Taylor Swift & The Evolution of Pop Country Realpolitik

Less than a year since the release of her last album Lover, the blonde one released a surprise album recorded and produced in quarantine isolation. She has taken it back to her storytelling country roots for an album literally titled folklore. Soaked in sepia tones of forestry and lace, the album lives up to its name, and is the culmination of one of the most diverse and successful pop music careers of the past two decades.

Enlisting the help of indie giants Aaron Dessner (The National) and Bon Iver, Swift indulges in crafting multiple narratives from her family’s past, books she’s read, or other fairytales she’s invented, sometimes blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Fan theories abound that folklore is a concept album, highlighting how deeply this album has connected with a fanbase that is already known to be diehard to the core.

All this to say is that Taylor Swift’s eighth album will go on to be a defining career moment for the singer-songwriter – it already has ‘universal acclaim’ with a score of 88 on metacritic.

The timing and political climate these days reminds me of the story of some other pop-country singers who had a very different experience in their careers.

On the same day as Swift’s indie-darling cottagecore release, the artists formerly known as Dixie Chicks (now simply, The Chicks) released their comeback album; the not so subtly titled Gaslighter.

17 years ago, Natalie Maines made the daring comment that they were ashamed to be from Texas as a response to then President George W. Bush declaring war in Iraq. Although met with cheers at that performance in London, the group was instantly blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations in the US, boycotted by fans, and dozens of rallies organised to even destroy copies of their album (fittingly, by tractor).

For a genre of music that is stereotypically pro-government, anti-globalist, and dominated by white conservatism, it came as no real surprise. The Dixie Chicks arguably never fully recovered from this controversy. A few short years later, they announced a hiatus. Gaslighter is their first new album in 14 years (and notably, produced by Taylor Swift mainstay Jack Antonoff).

It would seem that speaking your mind in the genre of pop/country didn’t come without its consequences. Now in 2020, a very different beast is emerging.

Taylor Swift had maintained a stalwart silence on political issues for much of her career. In the past few years however, she has found a new voice, speaking up for LGBQT rights as well as spruiking a new kind of feminism for her primarily young fanbase. On folklore, she even sings a subtle nod to her kind of “sensual politics” on lead single “cardigan” (read my take on it on Genius here).

How fans respond to these political talking points has changed dramatically in twenty years. Rather than being outcast from the industry, as The Dixie Chicks experienced, speaking out for liberal/progressive ideals serves as a marketing win. Swift’s career has never been stronger, and while she may have lost some fans such as Donald Trump, the net gain speaks for itself (the album continues to have strong chart success).

Taylor Swift and The Chicks are in very different levels of commercial success. But the fact that these two artists released two albums at the same time shows how the cycle of speaking out your mind as a female in a patriarchal, chauvinistic environment has come full circle in many ways.

For one country artist, speaking out one’s political opinion led to a downfall, but for the other it led to more success and stronger support. There’s still a ways to go, but the impact that artists have on political discourse can no longer be discounted, no matter how folksy, blonde or delicate they may appear.

This post originally appeared in the deadset newsletter published August 12, 2020. Sign up now via Substack to receive weekly updates on all things pop culture!

Published by Kevin Loo

Live, laugh, stare into the existential void, love

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