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Blonde country stars pushing the genre's boundaries to the point of bursting is nothing new. Rascal Flatts' Gary LeVox does it every time he opens his R&B wannabe mouth, Faith Hill spent the peak of her popularity recording Celine Dion-esque songs for Disney soundtracks and joining her husband for a series of sappy duets, and Carrie Underwood can currently be found getting "Blown Away" to a quasi-techno beat.
Yet these stars never forget to subsequently genuflect at Nashville's altar, whether that means participating in the annual CMA Festival gang-bang each June, being sure to lyrically ground your techno track in Oklahoma, or dying your hair brown and overzealously affirming your southern roots like Hill did with "Mississippi Girl." They play to their base, because that base is the all-important foundation for continued success.
Taylor Swift has an ultra-poppy new single out called "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." It sounds like a G-rated Avril Lavigne track (Swift has always been prone to subtle fits of Lavigne mimicry), and it's not in the same area code as country music. Will she cross back over and throw her base some red meat (any song with a banjo will do)? Or is the Swift phenomenon so transcendent that she needn't bother?
There's something off-puttingly programmed about Underwood and Swift. They're not without (in Underwood's case, considerable) talent, but spontaneity seems as foreign to them as Sanskrit. They are country-pop robots, their every move--even live and in concert--stringently scripted.
However, when it comes to Swift, the screenplay's generally been irresistible. Only the most skeptical observer can help but hum along to tracks like "Back to December" and "Sparks Fly," even if Swift's Cheshire glances and hair-thrashing are choreographed to the nanosecond. She might be a meticulously assembled package, but it's the one everybody wants for Christmas. To some, she's a guilty pleasure; to many more, she is the epitome of accessible perfection. All told, she's virtually impossible to dislike, even as she disingenuously feigns astonishment as she's called to the stage during an awards show for the hundredth time.
With the release of "Safe and Sound," her Hunger Games collaboration with the artistically potent Civil Wars, it looked as though the 22-year-old Swift was not only keen on embracing her country underpinnings, but graduating into adulthood as well. Yet her new single, coupled with her newfound romance with 18-year-old Conor Kennedy (of those Kennedys), shoots that theory to shit. It was cute when Swift frolicked around her domicile in pajamas as a teenager on "You Belong to Me"; now it's just juvenile. To borrow a lyric from her ex-flame John Mayer, Swift seems to be experiencing a quarter-life crisis, and frolicking around New England's shores with the mop-topped scion of blue-state America's most regal, roguish family is sure to go over horribly in water-tower towns.
These apparent missteps will only derail the Tay-Train if you sincerely believe her locomotive still runs on the same tracks as, say, Underwood's. And you shouldn't: Swift has reached a uniquely dynamic point of cultural saturation where she can pretty much do as she pleases. If Nashville feels snubbed, she'll simply conquer Manhattan, if she hasn't already.