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Taylor Swift, the Grammys and playing in the dirt

Country Standard Time Editorial, February 2010

Sunday proved to be a night of extreme highs and lows for Taylor Swift.

On the extremely positive side, the superstar garnered four Grammys, including Album of the Year for the very fine "Fearless." Swift has proven her mettle as a solid songwriter with lots of good tunes. Just how country it is is open to interpretation. Let's just say that she and traditional country singers have little in common. But in the context of what constitutes country today, Swift is probably no better or worse than most of the singers and performers out there.

Swift, of course, was so excited and honored to take the awards and gave speeches that were typical of the winners. Well, maybe not. Most of the time, they're so busy thanking their record label, fans, producer, family, band, etc., etc., etc., it all sounds so trite. Swift pretty much did the same, but in a far more genuine way.

On the negative side – and it's a big one – was Swift's performance, which has garnered her a lot of negativity in the press. The same problem continues for Swift – she may be a fine writer, but that doesn't mean she can sing. She proved that once again with her singing of Rhiannon with the great Stevie Nicks. Three times within a few lines, Swift was off – way off - and you had the distinct feeling in looking at Nicks that she was not enjoying the moment whatsoever.

Swift did better on a banjo-led version of You Belong With Me, but the damage was done.

It sure seems the marketing machine behind Swift - based on her youthfulness, personality, good looks and songs (who knows in what order) - have done the trick to propel her to superstardom.

Big Machine Records head Scott Borchetta felt compelled to respond to Swift's performance to the Tennessean. He said, "The biggest message is (the critics) are not getting it. Because the facts say she is the undisputed best communicator that we've got. When she says something, when she sings something, when she feels something, it affects more people than anybody else."

"Maybe she's not the best technical singer, but she's probably the best emotional singer because everybody else who gets up there and is technically perfect, people don't seem to want more of it… I think (the critics) are missing the whole voice of a generation that is happening right in front of them…She's an extraordinary songwriter and her vocal performances are getting better. Everybody is not perfect on any given day. If you pick any of those artists that performed (on the Grammy Awards) I'm sure you can go online and find something where you go, 'ew.' Maybe in that moment we didn't have the best night. But in the same breath, maybe we did. And nobody is arguing with the awards."

"The critics are missing the bigger picture. This is what always happens and is the unfortunate part of the American dream, that we build these people up to watch the critics tear them down. Well, you better have more than what you've got now if you think you're going to get in the ring and fight with us. So, get in the ring."

As for being the "undisputed best communicator that we've got," who is she communicating on behalf of? The teens? Country fans? The world? One can listen to Green Day and the trio's look at society and get a lot of feeling from that also. Unfortunately, country music isn't so big at tackling big issues for many years. Most artists stay away from it like the plague, save perhaps Alan Jackson on social issues and Martina McBride on women's empowerment issues. Otherwise, it seems far and few in between.

Sorry Scott, there is no "maybe" about Swift not being the best technical singer. She isn't. The comment seems to say that emotion is enough to overcome her distinct shortcomings as a vocalist. Being a good singer and being off-key are separate from whether one has the emotional ownership of a song. Swift may feel the song, but she is not alone among country singers or other singers for that matter. Technically perfect and being off key are separate animals. The hunch is that Beyonce is a powerful singer who is capable of singing on key.

And don't get hung up about awards being a sign of how great someone is or isn't. Kudos to Swift for winning. We have no problem with her winning trophies either. "Fearless" was a solid album of fine songs and songwriting and a better singing performance than her debut. Whether technical wizardry played into that, we cannot say. But because an artist is a commercial success does not guarantee artistry. Swift has some of that, but only some.

As for your fighting words, Scott, the press should not and will not feel threatened by bullying tactics. You paint the press as being evil. Yet, it is the same press that has at some level helped build her up. We know because we have received who countless press releases over time about Swift. If the press is so negative and you don't want to deal with the fourth estate, then don't take advantage of it either. No one in the serious press is going after her personally and/or looking for dirt. Writers are commenting about Swift's music, and that is totally fair game.

And Scott, when you challenge people to "get in the ring," be careful what you wish for. Remember when two pigs wrestle in mud, they both get dirty.