Taylor Swift Proves She Can Do It All

With her latest music, the singer has finally cemented the impressive extent of her stylistic range once and for all.

The 2020 Country Music Awards stage welcomed back Taylor Swift after a seven-year absence. The return shows not only the singer's negligence of the pop genre, but also the abandonment of genre boundaries altogether. (Staff Illustration by Li-Chun Pan)

For a long time, it seemed like Taylor Swift was moving in a straight line. The musician began her career as a country singer through and through, only to progressively shed that image in favor of a pop persona with every one of her subsequent albums. That is, until “folklore.” Swift’s newest album, a folksy half-step back into the singer’s country roots, showed that she never had to stay confined to one musical style at all.

Swift has been incorporating pop influence into her albums since 2010’s “Speak Now.” By the time of 2014’s “1989,” her musical roots were functionally absent in her work. At the time, leaving behind her last bits of country wasn’t as much of a risky choice as some might think; in fact, it actually may have been one of her best decisions as an artist. With hits off “1989” like “Welcome To New York” and “Shake It Off,” Swift outsold any other album she had released before, with Billboard reporting 1.2 million sales. After that, Swift was no longer seen sporting a banjo on her tours, and she had traded in her cowboy boots for heels. With her new title, it seemed like Swift no longer belonged in the country category and it didn’t seem like she ever planned on reversing course.

Yet, there she sat, with her guitar and a backlit spotlight, at center stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville to perform at the 55th Country Music Awards after a seven-year absence on Sept. 17. Swift’s voice echoed through the empty venue as she gave her performance of the song “betty” from “folklore.” With no dancers or costume changes, this performance was much different than Swift’s audiences have seen these past seven years and for some, it begged the question: Is Taylor Swift a country singer again?

Yes. And no. What “folklore” proved is that Swift never fully shed her country roots. It proved that she can effortlessly glide from country to modern pop without sacrificing one for the other. It proved that Swift has more range than anyone has historically given her enough credit for.

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Take her 2012 album “Red,” for instance. Still teetering on the point before she fully exited the country scene, this album featured substantial EDM influences. It’s a surprisingly experimental direction for a musician to take after experiencing the sort of acclaim Swift did with “Speak Now.” Even after she solidified her seeming departure from country, she was still experimenting with various other genres and other sounds, such as with her 2017 album “Reputation,” which moved into the realm of hip-hop. These albums show that Swift has always been shifting between genres and styles, even when it seemed like she had relatively settled on a set musical identity. “folklore” only just happened to be the most obvious departure in a while.

After the musical journey Swift has taken us on with her eight studio albums, it’s clear that her return to her roots after nearly a decade doesn’t simply mean she’s a country singer again. Instead, her latest music emphasizes the fact that talented musicians don’t have to belong to just one genre at any given moment. From “Tim McGraw” to “New Romantics” and now “betty,” Swift has been so dynamic with her music that every time it seems like she was about to settle into a genre, she changed directions and tried something different.

To argue about whether “folklore” marks the return of “Country Taylor” misses the point entirely. Her country roots are just one part of her ever-expanding musical identity. She’s always had the ability to write in any of the genres she’s explored, and as she continues to experiment, fans can rest assured knowing she hasn’t forgotten what she’s done in the past. Instead of listeners having to pick a genre and stick with it, they’ve been able to experience Swift’s genre-bending career with her. If there’s anything “folklore” has proven, it’s that there’s no way to anticipate which direction Taylor Swift will take next, but whatever it is, she has the range to make it work.

Email Claire Jones at [email protected]

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