Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Taylor Swift carries Country Music industry but may soon be lost to Pop


Carrie Underwood - Yet Another Country Act Like Taylor Swift Lost to Pop?

Country music continued a decline in sales dropping 9% in 2009 although it was not because of Taylor Swift whose Fearless album was the top seller of the year in all categories of music and her millions of sales and sold out tours kept the country music industry from falling flat on it's face.

Like it or not Taylor Swift is a genuine pop star and her sweep of all kinds of awards this year have established that beyond a doubt. But she belongs in the pop world. Her lyrics, music, videos and appearances long ago left country music behind. More important, she made it with the sacrifice and help of her mother, not the production company from American Idol like Carrie Underwood, and all the while Taylor has carefully maintained creative control of her life while Carrie never had creative control.

In fact I was surprised Taylor Swift bought a condo in Nashville and not Los Angeles but with her wealth a second mansion in LA should be just around the corner. She should enjoy and take advantage of her position as the top selling female artist of all genres of music this year. To young Taylor Swift country was a stepping stone, not the end game.

Like a young Olivia Newton John, Taylor's transition from new country artist of the year to pop was lightning quick. As she solidifies her position in the pop world through her media savvy and television show appearances she will take along with her the millions of adoring fans who were new to country music this past year because they were not country fans in the first place but young teens who related to Swift and her saga of a teen's life.

She has a lot in common with her friend Miley Cyrus who is a wannabe fellow Disney protégé like Britney Spears, at least a Britney without all the hang ups, and also a young teen sensation. Country music is not their natural home, lifestyle or future.

Forget their roots, Hollywood has first claim on these rising stars with the combination of a far greater pop fan base, motion picture and television contracts, TV appearances and more money than Midas. It is a pretty irresistible lure for a teen queen and perhaps more so for someone later in their career. In truth they should capture the moment for such a moment may never come again in a lifetime. Celebrity worship in America is a very fickle and overwhelming occupational hazard.

Carrie Underwood is not Swift however. Urban backgrounds and leather outfits do not make one a pop star. Hers will be a more difficult path than that of her younger peers like Taylor and Miley. Underwood could have been a country queen but in the end I fear her country music career will suffer as she continues to push her way into the pop field. None of the ladies mentioned are pure country or even country pop and their fan base has not helped other artists sell records unless they happen to be touring with Taylor Swift.

Yet the country record labels will be betting their futures on finding the next Taylor Swift and more traditional country music will be pushed farther into the background with less opportunities for record deals and less opportunities for older, established artists. We will watch the next five years as country labels chase the dream of the next Taylor Swift and lightning doesn't strike that often. While pop songs and teen stars are pushed on the public the real country writers and artists will once again be shoved into the background with the door slammed shut rather than opened.

The handful of kings and queens of country will still rein supreme but the aspiring country songwriters and artists will have to adopt the pop genre to get a deal and make it on the concert tour. Once again country music seems to be self-destructing in the interest of maintaining formula songs and copycat acts.

Once upon a time country music encompassed a great range of styles and looks. Once upon a time country was the innovative genre in music and country fans embraced a wide diversity of styles and looks but once upon a time seems to be a thing of the past. In the world of today many great older acts will be pushed into early retirement by an industry whose obsession with the dollar will always trump their interest in preserving all that is good about country music.

As for Carrie Underwood, who could be a country artist, her handlers have demonstrated over and over again that the American Idol approach is the only one. How much do they understand the record buying public? Well they have captured some impressive pop sales from Idol but look at the enormous exposure it took to pull it off. Any aspiring artist given a television audience of 20-30 million week after week could sell records.

But do they always know what works? Simon Cowell is the genius behind American Idol and locks up the singers participating with his music company. He then works out deals with record labels to sell the records. Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson are country singers who won American Idol and both are being pushed into the pop fields. Surprised? Don't be. Look at the demographic profile of American Idol, which the New York Times’s Bill Carter described as “a phenomenon built on new artists singing mainly middle-of-the-road pop songs of the ’60s and ’70s.”

Susan Boyle, the frumpy Scottish loser of the British version of American Idol, also controlled by Cowell, came within an eyelash of beating Taylor Swift out for the most album sales of 2009 with her new and first CD, I Dreamed a Dream, shooting past 3 million in sales the first month. Music companies thought it would not succeed because she mixed a variety of pop styles on it and it was primarily marketed as a real CD, the kind you had to buy in stores.

The same American Idol team produced Carrie Underwood's televised holiday special that I watched just before Christmas and it confirmed my belief that yet another young country music artist has been lost to the lurid lure of the pop world joining fellow rising star Taylor Swift.

The special was billed as a holiday feature but there was very little country or holiday in it as far as I could see. The producers chose to have Ms. Underwood start the show by forsaking all that is good about country and appearing in a skin tight leather outfit far more suited to a Las Vegas lounge than a family audience. Even her song, Casanova Cowboy, was far from a holiday offering.

It was the same when Underwood and two friends, all white, pimped the Black groups of the 1960's and sang songs like Leader of The Pack, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, and Be My Baby with Kristen Chenoweth and Christina Applegate.

Her pop arrangements along with several others was most certainly intended for the American Idol audience, not CMT, and though she did have Brad Paisley and Dolly Pardon appear, they were almost after thoughts to the pop feel and urban bawdiness projected throughout. They almost seemed uncomfortable being part of the show.

The sexy costumes, staging and songs were far from the country music I grew up listening to and watching, and were augmented by rather stupid skits about Jesus and gays which contributed nothing to the holiday season or Underwood reputation. If it were billed as anything but a family, holiday, country music special it would not matter.

Other skits made Carrie out to be an egotist which hardly seemed to be the Underwood I remembered. Clearly the American Idol crowd who controlled the special and control Underwood have no clue about the value of traditional American music during the holiday season. More clearly, they are trapped in their own egos and developed a script for Underwood that made her seem like a juvenile jerk.

Anyway, it was symptomatic of the perilous future for the country music industry. It was almost as if she was reaching far beyond her comfort zone to try and establish her standing in the Taylor Swift world of pop music, as if saying I belong there and I was first. It hardly seems like the Underwood of the past but it is consistent with the American Idol money machine.

Taylor Swift found her own way to the world of pop with her independence, charisma and hard work. No multi-million audiences every week on American Idol. Carrie Underwood had the audiences and sold out to the show producers and now is being pushed out of country into the more profitable pop world. Time will tell if it is a smart move.

Country music in general, and aspiring country writers and artists in particular will be the ones to really suffer. They have no where else to go until the Internet takes over the future direction of the country music industry from the ditto record labels.

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