twang. Even though she was initially a country music artist, Swift’s gift has always been to gently subvert the genre with nods to rock and soul. But with this 2006 single she kept it conventional with meaning fiddles, a banjo and tasteful guitar licks. Released on her self-titled debut album, an 18-year-old Swift was already showcasing her flair for cinematic lyricism. Check out the way she opens the track and puts us all in the driver’s seat, so to speak: "I was riding shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car/ He's got one-hand feel on the steering wheel, the other on my heart."

4. ‘New Year’s Day’ (2017)

Sometimes you need a break from listening to back-to-back dance anthems. This is probably what Swift had in mind when adding this track to her blockbuster album Reputation. A minimal piano ballad, Swift's voice takes on a country music inflection as she details the doubts that comes with a budding romance.

5. ‘Lover’ (2019)

For such a densely produced album full of synth-pop and dance rhythms, Swift wanted something immediate to add to Lover. Hence, she came up with a title track recorded mostly in one sitting on a piano. A lovely waltz that recalls the evocative simplicity of country great Patsy Cline, the lyrics find Swift turning the tables and examining what life must be like with someone in high demand. "I am highly suspicious that everyone who sees you wants you,” she croons. “I've loved you three summers now, honey, but I want 'em all.”

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Updated: September 18, 2020 10:10 AM

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