When country superstar Taylor Swift announced her fifth studio album “1989” in August 2014, she was very, very clear: She was leaving country music.
“This is my very first documented, official pop album,” she declared at the time, in case anyone was unsure about her choice of genre. Although her country songs frequently leaned toward a pop sound, she clarified that “1989” was the “most sonically cohesive album” of her career. In a Rolling Stone profile, she talked about how her record label president asked her to include three country songs on the record. Her answer was a resounding “No way,” and she stayed away from the country radio and award show circuit.
Now suddenly, she’s back on both. A day after country quartet Little Big Town revealed that Swift was the mysterious songwriter behind their new single, “Better Man,” Swift appeared in the final moments of the Country Music Association Awards on Wednesday. She presented the most coveted prize of the night, entertainer of the year, which was awarded to Garth Brooks.
“Hi, Nashville,” she said cheerfully from the stage to the screaming CMAs audience. “It’s been almost 13 years since I came to Nashville with a dream of being a songwriter and a recording artist. And I learned so much about what it means to be an entertainer from the remarkable artists in this arena tonight.”
It’s a similar narrative that Little Big Town vocalist Karen Fairchild put forth in a press conference on Tuesday when the group confirmed the Swift news, saying Swift reached out to them to record the track because she’s a fan of their harmonies. “At her heart, she is the biggest pop star in the world, but she’s a songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee,” Fairchild said.
So … what exactly is going on here? Swift is meticulously strategic about every career choice she’s made in the last decade – she always thinks 10 steps ahead. Why is she hinting at a return to country music when she was so direct about leaving it?
The obvious guess is that Swift is looking for familiar territory after she took a rare hit to her reputation this summer. First, she was the subject of mockery thanks to her relationship with actor Tom Hiddleston, whom she was photographed kissing in June, a couple weeks after breaking up with DJ Calvin Harris. “Hiddleswift” embarked on a worldwide tour of PDA, and was so thoroughly documented by the paparazzi that some people assumed their relationship was fake, or even performance art.
Then, in the wake of their split, Harris exposed some of her PR tactics. It culminated in his Twitter rant when Swift’s camp confirmed that she was actually the songwriter of his summer hit, “This is What You Came For”; he took this as Swift trying to make him look bad and he accused her of trying to “bury” him like her frenemy Katy Perry.
But that was nothing compared to the infamous phone call between her and Kanye West that Kim Kardashian posted on Snapchat in July, which seemed to prove Swift wasn’t being entirely truthful about her role in the controversy over West’s song “Famous,” which name-checked her in the lyrics. (Long story.) The scandal rocked the internet, and many decided Swift was a “snake.”
Aside from an Instagram post defending herself, Swift was mostly silent in the aftermath. Since she and Hiddleston broke up in early September, she’s stayed under the radar, and performed her first and only concert of the year last month to celebrate 10 years since her debut album, released in October 2006.
Since crossing over to pop, Swift has dominated the charts and concert ticket sales. But if she wants to hit the reset button and restore her image a bit, it is a smart move to go to a genre that never really got over her departure. Country music would be more than happy to welcome her back, particularly award shows, where she always helps with ratings. As Swift excitedly posted on Wednesday night, Little Big Town’s “Better Man” is the No. 1 song in all genres on iTunes, so it seems country radio has also warmed to her music again.
What remains a mystery for now is why she made her exit from country music seem so official. At the Academy of Country Music Awards (different from the CMAs) in April 2015, Swift showed up to accept a Milestone Award. On stage, she delivered what sounded suspiciously like a break-up speech.
“Somebody once told me that you truly see who a person is when you tell them something they don’t want to hear … And so to the country music community, when I told you that I had made a pop album and that I wanted to go explore other genres, you showed me who you are with the grace you accepted that with,” Swift said. “I will never forget it.”
More on ‘Better Man’
Since her debut album in 2006, pop superstar Taylor Swift has released new music every two years around October like clockwork — except this year, when she stuck to her word that she was taking a break from music.
Or so we thought.
As it turns out, the world did hear new music from Swift … it just happened to be through another act. On Tuesday, country quartet Little Big Town revealed that Swift wrote their new single, “Better Man” — about a dysfunctional relationship — which was released on Oct. 20.
The group made the big reveal during a press conference in Nashville, where they announced a six-show residency next year at the historic Ryman Auditorium. “Can you tell us who wrote ‘Better Man?'” a reporter asked.
They nodded carefully. “Some of you have been asking, and we told you there was a young girl in Nashville who wrote it by herself,” said lead vocalist Karen Fairchild. “And it’s Taylor Swift.”
Cue gasps! Although Swift launched her career as a country artist, she made a very deliberate announcement that she was moving to the pop genre when she released her last album, “1989,” in October 2014.
“She sent us this song and it was one that was really special to her and she thought of us because of the harmonies,” Fairchild continued. “She’s never pitched a song to anyone before. And the moment that we heard it we were like, ‘Man, that is a song that we’re gonna cut.'”
It’s a smart move. Swift songs top the charts regularly, no matter who sings them. Though Swift hasn’t released new music of her own since “1989,” she penned this summer’s smash “This is What You Came For” for her ex-boyfriend, Calvin Harris, under the pseudonym Nils Sjoberg.
Given this news, “Better Man” is primed to be a hit. Swiftologists are scrambling to analyze the lyrics to the rather sad song, all about a relationship that would have been great if only the guy hadn’t been a complete jerk. (“I know I’m probably better off on my own than loving a man who didn’t know what he had when he had it/ And I see the permanent damage you did to me … I wish you were a better man/I wonder what we would’ve become if you were a better man/We might still be in love if you were a better man/You would’ve been the one if you were a better man.”)
Hmmm, wonder who it’s about? Fairchild said they didn’t ask Swift where the song came from, and instead gushed over its universal message. “Everybody has a better man. It might have been a lover, but it might have been a parent that disappointed you, or a friend,” Fairchild said. “I think the beauty of that storytelling is that we can all relate to being disappointed in someone and still loving them, but saying ‘Hey, enough is enough. This would have been amazing if you would have gotten your act together.'”
Swift and Little Big Town go way back: They were one of her special guests during her “1989” tour, and joined her at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh last summer to sing their hit “Pontoon.”
“We’ve known Taylor since she was in high school. She’s a dear friend,” said band member Phillip Sweet, adding, “No matter who wrote it, it feels like it was meant for us to put this in motion. It felt like it belonged to us and we made it our own.”
At the end of the press conference, Fairchild apologized for telling a “white lie” over the last few weeks when people asked about the songwriter. She said they promised Swift they wouldn’t “blab” to everyone that she wrote it. Swift greatly appreciated the discretion, saying, “The greatest honor as a songwriter you could ever give me is is that you don’t want anyone to know that I wrote this.”
“We knew we would tell eventually … the only reason why we didn’t say is we wanted you to hear the song for what it’s worth,” Fairchild said, noting that the song had a strong start at country radio before anyone knew who wrote it. “At her heart, she is the biggest pop star in the world, but she’s a songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee, and she likes to tell a story. And we didn’t want you to have any subtext there other than to hear the song.”