By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
So far, 2013 has been rough for Taylor Swift. Or as rough as it can be for a multi-multi-millionaire 23-year-old who is one of the biggest-selling music stars in the world.
Online media skewered her for implying Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were bad women for (barely) making fun of her at The Golden Globes. Then The New York Times published a story about a backlash against her, citing declining popularity scores from marketing-evaluation companies and dropped sponsorships.
While this is bad for Swift, it's gravy for 24-year-old country upstart Kacey Musgraves, whose buzzy major-label debut "Same Trailer, Different Park," released last week, is being billed as the palliative to Swift's influence on country music.
The allure of that comparison is almost irresistible. Swift, with her couture clothing and parade of famous boyfriends, represents pop; Musgraves, clad in boots and T-shirts, stands for a purer strain of country.
Then there are the songs. Musgraves' first single, "Merry Go Round," is a clever, finely observed digest of small-town life -- its forlorn banjo and melody, at first, masking the shiv she's hiding behind her back. It is hard to imagine Swift beginning a song with the lyric "If you ain't got two kids by 21, you're probably gonna die alone -- least that's what tradition told you" or deliver a sentiment as bleakly poetic as "just like dust, we settle in this town."
Musgraves' label, Mercury Nashville, reportedly held back her planned second single "Follow Your Arrow," a catchy, upbeat anthem for the YOLO generation, fearing country radio wouldn't play the song because of its endorsement of same-sex kissing and joint smoking -- neither of which, to date, can be found in Swift's discography.
Positioning yourself as the rebellious alternative to the mainstream has been a proven branding strategy since at least The Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. But for all of the differences between Musgraves and Swift, there are some notable similarities.
Both are unusually attractive young women who co-write their radio-oriented songs with a cast of professional songwriters. A couple songs on Musgraves' album, the kiss-off to a pushy boyfriend "Step Off" and the blindly soul-searching "Back on the Map," wouldn't sound out of place on a Swift album, though Swift would probably ditch the strained analogy of the latter, likely improving it.
Musgraves, to her credit, is more interested in characters than singing about herself, with a major-league gift for writing emotionally complicated songs from the perspective of other people. (Taylor Swift's great subject, meanwhile, is Taylor Swift.) And while Musgraves should get credit for bucking country's suffocating social conservatism and crafting a thoughtful album of tidy, understated songs with catchy choruses that I mostly love, she's no maverick.
For instance, she isn't as rebellious as Elizabeth Cook, a fearless explorer of the stranger corners of outlaw country who was dropped by Warner Bros. Nashville and last year released an EP of gospel music that included a cover of the Velvet Underground's "Jesus."
Last year Musgraves co-wrote a song for the ABC prime-time soap opera "Nashville" that was sung by Hayden Panettiere's character Juliette Barnes -- a country-pop crossover star who is the Taylor Swift of the show's universe. Musgraves' song "Undermine" was used to signal Barnes' yearning to be a more serious-minded artist, like her rival Rayna James, played by Connie Britton.
Though the viewing audience is supposed to cheer Barnes' embrace of a more traditional country sound, ditching the glitter and backup dancers, this struck me as unimaginative for a purportedly strong-willed rule breaker with clout at her label. A good song is a good song, but why does it have to sound like her parents' generation to be considered substantive?
Take country superstar Brad Paisley, whose upcoming album "Wheelhouse" has one song called "Accidental Racist" featuring rapper LL Cool J and another with a title that's either in Japanese or Chinese characters. This could be a huge creative disaster for a variety of reasons, but even if it is, it will be one that hasn't been done before. Rebellion needn't sound like the past.