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Will Taylor and country radio ever get back together, or have programmers moved on?
It was like a carefully planned breakup. First came the unabashed pop bangers on Taylor Swift's last album, 2012's Red, "Trouble" and "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" among them. Then, in June, Big Machine chief Scott Borchetta spoke diplomatically to Rolling Stone of her next LP (titled 1989 and due out Oct. 27). "Taylor fans are going to love it. Will country stations play a complete pop song just because it's her? No. But when she comes to town, her friends at country radio will come and see her." Then, word began to spread about Swift's new single, "Shake It Off," another pop collaboration with hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback. Later, sources hinted that there isn't a single acoustic guitar on the entire album. And finally, Swift, 24, dropped the bomb before premiering the song during an Aug. 18 worldwide webcast: "I woke up every day not wanting but needing to make a new style of music."
Newsflash: Swift and country need some space. But in a twist worthy of a Swiftian lyric, there may have been no need for kid gloves. According to several major programmers, country radio had already moved on.
"I kind of reject the idea that she's a country artist -- she hasn't been in quite awhile," says one country radio programmer who believes Swift's last true Nashville track was 2010's "Mean." George King of Townsquare Media (who's headed to Westwood One in September) was surprised to hear "Shake It Off" even mentioned in a country context. "We're absolutely going to play it on our [adult top 40] station," he says, "but I'm not even looking at it as a country song. As a country programmer, if she's going to put out something that fits our audience, we'll absolutely look at it, and if she doesn't that's her prerogative -- we've got enough in our recurrent and gold categories to keep her on our stations." Quipped Fletcher Hayes of WWQM in Madison, Wis.: "Did Linda Ronstadt fans want to hear her Nelson Riddle Orchestra album on Top 40?"
Still, to apparently cast aside her core base and the very supporters who helped make her one of today's most successful female artists (22.8 million albums sold in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, with endorsements by Target and CoverGirl to boot), seems somewhat harsh for America's sweetheart -- and, apart from pop flings or flails by Faith Hill and LeAnn Rimes (and arguably Olivia Newton John in the late '70s), largely unprecedented. Even Shania Twain, in her bid for global success, kept a foot in Nashville by issuing pop, country and international (semi-Bollywood-flavored) versions of her 2002 multiplatinum smash Up!
So far, reaction to "Shake It Off " has been mixed, with some press outlets, Billboard among them, hailing the song's hooks and others groaning at its nod to "sick beats" and Swift's own rapping. In a telling move, Swift's label Big Machine confirms to Billboard that unlike "Together," no "country radio mix" of "Shake It Off" will be serviced. Mention of the "Together" mix got a hearty guffaw from one country programmer. "Sure, they put [more prominent] acoustic guitars on it, but the tone, the topic — nothing about it was a country record; nothing was aimed at 35-year-old women."
One senses that some country radio programmers might feel betrayed by Swift's transition (several did not respond to Billboard's requests for comment), but, says one top Nashville label exec, "It's more like disappointment: 'We were there at the beginning and there's nothing really here for us to play.' But her last several singles have not performed well on country radio."
Looking at the Country Airplay singles from 2012's Red, "Together" peaked at No. 13 and was Swift's first officially promoted country single to miss the top 10, although "Begin Again" reached No. 3 and the album's title track No. 7. But Taylor Swift and Fearless each yielded five Country Airplay top 10s, while Speak Now produced four; those three sets generated five No. 1s overall. (Of course, "Together" topped the Hot 100 and "Love Story" hit No. 2.)
So how many more corners of the globe are left for Taylor Swift to conquer, and why would she stray from a genre that's currently exploding? The answer, presumably, is an artistic one. (Swift and Big Machine declined to comment for this article.) "As an artist, it's your call to stand still or to grow, and if you decide your job is to get to as many people as possible, then this is certainly a clear-cut way to go there," the label exec says. "She's a brilliant caretaker of her own career -- she always has been -- and I'm guessing she'll pull the audience along with her. It's not the first time this genre has had this issue."
Indeed: Even in its country version, Twain's Up! caused a dilemma in the country world. "I know [country] radio was having a hard time, because those records were not researching well," says Mike Dungan, Chairman/CEO of Universal Music Nashville Entertainment. "And it became, 'Do I have enough balls to let go of Shania Twain?' The answer was, 'No -- I'm gonna call her a country artist for as long as I can.' [With Taylor], I guarantee the answer will be the same."
Perhaps the most likely scenario sees Swift sowing her oats and then returning home. "Taylor very much owes her career to these country guys," says Dungan. "I don't think she's going to forget that."
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 30 issue of Billboard